The Gila River

The Gila River

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The mostly dry Gila River today hardly resembles the unruly, historic stream that came roaring out of the Black Mountain Range in western New Mexico, crossing the Great Divide and then Arizona before ending its 650-mile journey by joining the Colorado River at Yuma.

In those days, before construction of eastern Arizona’s Coolidge Dam and an irrigation-canal system commandeered the Gila’s water, boats navigated the river, which varied in width from 150 to 1,200 feet with depths ranging from 2 to 40 feet. Hydrologists calculate that without dams and irrigation canals the natural flow of the Gila would carry an average of 6,070 cubic feet of water per second into the Colorado, the second-largest flow behind that of the Green River, which cuts through Wyoming and Utah.

The Gila River occupies a prominent place in the history of the West as well as the prehistoric West. Artifacts as old as 15,000 years have been found in the Gila region.
In 1538, the first nonIndian to traverse the trail that drew its name from the river probably was Esteban, a black Moor slave who became a free man and part of a Spanish expedition to find the fabled Seven Cites of Cibola. After gold was discovered in California in 1849, thousands of fortune seekers went westward along the Gila Trail.

For a period — between signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which in 1848 ended the Mexican-American War, and the U.S. Gadsden Purchase of land from Mexico in 1853 — the Gila marked a portion of the U.S. border with Mexico.

Throughout Arizona’s Territorial and early-statehood days, the river raged and flooded at whim, serving as the setting for countless stories and events, including Arizona’s Federal Aid Project No. 1.

That project extended the beleaguered bridge at Florence in 1917. In the previous year, Congress reflected the nation’s quest to build roads and bridges by approving the Federal Road Aid Act of 1916 and President Woodrow Wilson signed the measure. Quickly, Arizona and Pinal County collaborated to raise the funds necessary to match $20,000 in federal aid. The project improved a bridge that remained in service until the late 1950s, when the Arizona Highway Department built a new one.

One of the descriptions of the river’s colorful history was told in the WPA Guide to 1930s Arizona, published by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration as a way of providing work to writers during the Great Depression.

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The story concerns a stagecoach fording the river gorged with fast-moving water. On board were two nuns, a gambler, and a soldier. As the story was told, the driver goaded his horses onward while the passengers hung on the outside of the coach on the upstream side to provide counterweight offsetting the current. Supposedly, the nuns were praying, the gambler was cursing, and the soldier was shouting encouragement.

The episode reportedly took place in western Maricopa County, between Buckeye and Gila Bend near the site where Gillespie Dam was built in the 1920s.

Arizona’s rivers and washes always have challenged travelers and those who build the roads and bridges for them, according to Mark E. Pry and Fred Andersen, authors of a transportation history commissioned by ADOT. They reported that Arizona’s first bridge across a major river was erected in 1885 at Florence at a cost of $15,150 for a 965-foot-long structure set on redwood piles with a 16-foot-wide roadway made of pine.

The bridge elated the citizens of Florence. After the 13th Territorial Legislature appropriated construction money, the Arizona Weekly Enterprise reported on March 21, 1885: “A bridge across the Gila is something that we have always been greatly in need of to enable the businessmen and miners to get their supplies in at all seasons of the year, besides being a great accommodation to the traveling public generally.”

However, Territorial Gov. Conrad Zulick did not contribute to the elation. The $15,000 bridge appropriation plus $12,000 in funding for a wagon road prompted him to brand the spending as a “wanton misappropriation of public funds.”

Nor did the elation do anything to tame the rambunctious Gila. After the bridge was dedicated, according to Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian who wrote in Arizoniana, “the irrepressible Gila changed its course, swung out into the desert, and left that bridge standing all alone.”

Besides the river, fire posed a threat to the wooden bridge. Thus, the 23rd Territorial Legislative Assembly in 1905 approved an act that established financing to repair the bridge and employ “a competent person who shall have charge of said bridge and whose duty it shall be to keep at least twenty barrels at or near said bridge, filled with water at all times for fire protection; to guard said bridge and perform such other duties in connection therewith as the Board of Supervisors may prescribe. The person so employed shall be paid at a salary not exceeding sixty ($60) dollars per month out of the treasury of said Pinal county . . .”

The river continually pummeled the wooden bridge, and in 1910 Territorial Engineer James Bell Girand designed a concrete and steel girder bridge for the site. Girand’s bridge was the one extended by Arizona’s Federal Aid Project No. 1.

In the years just before Project No. 1, the river inflicted insult after insult on the bridge. During a downpour just before Christmas 1914, the river washed away approaches on both sides of the bridge, leaving it as a forlorn, concrete island. With the persistence of itsy-bitsy spider who kept crawling back up the rain spout, the Highway Department repaired the bridge. The next year, and again in 1916 and 1917, the river re-enacted its destructive ways.

The flooding prompted one of Arizona’s first two U.S. senators, Marcus Smith, to brand the hapless structure “a monument to the treachery of the river,” according to the Arizona Historic Bridge Inventory, a report produced in 2008 by Fraserdesign of Loveland, Colo., and EcoPlan Associates of Mesa.

Then, enter Federal Aid Project No. 1, which entailed extending the bridge by 750 feet. That helped, but did not solve the problems wrought by the raging river.

Finally, in the 1950s the Arizona Highway Department replaced the bridge with a structure comprising thirty 50-foot spans for an overall length of about 1,500 feet. The new Florence Bridge featured a steel I-beam stringer superstructure carried on
concrete piers. Since then, it has functioned with only relatively minor repairs.

Besides sources quoted in this article, Transend received research assistance and photographs from the archives of the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, the Pinal County Historical Society Museum, and the Department of Archives and Special Collections of the Arizona State University Libraries.

Works Cited

Arizona Highways Magazine
Arizona Historic Bridge Inventory
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