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Did You Know: Arizona Navy Deployed In 1934

A photograph from the Arizona Historical Society of Nellie T. Bush on the river.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)
A photograph from the Arizona Historical Society of Nellie T. Bush on the river.

Air Force, Army, Marines and the National Guard. These are the branches of the military stationed in Arizona, and there is one more.

In 1934, the federal government began the Parker Dam construction project to divert Colorado River water to Southern California, but neither the feds nor California got approval from Arizona to build on its land. So, a very unhappy Arizona Gov. Benjamin Baker Moeur declared martial law. Did You Know that is when the Arizona Navy was created and called to protect the state’s water rights?

“The Arizona Navy was a mighty force of two ships," said John Larsen Southard, a local historian. "And they were used to patrol the river and patrol the Parker Dam construction site to ensure that those willy Californians didn’t succeed in building Parker Dam and they’re not taking therefore, Colorado River.”

Southard said the Navy’s fleet was made up of wooden ferry boats that happened to be in the area. Gov. Moeur even named the boats’ owner admiral of this newly formed Navy. Adm. Nellie T. Bush, yes a woman, commanded the ships for two days!  

“He backed up the navy with a deployment of the National Guard Troops from Phoenix. In fact if you look at the photos from deployment day, they had rifles at the shoulder," said Southard. "They are equipped. They looked and were a real fighting force.”

It was 40 riflemen and 20 machine gunners lined up along the Colorado River bank. A reconnaissance mission to make sure construction did not happen on Arizona’s side of the river. It was a show of force until one of the boats got stuck in the water and Californians, you know, the enemy, had to help get it loose. Sure we laugh now, but the governor’s act of force worked!

“His deployment of the navy did cause Secretary of the Interior Ickes to delay construction of the dam, and in fact when dam construction was resumed it was allowed to resume, because Arizona had won a project, an irrigation project to be sponsored by the federal government," Southard said. 

That project was the Gila River Irrigation system. Southard said Moeur’s navy is still talked about.  

“It’s the last occurrence in American history when one state took up arms against another no matter how unlikely it was that the arms would ever be fired," said Southard. 

About that admiral I mentioned, Nellie T. Bush. She became a prominent figure in Arizona. She was a justice of the peace in Parker, served in the state legislature, passed the bar in California and Arizona, and in 1932 was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention where Franklin Delano Roosevelt received the nomination for president. Bush was inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame in 1982.

“I fell in love with broadcasting when I was 14,” said KJZZ Reporter Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez.