Monday, March 30, 2015

LA-Phoenix road race quickly sped through in 1912

The winner of the 1912 LA-Phoenix "Cactus Derby,"
Ralph Hamlin and mechanic Andrew Smith are seen 
above in a Martin shock absorber advertisement.
By Joe Blackstock
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

From the west came a speeding automobile racing through the night, its driver unaware that danger lie ahead at the railroad crossing up ahead.

In the opposite direction came a westbound freight train, which spectators there could see was going to reach the west Pomona crossing at the same time as the auto.

Fortunately, through the heroic work of one man that night, there was no crash, allowing the 1912 Los Angeles-to-Phoenix auto road race to continue through the Inland Empire.

On Oct. 26, 1912, hundreds of spectators assembled at the turn where Valley Boulevard crosses the railroad in Spadra, an area of western Pomona, waiting for the high-speed contestants to pass on their way to Colton and on to Arizona.

Some apparently went there, according to the Pomona Daily Review, for the same reason some may attend auto races today.

“Drawn by the morbid curiosity that some fatality might happen, half a thousand assembled by the turn this side of Spadra,” read the newspaper account of Oct. 28.

As one of the 12 cars in the race approached the crossing shortly after midnight, spectators heard the whistle of a westbound Southern Pacific train a mile or two to the east.

“The crowd stood transfixed with horror,” said the article, “for it believed the occupants of the automobile would not see the train.”

To the rescue came Pomona resident Frank Balfour, who was assigned to keep the crossing clear for the drivers. Standing on the tracks, Balfour frantically waved a red lantern, though it looked like a collision could not be averted.

Fortunately, the engineer spotted the signal and brought his train to an abrupt halt just as the auto flashed across the tracks.

In today’s world of freeways and fast cars, it may seem odd there was such fascination about watching no more than a blur of autos careening along city streets. But there weren’t that many autos in the Inland Empire in 1912, and almost no one locally had ever seen a car hurtling down dirt Holt Avenue at 60 mph in the dark of night.

The annual Los Angeles-Phoenix race was put on for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to highlight the need for a coast-to-coast highway, which at that time did not exist.

The route of the race — taking drivers through Pomona, Ontario and Colton, to Banning Pass, Indio, Imperial County, Yuma and finally to Phoenix — seemed the logical all-weather route for the western end of such a highway.

For the 1912 race, veteran racer Ralph Hamlin was the winner and took home 65 percent of the $5,600 purse. He completed the course (not including an overnight stop in Yuma) in a running time of 18 hours and 20 minutes, which was 43 minutes ahead of runnerup Charles Soules.

Five of the 12 actually made it to Phoenix on the 28th. They battled mechanical failure, sand dunes, and spectators — one car was disabled near the start in Los Angeles after hitting a bystander walking on the route.

For Ontario, the arrival of the cars was a major event. The city held its annual celebration — El Festivo de Ontario — during the day and evening, after which most of the town lined the route to see the cars on A Street (today’s Holt) just after midnight.

There was a special reason for the drivers to hurry — “Festivo” organizers offered a side pot of $200 for the fastest elapsed time to A and Euclid Avenue (they left Los Angeles in 10-minute intervals starting at 11:05 p.m.).

Fastest to Ontario was Al Faulkner, driving a Simplex auto entered by William Randolph Hearst. He won the $200 for arriving in 44 minutes and 34 seconds — a pretty good time from Los Angeles even today. He held the lead by the time he reached Banning but he wrecked his car in the sand dunes east of the Salton Sea.

Louis Nikrent, in a Buick, provided local residents all the destruction they would want. He arrived in Ontario in second place, three minutes slower than Faulkner, but found disaster near Archibald Avenue in the Guasti area.

Nikrent, driving with his younger brother, slowed down to make a turn in the dark, skidded on two wheels, rolled twice and came to rest upside-down in soft sand. The elder Nikrent was pinned against his seat by the steering wheel, his face in the sand.

The brothers were both rescued and were determined to have only minor injuries, but their car was so damaged it could not continue.

Several other racers also had troubles at the sandy turn at Guasti, including Hamlin who barely missed a fence and, over-compensating, almost hit a telegraph pole on the other side of the road.

One other racer was forced to do what these resourceful drivers always did when something broke: He fixed it himself.

Charles H. Bigelow, in a Mercedes, barely avoided Nikrent’s wreck at Archibald but at Etiwanda Avenue went careening into the sand out of control. He got back to the road, but found he had broken a shock absorber and a truss rod.

Three hours later, using available parts in Ontario, he got the repairs made and was back on the road again, ready for more adventures.

Monday, March 16, 2015

From the Archives — New Archivist in Town

The Mojave Desert Archives is the memory of the Mojave Desert community and the MDHCA organization.

by Chris Ervin, Archivist
Mojave Desert Archives

Chris Ervin
As mentioned in the Mojave Road Report, my wife Leslie and I have recently taken up a two-year residency at the Goffs Cultural Center (GCC). I'm excited to be appointed the first archivist for the Mojave Desert Archives and am looking forward to helping make the amazing collections here more widely known and accessible to researchers.

You can think of the Mojave Desert Archives as a department of the nonprofit Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association (MDHCA). Our organization has many wonderful historic buildings and artifacts on display here at the GCC—the Goffs Schoolhouse being the crown jewel. But the 1,300 oral histories, 110,000 photographs, 7,000 historic maps, and 6,000 rare books–just to name a few of our holdings–require descriptions to help researchers understand their content and context, an organized filing system that allows the materials to be quickly retrieved, and special care to preserve them for the longest time possible. That's where the archives staff come in. They ensure there is physical and intellectual control over every item held in the Archives.

I was recently asked by one of our leading members how I'm going to make the above happen. I've had a lot of time to think about just that. I was an Information Technology (IT) professional for 32 years and I've been a volunteer for our organization for 27. When we built the Dennis G. Casebier Library in the image of the Goffs Depot seven years ago, I was struck by the fact that we had this wonderful building, soon to contain desert-related collections found nowhere else, yet we were lacking an archivist to give our repository the level of professionalism it deserved. Becoming the archivist for the Mojave Desert Archives was something I wanted to do, so I went off and got a master's degree in Archival Science. Last August, I passed the Certified Archivist exam.

In October, just before I left the IT world, I induced my former employer to donate two IBM business servers and related equipment to the MDHCA. They are now installed in the Dennis G. Casebier Library and loaded with the archives data management software we'll be using to document the collections and generate collection guides to be posted online. I'm also conducting a survey of all the collections, their locations, sizes, and current status. This will help us prioritize them for any preservation needs and for creating high level descriptions.

The first pass will be done at the collection level so we can measure just how big the breadbox is. Subsequent passes will drill down into the details, where our superb volunteer staff such as Carol and Hugh Brown, Loris Mitchell, Jackie Ridge, and many others have been concentrating for years. Much valuable work has been done to protect and organize the collections. My approach will not be to change any of the good work that's already been accomplished, but to build upon it. We all want to make the Mojave Desert Archives into the world renowned research center it has the potential to be.

In future installments of this column I'll be highlighting our collections and how we're taking care of, organizing, and making them accessible. I'll also share how we will continue to develop and enhance the collections and, more importantly, how we'll inform the community about the cultural richness and authentic heritage preserved here at Goffs. In the meantime, you can keep up with Mojave Desert history at our blog at and by following us on Twitter at

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Field trip explores Cajon Pass “Gateway into the San Bernardino Valley”

A field trip—Exploring the Cajon Pass: Gateway into the San Bernardino Valley—will explore historic trails and roads along the Cajon Pass inlcuding the site of the Cajon Pass Monument dedication in 1913. (Photo/Nick Cataldo – San Bernardino Historical Society)

By Yazmin Alvarez
Inland Empire Community Newspapers

A one-day field trip along the trails and paths traveled by mountain men and American explorers is being offered March 21 through Cal State San Bernardino’s Office of Extended Education.

The drive-and-stop course—”Exploring the Cajon Pass: Gateway into the San Bernardino Valley”— will be taught by local historian Nick Cataldo and focus on what he refers to as “the gateway into the Southern Valley” following in the footsteps of Jedediah Smith and Kit Carson, the Mormon Battalion and passing through wagon roads.

“The Cajon Pass has played a prominent role in the San Bernardino Valley since prehistoric times. Indians, explorers, trappers, loggers, settlers, land speculators, rail passengers, the military and early motorists have all passed through the Cajon Pass on their way to or from the desert, making this an important gateway in Southern California”.

As part of the hands-on field trip, guests will trek along historic routes including the Old Spanish Trail dating back to the 1830’s, the National Old Trails Road, John Brown’s Toll Road and a portion of the infamous Route 66. Day trippers will also visit the grounds of an old Serrano Indian campsite. Each stop will include lessons on the historical sites along with stories and opportunities for discussions.

The course—which has a fee of $83 for no credit and $140 for one unit credit— will run from 8 a.m.. to 4:30 p.m. There will be an optional no-host breakfast at 7 a.m. at the Summit Inn, 5960 Mariposa Road in Oak Hills prior to the start of the day’s trek.

Nick Cataldo, second from right, leads a group up the old route of travel in Crowder Canyon. (Photo/Nick Cataldo – San Bernardino Historical Society)

Field-trippers are encouraged to bring good hiking shoes, a camera, a walking stick, lunch, water, pencil or pen and clothing suitable for both warm and cold weather.

Walking trips of no more than two miles are required during the excursion. Children seven and older are welcome. Those interested in driving their own vehicle can do so, but clearance is required as part of the route is on bumpy dirt roads and small ravines.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Baker Thermometer on Strange Inheritance

The world’s tallest thermometer in Baker, the ‘Gateway to Death Valley’.
by Jamie Colby

Strange Inheritance host Jamie Colby travels to Baker, California to learn the story of a family’s 134-foot thermometer. Here's a 7 minute video clip from the program: World's Tallest Thermometer video clip

Here's a second video aired on Strange Inheritance Unpacked on the popularity of roadside attractions in America including the world’s tallest thermometer: Roadside Attractions video clip