Friday, December 16, 2016

The Route 66 Chronicles: Unraveling mysteries

Camp Beale's Springs, Kingman, Arizona. Photo by D.P. Flanders, 1873. (Courtesy, Mohave Museum of History and Arts)

By Jim Hinckley
Kingman Daily Miner

History is a lot like a good pot of stew. If we merely skim the surface, we miss the meat and potatoes at the bottom. This leaves the impression that the stew is a bit thin and without a great deal of flavor. Then we tell folks that the stew wasn’t very good and the story is repeated until it becomes fact.

With the passing of time, even photos are not always enough to separate myth from fact. Recently, the Route 66 Association of Kingman initiated an ambitious plan to partner with property owners in the historic business district to restore facades, as well as historic signage.

One of these projects was the Old Trails Garage owned by the Graves family. As historic research is something I engage in regularly, I was asked to assist in determining the date of construction and to find images of the garage that would allow for a more accurate recreation.

The earliest view of the garage was a postcard from about 1918 in the possession of the Mohave Museum of History & Arts. However, something did not seem right as the garage was supposed to have been built in 1912 or 1914, and I didn’t see the Brunswick Hotel that was built in 1909. This was accredited to a bit of photo editing, common in many early post cards. Then, with assistance from Steve Rider, a prolific collector of National Old Trails Highway era postcards, a similar postcard was discovered, but this one indicated a Needles, California location.

Even though the owners have decided that the facade renovation of the Kingman garage will mimic its 1940 appearance, complete with towering neon Packard sign from about 1930, it was interesting to have a more complete photo record of the facility’s evolution.

As the association’s initiative progresses, I am confident that further adventures in historic research will take place. In fact, I am currently in search of a mystery contractor that added a unique signature to his work – the use of white quartz to frame windows and doors.

To date, I have documented this signature at the Siesta Motel, 1929; the recently razed Bell Motel, 1946; the Assembly of God church, 1939; a circa-1930 cafe, and the last remnant of the pre-1937 Richards Auto Court. Perhaps the most intriguing of these buildings is the old church, as stones with Native American petroglyphs were used in the construction!

A few days ago I delved into the new Facebook live and posted several early morning discussions. A regular morning broadcast is something I may do in the near future. To have direct interaction with followers and Route 66 enthusiasts from throughout the world was a most interesting experience.

In the most recent of these I noted that a video from the site of Camp Beale, a mid-19th century military outpost on the Beale Wagon Road and Mohave Prescott Toll Road, would be shared. Recently, I went live with this short video and in the coming days will post a more detailed video on the Jim Hinckley’s YouTube channel.

This historic site is another location where the passing of time has greatly obscured its actual location, size, and even years of operation. The Mohave Museum of History & Arts has created some superb then-and-now photos that have resolved a few of these mysteries. The area is another gem in the Kingman region as the springs, a veritable desert oasis, and the miles of trails for hiking or mountain biking in the Cerbat foothills.

In school we may have been given the impression that history is as dull and boring as a three-day insurance seminar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unraveling mysteries, chasing ghosts, and discovering tangible links to the dreams and vision of people long passed empower us to look toward the future with eager anticipation.

Until we meet again on the road in Jim Hinckley’s America, adios mi amigos.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

After nearly fading into obscurity, Route 66 celebrates 90th birthday

Williams was a popular stop-over during the 60 years Route 66 passed through the town. The above photo shows the downtown area in the 1940s.

By Wendy Howell
Williams News

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — In several respects, the automobile was one of the most significant inventions of the twentieth century, but often overlooked and equally significant is the development of the roads those automobiles traveled upon.

Route 66 was not the first cross-country road nor is it the oldest road, but the highway has lodged itself into the imagination of travelers and became one of the best known and most identified roads in the world.
It was a highway created by the demands of a rapidly changing America. For some, it represents freedom of the road, to others a path to a better life. Route 66 celebrates its ninetieth birthday this month and despite being made obsolete obsolete by Interstate 40 in the 1980s, it remains a beloved icon and memory for many who traveled its path.


Route 66 was created in 1926 when the Bureau of Roads launched the nation’s first Federal highway system. It cobbled together and linked local, state and national roads. The U.S. Highway Association actively promoted the road and it quickly became popular as the shortest, most scenic route from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Many of the sections of Route 66 began as wagon roads and Native American trade routes from the Great Plains to coastal California. Several of these sections were natural routes across easy terrain and many were near water sources. Route 66 in northern Arizona utilized the Beale Road and the National Old Trails Highway in many sections.

Edward F. Beale, a retired Navy lieutenant, was chosen to chart a road across the southwest to open the area following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. Early railroad engineers also followed the Beale Road and towns and settlements soon grew up along the tracks and roads were created to link those towns’ main streets.

Despite the Beale Road, between 1863 and 1912, Arizona did not have much of a road system. As the automobile became popular in the early 1920s, road-building became important and a boom in road construction occurred throughout the state.

The Federal Aid Road Act, passed in 1916, gave money for The National Old Trails Highway across northern Arizona, which became part of the nation’s first system of Federal highways, eventually becoming part of U.S. Route 66 in 1926. Most of the 400 miles of the Old Trails Highway was not paved.

Early Years

The Federal Highway Act of 1921 mapped and provided signage to existing roads and during that time Highways Association President Cyrus Avery pushed for a road through Tulsa, Oklahoma that would originate in Chicago.

Most highways prior to Route 66 went east-west or north-south. Route 66 would be a diagonal route that linked several rural communities in the Midwest to Chicago. It became an important route for the trucking industry despite not being completely paved until the mid-1930s.


During the Great Depression (1929-1939), Route 66 became a popular route for thousands of hopeful Midwesterners trying to find their way to California to seek a better life.
Researchers estimate that 65 percent of America’s westbound traffic and 50 percent of eastbound traffic followed Route 66 during the 1930s. These seasoned travelers were largely dependent on camping for their overnight lodging.. The highway managed to keep several small towns alive during the Great Depression. It is estimated that 210,000 travelers came to California during the Depression years.

The plight of those stuck in the Great Depression was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1939. Many connected the plight of the people with the road itself.

Steinbeck’s referral to Route 66 as the “Mother Road” stuck and helped symbolize the route as the road to opportunity.


In 1926, only 800 miles of designed Route 66 were paved. In the late 1930s, many unemployed youth found jobs as laborers on road gangs, and as a result of this monumental effort, the entire route was reported as continuously paved in 1938.

The completion of the paving was significant to the nation’s war effort during World War II. The country needed improved highways for rapid mobilization. The War Department utilized the west as a military training ground due to its wide-open isolation and dry weather.

The federal government put together $70 billion in capital projects in California, which created thousands of jobs in many entirely new industries. The resulting mass migration moved 1 million people from the northeast to California, Oregon and Washington between 1940 and 1943. The population increased almost 40 percent in those states.


The economy improved near the end of the war and Americans began to take more vacations by automobile. Route 66 held many scenic wonders nearby, with Arizona offering attractions such as the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest.

Following the war, soldiers, sailors, and other military men who had experienced California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas during military training abandoned the harsh winters of the northeast for the sunny west. Route 66 facilitated their relocation.

One such former soldier was Robert William Troup, Jr., who traveled Route 66 following the war and penned the now famous tune “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” which became a catch phrase for countless motorists who traveled the route between Chicago and the Pacific Coast.

Just as the New Deal provided employment on the road at the end of the Great Depression, numerous tourist courts, garages, gas stations and diners popped up and spurred economic growth after the road’s completion. The demands of this new tourism gave rise to competition among owners who used neon signs, gimmicks and over the top antics to draw travelers to their facilities.


Travel increased following the war as rationing and travel restrictions were lifted. Automobile ownership grew dramatically over the next 10 years.

Tourist facilities evolved during this time with many travelers staying in motels. Motels evolved from auto camps. Auto camps developed as town residents roped off areas travelers could stay for the night. The owners would provide water, wood, toilets, showers and laundry facilities for the travelers.

Eventually, auto camps and cabin camps became motor courts where all the rooms were under a single roof. Motor courts offered additional amenities, such as adjoining restaurants, souvenir shops, and swimming pools.

Many other townspeople thrived with the development of service stations. Most buildings were unique but often associated with a gasoline company. Many expanded to include multiple pumps, service bays and tire repair.

During the 1960s, Route 66 was further immortalized with the television series, “Route 66,” starring Martin Milner and George Maharis. The show helped bring Americans back to the route looking for new adventure.


Postwar travel and the revival of the automobile industry took its toll on the condition of Route 66. In the mid-1950’s, support grew for a safer more reliable interstate system. It was further fueled by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who witnessed the strategic value of Germany’s Autobahn.

Congress responded to the president by passing the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which underwrote the cost of a national interstate system.

Due to this passage, nearly all segments of original Route 66 were bypassed in 1970 by a modern four-lane highway.

The crumbling and outdated remains of Route 66 completely fell out of the federal interstate system in October 1984, when the final section of the route was bypassed by Interstate 40 in Williams, Arizona.


Route 66 was largely abandoned following the completion of the interstate system, although several stretches are still in use today. Several grassroots organizations spurred a resurgence of nostalgia for the old road and an effort is being made now to preserve what remains of the road and businesses of historic Route 66.

Dozens of cities along the old route have also found a niche by recreating what life was like on old Route 66.

Williams is one of those cities. Several retail stores, motels and restaurants cater to those seeking to rekindle their romance with the road.

Nearby Road Segments

Those seeking to experience Route 66 firsthand can find several sections of the road in the area. Pittman Valley to Parks has a portion of Route 66 that is well maintained and used regularly by local residents.

Several unmaintained road segments are located in the Ash Fork area. One section of Route 66 lies just north of I-40 and another lies southwest of Ash Fork. West of Ash Fork travelers can drive maintained Route 66 through Seligman, Peach Springs and end in Kingman.

Travelers can also drive Route 66 through the Williams Historic Business District and Urban Route 66 in downtown Williams, which were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and 1989, respectively.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Feds To Pick Up $1.66M Of $1.88M Cost To Replace Old Hwy 66 Amboy Bridge

The Dola Ditch and Lanzit Ditch bridges on old Route 66 near Amboy are two of 127 historic timber-trestle bridges to be replaced by San Bernardino County. (Google)

San Bernardino County Sentinel

The San Bernardino County Public Works Department will defray 88.5 percent of the cost of replacing the Lanzit Ditch Bridge on old Route 66 in the Amboy area with federal funds.

This week, the county board of supervisors complied with county public works director Gerry Newcombe’s recommendation that the county apply $1,663,645 in federal Highway Bridge Program funds administered through the State of California Department of Transportation and then utilize local matching funds, in this case $215,544 in gasoline taxes, for the construction phase of the National Trails Highway renovation project at Lanzit Ditch near Amboy where a long-existing bridge is on the brink of failure.

This defined project is one of several the county is undertaking along what was historically the primary roadway into California, U.S. Route 66, which in the 1920s was converted from the National Trails Highway. Route 66 was officially removed from the United States Highway System in 1985 but remains a far lesser used alternative route to Interstates 10 & 15 & 40.

According to Newcombe, “The Lanzit Ditch Bridge is located in San Bernardino County, approximately 2.77 miles east of Kelbaker Road near the unincorporated community of Amboy. This project is one of several ongoing efforts to replace bridges on National Trails Highway that have exceeded their design lifespan. This item meets the county and chief executive officer’s goals by working with Caltrans to ensure that the necessary agreements are processed in accordance with Caltrans guidelines in order to receive federal funds as reimbursement for project costs.”

Newcombe said “Discretionary general funding has been authorized to prepare plans to address all of the 127 bridges in priority groups as part of the county’s ongoing efforts to rehabilitate or replace 1930s era timber trestle bridges on National Trails Highway. This project began prior to the discretionary general funding availability and the department has budgeted gasoline tax funds as the local match for this project, so no portion of the authorized discretionary general funding will be used at this time on the project. Those funds remain authorized to be used toward future costs associated with the 127 bridges along National Trails Highway. Receiving $1,663,645 of Highway Bridge Program funds will assist in funding the project’s construction costs.”

Friday, October 7, 2016

Women's contributions on Route 66 remembered

Katrina Parks, project director for the Women on Route 66 project, listens in as Chris Ervin speaks during the panel at the end of the special presentation. Ervin is with the Mojave Desert Archives. The presentation focused on oral histories about women’s experiences on Route 66.

Needles Desert Star

NEEDLES — Those interested in a bit of a history lesson heard some interesting tales from various women who knew what it was like to travel and live along the Mother Road.

The presentation of “The Women on the Mother Road in Southern California: Route 66 Oral Histories and Screening and Discussion Program” focused on learning how women played major roles in life on the historic roadway. While Needles wasn’t directly discussed, Andrea Arizaga Limon, who has many local ties, is one of several women Katrina Parks interviewed and is part of the project. Her story was included in the presentation at the El Garces on Sept. 23.

Parks, project director, used a couple of quotes to explain why she focused her project on women. The quotes discussed how history tends to focus on men such as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady motoring along Route 66; but women also did a lot to contribute to the stories.

Parks said women are frequently sidebars in historical works. When researching, there are unconscious biases and the tendency is to look up information on men instead of women and so certain assumptions are made, she continued.

While it may appear that women didn’t own property or were adventurers or contribute much, Parks said, when someone digs in, the experience by women is more complex and varied than led to believe.

Parks discussed some of the women she’s talked to or has researched about for her project. She pointed out how some of the women experienced various hardships such as discrimination for being women. Some faced racial discrimination and segregation, abuses and despite obstacles saw many successes as business women, entertainers and more.

Some of the presentation included Parks’ work with other individuals also working on similar projects and how it connected to her own. Parks’ part of the presentation included three of her finished interviews, including Arizaga Limon’s, for the audience to hear.

Chris Ervin, of Mojave Desert Archives, shared some human interest stories focused on a particular woman who lived in Ludlow. Her name was Venus Pendergast.

Many of the stories shared by Ervin and Parks brought some laughter and insight to an era gone by. While some of the stories are better known, such as Bobby Troup’s “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” the fact his first wife, Cynthia, was the one who came up with that particular line is not as well known.

Parks provided thanks to those who’ve supported her project and to Jan Jernigan, of the Needles Downtown Business Alliance, for helping making the local presentation happen.

A panel at the end allowed members of the audience to talk about their own experiences and what life in Needles, in particular, has been like through the decades.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Earp cabin, Clyde Ranch barn among local historical vestiges lost to Blue Cut fire

The burned Clyde Ranch off Lone Pine Canyon Road. On the property was the Earp Cabin, used by Virgil Earp (brother of Wyatt Earp) and original owner Almond Davis Clyde back in the 1860s. The cabin burned during the Blue Cut fire. The fire has burned 37,000 acres, 96 homes, 213 outbuildings and was 26 percent contained as of Friday morning. (Will Lester — Staff Photographer)

By Beatriz Valenzuela
San Bernardino Sun

A pair of local landmarks — the Earp cabin and an old barn on the Clyde Ranch — can be added to the historical vestiges lost to the fast-moving Blue Cut fire, which has gobbled up more than 37,000 acres of brush and chaparral in the Cajon Pass.

The fire has devastated the West Cajon Valley, decimating more than 100 homes and more than 200 outbuildings, leaving a scarred and blackened landscape in its wake.

“It’s been an absolutely devastating fire in more ways than one,” said Nicholas R. Cataldo of San Bernardino. “We’ve lost bits of history to this fire.”

Cataldo, a Cajon Pass historian, was still dealing with news of the loss of the historic Summit Inn Cafe when he learned two of the oldest structures in San Bernardino County were devoured by the massive blaze.

Thursday, the news began to spread that the Earp Cabin, as it’s known in the community, and an old barn on the Clyde Ranch along Lone Pine Canyon Road were gone.

According to Cataldo, the cabin was built by Almon Clyde with help from Virgil Earp, brother of famous western lawman, Wyatt Earp.

“A couple of the Earp Brothers — and primarily Virgil — was good friends with Clyde,” said Cataldo. “They would go up there and hunt deer. They would be up there a week at a time. It’s a real shame it was lost. If it’s not the oldest building in San Bernardino County, it was certainly one of the oldest.”

The cabin and the barn were built using square nails, Cataldo said.

“I remember Bob Clyde said they were hoping to turn (the cabin) into a little museum but they never did.” Bob Clyde was Almon Clyde’s grandson.

In 1883, Clyde acquired the property on Lone Pine Canyon Road from a member of the Swarthout family, Mormons who settled in the Cajon Pass in 1847, according to historians. Clyde established a cattle ranch and an adjacent apple orchard that is still owned and operated by the Clyde family.

“Some of those apple trees are a century old,” said Cataldo.

The scorched earth was still smoldering Friday morning around a lone, tall chimney standing sentry above the fragments of what once was the old Earp Cabin.

Clyde Ranch before the Blue Cut fire.
The barn, also built in the 1860s, was also gone. The machinery, some of it 100 years old, was twisted by the heat of the flames.

Still standing on the property is the more modern main house where members of the Clyde family still live and the service station built by Almon Clyde.

“It’s devastating to know the cabin and barn is lost,” said Zack Earp, a descendant of the legendary lawmen. Earp, 68, of Riverside, said he was glad he was able to visit the ranch at least once before the buildings were destroyed.

News of the Clyde Ranch loss was all the chatter at Mountain Hardware in Wrightwood, only a few miles from the ranch.

“It’s a shame to see it go,” Mike Troeger, owner of the hardware store, said Friday morning as he chatted with the trickle of customers who made their way into the business. Most weren’t looking to buy anything but instead wanted to talk about the fire. “Everyone knows about the history of the place.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Historian John Hockaday battled Blue Cut Fire using a Walker

NBC4 speaks with 83-year-old John Hockaday who did battled the Blue Cut Fire while using a walker. Mekahlo Medina reports for the NBC4 News at 6 on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. (Published Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016)

By Mekahlo Medina

After some homeowners decided to stay and battle the ferocious Blue Cut Fire with just their garden hoses, NBC4 caught 83-year-old John Hockaday who did it using a walker.

He was one a few neighbors who stuck it out. Hockaday is known as a local historian and even at 83, even with a walker, he said he was not only protecting his house but history.

"It's an off-road walker," joked Hockaday as he was covered in soot and dirt talking about how he used his spinners to fight the fire. "The fire was coming down this way. That didn't stop it, but it slowed it down enough that I could keep up with it."

Newschopper4 flew over as he used his garden hose to battle back the flames.

Ron Snow, Hockaday's cousin living in the Bay Area, saw Hockaday on the NBC4 website and worried that he might not make it through the intense fire.

But Hockaday was too intense himself to give up.

"I was going to go down with the ship," he said. "I'm Cajon pass guy, you know?"

"Cajon Pass Guy" is an author who wrote two books about the area and was protecting the oldest house still standing in the Cajon Pass.

Built in 1928 he says and he fought all night to save it and when he ran out of water he drove down to get help.

Fire crews thought he was trespassing and detained him. He was released a couple of hours later, returned home, fire still raging, determined to save what he could.

"It's my thing," he said. "I'm Mr. Cajon Pass."

He read a poem:

"The thing that brings troubled to me is that my brain still thinks I'm 33. But no matter how much I curse and fret. Thank the Lord, I ain't dead yet."

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Unlikely reunion: Cousins meet again over coffee in Apple Valley after 70 years

Cousins meet again over coffee in Apple Valley after 70 years
A young Don Harris shines shoes at the Harvey House in Barstow in 1941, where he used to meet all the troop trains carrying the soldiers to war during World War II. (Courtesy of Don Harris)

By Rene Ray De La Cruz
Victorville Daily Press

APPLE VALLEY — Army veteran Donald Harris said he doesn’t know if it was coincidence or divine intervention that brought him and his cousin together after almost seven decades.

The 83-year-old Harris told the Daily Press that he met his long-lost cousin, Harvey Stanley, 79, about two weeks ago at Mega Tom’s restaurant on Bear Valley Road in Apple Valley.

“We were both born in Starks, Louisiana, a very small town with about 40 to 50 folks,” said Harris, as he sipped his coffee inside the eatery. “I about fell over when Harvey told me that he was also born in Starks.”

Harris and Stanley said they were both equally shocked when they discovered that Walter Harris was their uncle after they began discussing names of residents who lived in the small bayou town about 40 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico and three miles from the Texas border.

“You have to realize that Starks is a tiny spot on the map, with about 10,000 mosquitoes for every person,” said Stanley, a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific. “I think they recently had a population boom and Starks has about 600 people living there now.”

Harris said he left Louisiana at age six and visited a few times before age 10. He remembers playing with a lot of kids on his Uncle Walter’s farm, but doesn’t remember names or playing with Stanley. He added that, "with Starks being so small, we probably did cross paths at one time or another when we grew up."

The cousins also discovered that they've been living about four blocks away from each other in Apple Valley for the last 20 years, something Harris calls, “A coincidence that is beyond comprehension.”

“About six months ago, we saw this guy who was about our age group sitting at a different table inside Mega Tom’s,” Harris said. “We asked him if he’d like to join our group that meets about three times a week at the restaurant.”

With Harris having served in Korea, his girlfriend, Sheree Merrone, said Stanley’s Korea Veteran baseball cap caught her attention as the couple invited Stanley to join the senior group.

“Two weeks ago, we were at Tom’s without our group and we bumped into Harvey,” Harris said. “We finally had a chance to get a word in edgewise without the group. We started a conversation and that’s when we found out we were related.”

Merrone said she believes “Jesus brought the cousins together” and restaurant waitress Maria Pinkney remarked that the chances of Harris and Stanley meeting was “pretty astronomical,” considering how the duo’s life journey has taken them in different directions over the years.

Harris moved to California as a child when his father, who worked for Santa Fe railroad, was transferred to Barstow where an 8-year old Harris grew up and made money as a shoeshine boy at the Harvey House.

“I used to shine shoes when the troop trains came through town,” Harris said. “That was back in 1941, just after World War II started.”

As a teenager, the young Harris joined the Army and was stationed in Japan and Korea in the early ‘50s. After his time in the military, Harris returned to Barstow, then spent the next 40 years moving to Alaska, Denver, Missouri, Northern California, Oregon, Florida and Arizona.

“I moved to Apple Valley in 1998, built a couple of houses and spent a lot of time traveling by motorcycle,” Harris said. “I met Sheree in 2004 and we’ve been together ever since.”

After growing up on a cattle farm and riding bulls, Stanley said he quit school at age 17 and headed to California where he joined the Navy and met his wife, Charlotte, who lived in Downey.

“He met my parents and on my 16th birthday we went to the Pike in Long Beach,” Charlotte Stanley said. “That’s when he decided that he was going to marry me. We met in September 1955 and got married three months later.”

Charlotte Stanley, who grew up near the historic McDonald’s restaurant on the corner of Lakewood Boulevard and Florence Avenue in Downey, said she still remembers the couple ordering 15-cent burgers at the third restaurant franchised by Richard and Maurice McDonald, who founded the chain in 1948.

Harvey Stanley said he shipped out to sea and returned home just before the couple’s first daughter was born. After he was discharged in 1957, the couple spent the next 30 years living Downey, Louisiana, Lucerne Valley, the Los Angeles area before finally moving to Apple Valley in 1987.

While the couples enjoyed breakfast at Mega Tom’s, Charlotte Stanley and Merrone began chatting and quickly discovered they both lived near the Downey McDonald’s. For a brief moment, the couples thought another family connection was about to occur.

Harris and Stanley told the Daily Press they have a lot of “catching up to do” and the couples have many “double dates” planned.

“When we first met, we started having coffee as friends, now we're having coffee as family," Harris said. “I guess coming together after all these years was just meant to be.”

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Randsburg: Living ghost town is a Mojave Desert treasure

A sign hangs on a building in Randsburg, CA, Thursday, July 14, 2016. (Photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher/The Sun/SCNG)

By Michel Nolan
The San Bernardino Sun

It happens suddenly. You’re traveling along an endless stretch of the Mojave Desert, and like you’ve noticed a hundred times before, the U.S. Highway 395 road sign comes into view, pointing left at the turnoff to the town of Randsburg, a two-minute drive on an unpaved road.

The sky is a brilliant blue, the July heat hasn’t risen yet, so you decide to try it and take the path less traveled.

Within three minutes, you’ve left the parched expanse and arrived more than a century back in time.

Could your eyes be playing tricks on you?

Is this a desert mirage?

You are on Butte Avenue, the main thoroughfare in an Old West town that looks like an authentic Old West town.

Welcome to Randsburg, a desert gold-mining town that struck it big more than a century ago.

On a recent Thursday, staff photographer Jennifer Maher and I set out for a Randsburg adventure and were delighted with the town and its inhabitants, who were friendly and eager to share stories of their living ghost town.

The area’s mining operation, at its peak between 1895 — when gold was discovered — and 1933, took out more than $60 million in gold profits from the earth.

There truly is “gold in them thar hills.”

As gold became scarce, however, so did the people, and the 1896 boomtown that sprang up overnight was no more.

During the area’s “Gold Rush” era, the population mushroomed to nearly 4,000, but has now dwindled to about 50 hardy souls.

Greeting us at the edge of town was the weathered wood facade of an aging Post Office, which bears the skull of a steer, along with the ominous words, “End of the Trail, Randsburg, CAL.”

The General Store, just two doors down, looked friendlier so we decided to check it out.

We were hooked. Randsburg had us, reeling us in.

Built in 1903, the Randsburg General Store/Soda Fountain/Restaurant is a purveyor of fine provisions, necessities from pancake mix to soup, Clorox to mousetraps. The store serves fresh coffee, as well as restaurant menu choices and its famous soda fountain phosphates.

The focal point of the store is the 16-foot marble-topped soda fountain with stained-glass cabinet doors.

According to one story, the soda fountain was carried from Boston on a clipper ship around Cape Horn, arriving in the desert in 1904. Another story claims it traveled from Boston via mule train and arrived about the same time.

General Store owners Brad Myers and Carol Dyer, who moved to Randsburg part time from the San Fernando Valley and took over the store on July 1 of this year, are enthusiastic entrepreneurs.

“We wanted to get out of the rat race,” said Carol, a former legal secretary who has been dirt bike riding up here for 40 years.

So, three years ago, they started a T-shirt company in Randsburg, MadInk Designs; then, they opened up the MadInk Motorcycle and Surf Shop next door and the Hole in the Wall Antique Store down the street, and finally the General Store.

They envision a thriving future in the dusty little town.

“We want to keep our history, but we want to expand to keep it alive,” Carol said.

“Randsburg is a mecca for motorcycle riding and other off-road vehicles,” said Brad, who admits he tells everybody to call him “Pitt.”

Folks don’t forget his name, he says with a smile.

Brad begins his day fixing breakfast, and then goes out and sits on the yellow line in the middle of the street to have his coffee and bagel.

Where else can you do that?

A former fabricator, Brad also rides motorcycles and he reports the influx of desert riders and campers within a 20-mile radius reaches about 190,000 during Thanksgiving weekend.

The little town is jumping.

The hospitable couple learn local history from the old timers who come in.

Randsburg has more than its share of colorful characters.

The aroma of fresh morning coffee lures Ron Bush, 75, a Randsburg resident for 30 years, and Gary Gearhart, 67, of Johannesburg, a town a few miles away.

Ron, a native of New York, worked for Wells Fargo, also working security in nearby Boron at the Borax plant and the solar fields.

Gary, who worked in Boron at the Borax plant for seven years, was a heavy equipment operator. He later spent 29 years in Mojave.

Obviously, desert lovers.

While Jenn and I sipped our lime phosphates, the old-timers talked about mining borax in the nearby mines at Boron and how the 20-mule teams, made famous in ads for borax soap, hauled the borax in old wooden-wheeled wagons through the rough terrain, across Trona Road, to California City and over to Mojave.

The trip took one month in 1872.

They talked about “the old days,” the people who have come and gone and the changes in the town, which are few because the townspeople want to keep the character of Randsburg authentic.

There is pride here.

The elementary school and high school are gone, but an elementary school still stands in Johannesburg, two miles away.

The old hospital is also gone, so locals go into Ridgecrest for medical needs.

Many of the homes that look ancient on the exterior have been remodeled and are comfortable and clean on the interior.

According to Ron, residents get their water from three wells dug at the end of town.

Air conditioning is so expensive that residents opt for swamp coolers to keep them comfortable in the summer’s brutal heat, which is usually in the triple digits.

Winter temps are the other extreme — dropping way below freezing, and occasionally blanketing the desert in snow (drought permitting).

With spring comes the wildflowers: lupines, primroses, sand verbena.

There is no cable TV service here, so residents have satellite dishes. As for Wi-Fi, there is none.

While it’s not an easy way of life, it’s somehow simpler.

The scattering of eclectic homes ranges from those built into the hills, to a few ranch homes to others patched with old wood and corrugated metal.

There is also a sprinkling of outhouses dotting the landscape.

Along the street are the Opera House, the White House Saloon, the Randsburg Inn (which has lodging and lots of antiques), The Joint saloon (a former bakery), the Randsburg Museum, a barbershop and the “Goat Sky Ranch,” bed and breakfast owned by Goat Brecker, an old Supercross racer from the ’70s and ’80s.

There are two churches in town — Methodist and Catholic.

Up a winding road is the original jail, last occupied (according to Brad) by two ladies who had too much to drink, got into a gunfight, and fortunately, in their inebriated state, couldn’t shoot each other.

They each had a cell in the two-cell adobe jail.

This fascinating place is real — not Hollywood — and it’s technically a ghost town, but don’t tell that to its inhabitants, who number about 51 — give or take.

If Randsburg looks like a scene from some old Western, that’s because it has been — TV commercials, movies from “Hidalgo” with Viggo Mortensen to “Chopper Chicks in Zombietown,” starring Billy Bob Thornton, have been filmed in the area.

We enjoyed our adventure and the Old West charm of the place, returning richer without even looking for gold.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Dorsey the Mail Dog, the Tale Behind the Tail

Photo of Dorsey the Mail Dog, who carried U.S. mail from Calico, to the Bismarck mines in the 1880s. From the collection of the Mojave River Valley Museum. (Courtesy photo)

By Mark Landis
San Bernardino County Sun

It’s not known how a stray border collie named Dorsey arrived in the Calico Mining District in the early 1880s, but this dedicated mail-carrying canine became one of the region’s best-known and beloved frontier characters. Dorsey’s story is a fine tale on its own, but as time passed, a new collection of related storylines began to surpass the legend itself.

The town of Calico sprang up in the mineral-rich hills northeast of Barstow in 1881, and the raucous mining camp became California’s most famous silver bonanza. New mining camps quickly sprouted up all across the nearby hills and canyons, and by 1885, the district was brimming with thousands of miners hoping to strike it rich.

In May 1882, a post office was established at Calico, and the town was officially “on the map.” Mail was delivered regularly to Calico by stagecoach, but getting the mail to the miners in the outlying camps was a slow and laborious task.

The miner’s tales that came from Calico were often just as colorful as the multihued hills that inspired the town’s name, but Dorsey’s story is supported by numerous accounts in newspapers and published works from the period.

The earliest story on the mail-carrying dog was found in the Calico Print newspaper from May 10, 1885. The Print references “Jack the Mail Dog” in its 1885 article, and by 1886, other newspaper accounts referred to the mail dog as Dorsey.

The scruffy stray was adopted by Calico’s postmaster, Everett E. Stacy, sometime around 1885. Dorsey was a typical black-and-white border collie with a shaggy coat, and bright eyes. He was friendly to most and dedicated to his work, but before his postal career, he was known as a loafer whose primary motivation was the food and scraps he could beg from the locals.

Dorsey’s initiation into the postal service occurred in 1885, when Stacy wanted to send his brother Alwin a message at the Bismarck Mine camp, a mile and a half to the northeast. Not wanting to make the rugged trip himself, Stacy wrote a note to Alwin, tied it to Dorsey’s neck, and sent him scampering off toward Bismarck.

The dog returned the next day, looking none the worse for wear, with Alwin’s reply note tied around his neck. Stacy realized he may have found an unorthodox but potentially practical way to get mail to Bismarck for distribution to the local miners. After a few more successful test runs between the two camps, the postmaster was convinced the mail could be delivered by the canine courier.

A special canine mailbag was fashioned for Dorsey that could be strapped onto his back and fastened with two buckles. He was also equipped with a set of homemade leather booties to protect his feet from the blistering sand and rocks on the pathway between the two camps.

Dorsey became familiar with his routine, and was sent off to Bismarck with the mail each day, returning with Bismarck’s outgoing mail the following morning. Most accounts of Dorsey’s overnight stays in Bismarck tell of the appreciative miners spoiling him with snacks and affection.

Word of the unique canine mail delivery service spread quickly, and newspapers all across the country began running their version of the tale. Dorsey soon became a celebrity, and his photos were posted nationally in newspapers and on the walls of mining shacks and businesses all across the district.

In January 1886, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a full article on Dorsey and concluded the story with: “He is immensely popular with the miners, whose mail he carries so faithfully, and every evening at Bismarck, the miners order an extra beefsteak for the canine carrier.”

The unique canine mail service was reliable and cost efficient, but it only lasted about a year. In February 1886, Stacy gave Dorsey to the wealthy Bismarck Mine owner, W.W. Stow, of San Francisco. Dorsey lived out his retirement years in comfort at the Stow mansion in San Francisco.

Almost 90 years later, Dorsey was memorialized in song by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, in their 1972 double album “The Ballad of Calico.” It was the group’s eighth studio release and featured songs about the characters who lived in Calico during the frontier days. “Dorsey, the Mail-Carrying Dog” was cut four on side two of the album.

In March 1974, Dorsey’s story hit the big time on the small screen, when it was turned into an episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” called “Go West, Young Dog.” Mylas Hinshaw Productions filmed the outdoor sequences on the streets and in the canyons of Calico, and the company rented an old grocery store building in Lenwood to film the interior shots.

Several local residents from Barstow and Yermo were used as cast members. In this version of the Dorsey story, the canine mail carrier tangles with a cougar, foils a train robbery and helps apprehend a pair of claim-jumping desperadoes. The episode aired Feb. 20, 1977, and was narrated by Roger Miller.

In 2007, children’s author Susan Lendroth came across the story of Dorsey while doing research on Calico. Lendroth was intrigued by the story, and she saw the potential to adapt Dorsey’s character for a children’s picture book. “Calico Dorsey, Mail Dog of the Mining Camps” was published in 2010 with beautiful illustrations by Adam Gustavson that bring the story to life.

“I’ve been fascinated with Calico since I was a child going to the ghost town at Knott’s Berry Farm,” said Lendroth. “I thought Dorsey’s story could bring something warm into the lives of children.”

It’s fascinating that Stacy’s unique and brief experiment in mail delivery by a plucky little border collie could grow to such magnitude in frontier folklore. Maybe it’s time for a Pixar version of “Dorsey, the Mail Carrying Dog”?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Tuesday with Fran Elgin, former Victor Valley College librarian and archivist

Cover of Fran Elgin's book on the history of Rancho Yucca Loma, a desert getaway for celebrities in the 1930s through the 1950s.
By Matthew Cabe
Victorville Daily Press

Meet Fran Elgin.

She’s a longtime Mohahve Historical Society member, an author and a retired Victor Valley College librarian, where she worked for more than 24 years.

But nowadays Fran spends her time in the past.

I received a letter from her on Monday in which she addressed me as “Mr. Cabe” — completely unnecessary — before detailing a little about herself, including the volunteer work she does keeping up the vast collection in VVC’s Local History Room.

So on Tuesday — her volunteer day — I took a trip over to my community-college alma mater to hear Fran’s take on the archiving of our history.

“The historical society, in the early ’80s, they had been keeping things in garages, including photographs and so on,” she said. “I started going to their meetings, and they asked me to be on the board. After a while they asked if they could bring this stuff to the college library. And the president and vice president at the time said that would be OK.”

This was in the old library, mind you, where the Math Success Center is today.

“And they brought these rickety old file cabinets,” she said. “Nothing was organized ... The historical society doesn’t have a home. We meet at the museum. In the ’70s, the museum and the historical society were like this, but then something happened. I don’t know exactly what ... So, anyway, over the years we’ve built this up.”

It’s an astounding collection.

In addition to hundreds of books, the Local History Room houses videos, audio-cassette recordings that document the oral histories of prominent High Desert figures, all of the original “Desert Magazine” issues that were published from 1937 to 1985, not all but a thick binder full of Stuart Kellogg’s “A Dry Heat” columns, and nearly 2,400 historical photographs that are catalogued in a database.

What sort of photographs makes it into the collection?

“Almost anything that has to do with the history (of the Victor Valley and the Mojave Desert),” Fran said. “Some of them aren’t very good. Some of them are very poor quality. But anything with historical value, and sometimes you’d be surprised what people are looking for.”

I asked Fran if she’d seen the black-and-white photograph Ansel Adams took of a massive Joshua Tree near Victorville in 1947. She hadn’t, but we both agreed it would make a fine inclusion before moving on.

“We have all the Apple Valley News (back issues),” she said, pointing to stacks upon stacks of bound newspapers situated atop two or three filing cabinets. “After Eva Conrad died, her son brought all these over because I had interviewed her a few years before. They’re getting pretty fragile.”

Eva Conrad was the editor of the Apple Valley News from 1950 to 1983. She also owned and operated the paper with her husband, Lloyd, a former Los Angeles Times reporter. Described as “fiery and outspoken” in her Daily Press obituary, Mrs. Conrad wrote a weekly column called “Speak No Eva,” excerpts of which were often reprinted in Reader’s Digest and the Atlantic Monthly.

Before we moved on, I took a minute to appreciate the motto that Eva and Lloyd Conrad ran across the Apple Valley News’ masthead: “A Very Independent Newspaper.”

Much of what has been amassed and incorporated into the Local History Room’s collection over the years — only a fraction of which I’ve discussed here — is well-documented and neatly catalogued, though Fran thinks it could be better.

“Well, how many volunteers do you get normally?” I asked.

“Me,” she said. “I’ve had a couple over the years, but they didn’t work out for this reason or that. Like the last person, she was great, but she got a detached retina and hasn’t been able to drive. But there have been a few.”

It baffled me to learn that Fran had taken it upon herself to — almost single-handedly — piece together the history of this desert and its inhabitants.

Fran doesn’t seem to mind though. Being as sweet as she is, I can’t imagine she holds a grudge against people for being too busy living their lives to offer a little help.

I only wish they knew that when those lives end, Fran just might be the one to come along and gather up what remains.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Remi A. Nadeau, author and Westerner, dies at 95

Remi A. Nadeau
Remi A. Nadeau
August 30, 1920 - June 6, 2016

Dr. Remi Allen Nadeau – fifth generation Californian, well-known historian and author, descendant of one of California’s pioneers, devoted husband to his wife Margaret and father to three children – passed away in the early morning hours of June 6th in Santa Barbara, California. He died of natural causes at the age of 95.

Born in Los Angeles in 1920, Remi Allen Nadeau was the son of the late Marguerite and Remi E. Nadeau and the great, great grandson of “old” Remi Nadeau from the 1870’s. “Old” Remi Nadeau – known as the “King of the Desert Freighters” – became famous by owning and operating a line of wooden wagon freighters pulled by a team of twenty-mules to carry bullion from the California high desert into Los Angeles. He subsequently built a business empire, which helped to shape Los Angeles into the city we know today.

Remi Allen attended University High School in West Los Angeles and was president of the “boys-league” of his school while also becoming an Eagle Scout. As a college student, Remi majored in American and world history at Stanford University and served as the president of Theta Chi, his college fraternity. He received his Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in 1942.

Remi entered into World War II as a commissioned officer in the US Army Air-Corp through ROTC. He served with the 320th Bomb Group, flying 23 combat missions in the B-26 Marauder as a reconnaissance photographer, toggle bombardier and tail gunner. Additionally, he served as one of the 320th Group Intelligence Officers, the outfit’s newspaper editor and a gunnery-training officer. He saw action in North Africa and the Mediterranean and was also stationed in England and post-war occupied Germany. He completed his military service to his country in 1946, with the rank of Major.

Once he returned home after the war, he met the love of his life, Margaret G. Smith of Santa Monica. They began a courtship and married in June of 1947 in Santa Monica, California.

In 1946, he completed his first manuscript, which became The City Makers (Doubleday Press,) a best selling book about the various historical figures that built Los Angeles, including his great, great grandfather “old” Remi Nadeau. City Maker’s launched Remi Allen’s successful career as a California historian. Over his lifetime, Remi wrote multiple articles and booklets regarding the history of California, the Great West and mid-twentieth century European events. His nine books include: The City Makers, The Water Seekers, Los Angeles: From Mission to Modern City, California: The New Society, Ghost Towns & Mining Camps of California, The Real Joaquin Murrieta, Fort Laramie and the Sioux, Stalin Churchill & Roosevelt Divide Europe and The Silver Seekers.

Remi’s professional writing career began at The Santa Monica Outlook and The San Diego Union as an editorial writer. Later, he became an executive in the public relations department of many international corporations, which included Atlantic Richfield, North American Aviation, Collins Radio, Rockwell International and Memorex. Additionally he was appointed as the special assistant to the US Attorney General where he wrote multiple speeches for John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst. He also wrote several statements on behalf of President Richard Nixon.

After retirement from corporate life in 1980, Remi earned a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in History at the University of California in Santa Barbara. During his retired life, Remi was a member in such organizations as The Westerner’s, The Santa Barbara Club, The Cosmopolitan Club, The Eastern California Historical Society, and The First Families of California as well as a member of the UCSB Faculty Club. He and his wife Margaret enjoyed travelling the globe – exploring many countries not often visited by most Americans. They regularly attended services at the All-Saints by-the-Sea Episcopal Church of Montecito.

Remi is survived by his wife of almost 69 years – Margaret Gwendolyn Smith – who is a local award-winning plein-air artist and his three cherished children: Christine, Barbara and Bob. Those who knew Remi respect him not only as a man of accomplishment, but also as a man of integrity and principles who loved his family. His loved ones look to him as an example of a life well lived. A memorial service is planned for late July in Santa Barbara.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

China Lake Museum Foundation is grant finalist

Ridgecrest Daily Independent

The China Lake Museum Foundation was just notified that it was selected, contingent upon California Cultural and Historical Endowment board approval on June 10, to receive a $250,000 grant from the CCHE Museum Grant Program. The CCHE program is administered by the California Natural Resources Agency. The Museum Grant Program is funded by Proposition 40 California Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act of 2002.

Sixty-seven museum applicants applied for the capital asset grant program. The China Lake Museum Foundation hosted three state representatives for a site visit on May 3. Twenty finalists were visited and 18 museums around the state were selected to receive funding ranging from $50,000 to the maximum of $250,000.

These grant funds will be used in conjunction with existing China Lake Museum Foundation funds gathered through the Founders Program, capital assets fundraisers, memberships and special events such as the annual CLMF Dinner Auction.

The China Lake Museum, highlighting the great accomplishments to defense by our local base, will be making its first phased move off the base and into Ridgecrest this fall. The museum will be situated on Kern County leased land next to Maturango Museum.

Infrastructure including parking lot and utilities will be completed along with a 2,880 square-foot building which will house an information center and expanded gift shop. Some of the displays will be relocated to the new facility and others will remain in the base awaiting completion of Phase 2.

Phase 2 will be a 10,000 square foot building located on the same land. This will form a museum complex including outside exhibit areas. The China Lake Museum Foundation invites all interested parties to become members, work on the building committee or other subcommittees, become a building Founder for $5,000, or contribute what they can to make this museum in Ridgecrest a reality. For more information please contact Alice Campbell, president or Wayne Doucette, vice president of building at the China Lake Museum 760-939-3530.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Providence Town Site nominated for federal historic designation

Ruins of the Bonanza King Mine (darthjenni)

By Jose Quintero
Desert Dispatch

SAN FRANCISCO — The Providence Town Site near the defunct Bonanza King Mine and Mitchell Caverns is one of 11 nominations to be considered to the National Register of Historic Places on Monday.

The California State Historical Resources Commission will consider the nominations for federal historic designation during a quarterly meeting in San Francisco at 1 p.m. on Monday.

Providence Town Site is an 81-acre district in the Providence Mountains in the Mojave National Preserve.

California Office of Historic Preservation officials say the buildings and structures in the Providence Town Site are “almost in a state of ruin.” the buildings and structures at the site comprise a nearly intact village near the Bonanza King Mine, a former silver mine, located roughly 100 miles east of Barstow.

“Practically all of the buildings and structures dating from the period of significance remain in place and are further connected by the town’s original road and trail system. The property is significant in the areas of settlement, commerce, transportation, architecture and archaeology,” the nomination reads.

The California Office of Historic Preservation is responsible for administering federally and state mandated historic preservation programs to further the identification, evaluation, registration and protection of the state’s “irreplaceable resources.” The mission of the California Office of Historic Preservation and the California State Historical Resources Commission is to provide “leadership and promote the preservation of California's irreplaceable and diverse cultural heritage,” the website reads.

The meeting is scheduled to be held at the Golden Gate Club’s Ventana Room, located at 135 Fisher Loop in San Francisco.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Hesperia family begins cleanup effort at old Johannesburg cemetery

Alexandrea Marsh pulls weeds away from a grave site at the Rand District Cemetery in Johannesburg on Wednesday. The Kochara family from Hesperia discovered the cemetery in disrepair and began bringing a team of friends to help cleanup and care for the cemetery. (James Quigg, Daily Press)

By Paola Baker
Victor Valley Daily Press

JOHANNESBURG — For one Hesperia family, an hour and a half road trip is worth preserving a piece of history.

Eddie Kochara and his family and friends have recently made two trips to the Rand District Cemetery to undertake a cleanup effort. Dating back to the late 1800s, the cemetery, which is located off Mountain Wells Avenue in the town of Johannesburg 30 minutes north of Kramer Junction, appeared to have been abandoned when the Kocharas came across it a few weeks ago while on vacation.

“We were on our way to Lake Isabella and happened to pass by the cemetery,” Kochara’s wife Shannon said. “It was sad to see the condition it was in.”

The Daily Press joined the Kocharas and a few of their friends as they made another trip to the site Wednesday. The old cemetery, which is home to many unique graves, was overgrown with weeds and covered in dust. Many graves were barely visible due to the tangled overgrowth and dust.

Eddie Kochara said his eight children, who range from 9-year-old twins to teenagers, first came up with the idea to come back and start cleaning up the cemetery. Nine-year-old Caidyn Kochara readily agreed.

“We passed by and saw it and I just said, 'This is so sad,' ” Caidyn Kochara said. “We need to clean it up.”

The family, accompanied by a few friends, made another trip to the dusty old mining town and got to work a week after their vacation. Weeds were pulled, old gravestones were dusted and stones and flowers were rearranged in their rightful places. A large family memorial which holds 12 different graves took hours to clean, with 17-year-old Cassie Kochara undertaking most of the effort.

“It took me about four hours to get it to look like this,” Cassie Kochara said, as she carefully dusted off dirt from the memorial.

A plaque in front of the cemetery said the place was first established in December 1896 with the burial of William Davis, who was shot and killed in a gambling dispute in the neighboring town of Randsburg.

“The cemetery is the final resting place of many pioneers of the district whose headstones and the location of their graves have been lost to the ravages of time," the plaque reads. Several names of people buried can be found underneath the plaque.
Eddie and Shannon Kochara said they believed the site may have had a caretaker as recently as 15 years ago, as Eddie had come across it during an off-roading trip back then when it was in better condition. To come back years later and see the place in its current condition was “heartbreaking,” he said.

“When I came across it years ago, it was taken care of,” Eddie Kochara said. “When we saw it again, I decided something needed to be done.”

The family plans to make the trip every other Sunday to undertake the cleaning effort. Eddie Kochara said he’s been doing side jobs and rentals to fund the trips, but remained humble about his family’s efforts.

“It’s just who I am,” he said. “We made a dent in it, but there’s still a lot more to do.”

Shannon Kochara agreed with her husband’s sentiments.

“A lot of these graves are very old and many of these people just may not have any family living that’s able to take care of them,” she said, as she raked dust and pulled weeds from an old grave. “It’s just something I would want someone to do for me.”

Monday, February 22, 2016

Cajon Pass brought first black pioneers to San Bernardino Valley

Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891) traveled through the Cajon Pass and arrived in San Bernardino as a slave belonging to Robert Smith. Automatically freed in California, she fought for her freedom in the courts when Smith tried to take her and other blacks back to the slavery state of Texas.

By Nicholas R. Cataldo
San Bernardino Sun

The Cajon Pass has played a prominent role in Southern California since prehistoric times. Indians, explorers, trappers, settlers, rail passengers and early motorists have all passed through on their way to or from the desert.

This well-used passageway also brought the first African-American pioneers into San Bernardino County.

In 1826, 27-year-old Jedediah Strong Smith (1799-1831) and his fur trapping party from northern Utah became the first Americans to make an overland journey to California. Anxious to explore the country between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the party traveled southerly to the Mohave villages and then followed what has become known as the Mohave Trail, a footpath used as a trade route by Indigenous tribes for centuries. Among his expedition of 15 men was Peter Ranne, the first black man to enter San Bernardino County.

During the 1830s and ’40s long pack trains of mules making their way between Santa Fe and Los Angeles clomped through the narrow, twisting east canyon of the Cajon Pass along the Old Spanish Trail. Men brought blankets and manufactured goods from New Mexico in exchange for southern California’s much prized horses and mules. It is highly probable that among these traders were African-Americans, whose presence was not recorded.

In 1851, a wagon train made up of 437 Mormons from Salt Lake destined to develop the future city of San Bernardino came through the Cajon Pass.

This caravan followed the Salt Lake Road (which evolved from the Old Spanish Trail) as far as Baldy Mesa before detouring through West Cajon Canyon after hearing about a longer, but less steep and rocky route developed by a Banning teamster named William T. Sanford a year earlier. Sanford’s route was smoother than the trail through the east canyon. However, it was seven miles longer and so steep of a ridge at one point that wagons had to be lowered with ropes.

Among this group entering the “free” state of California were 26 soon-to-be ex-slaves who helped get the wagons down that ridge — and became the first black pioneers to make their homes in the San Bernardino Valley.

According to Byron R. Skinner, author of Black Origins in the Inland Empire, published by the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society in 1983, the names of these individuals that made the trek were:

1. Harriet
2. Hark
3. Charly
4. Jane
5. Nelson
6. Lawrence
7. Ann
8. Harriett
9. Anna
10. Ellen
11. Biddy
12. Hannah
13. Tennessee
14. Fluleman
15. George
16. Nancy
17. Rose
18. Henderson
25. Liz
26. Green
19. Mary
20. Nelson
21. Oscar
22. Grief
23. Toby
24. Vilote

While the life stories for many of these individuals have seemingly fallen into oblivion because of the lack of documentation, here is testimony to a few who we know of who played major roles in the area’s development.

Lizzy Flake Rowan (1834-1908) traveled with the wagon train to San Bernardino with James and Agnes Flake and after they died, took care of their children for a while in addition to her own.

Lizzy later married another ex-slave, Charles Rowan, and together built a home for their three children and also acquired some land on D Street near downtown San Bernardino, where she worked as a laundress. Charles ran a barbershop inside the Southern Hotel, approximately where the American Sports University stands near the corner of D and Fourth streets.

Their daughter, Alice Rowan Johnson, became the first black student at the Los Angeles Normal School, was one of 16 graduates in 1888 and was possibly the first black teacher of white children in California when she taught in Riverside.

Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891) traveled through the Cajon Pass and arrived in San Bernardino as a slave belonging to Robert Smith. Automatically freed in California, when Smith tried to take her and other blacks back to the slavery state of Texas, she fought for her freedom in the courts.

On January 19, 1856, Biddy petitioned the court for freedom for herself and her extended family of 13 women and children. Los Angeles District Judge Benjamin Hayes took three days before handing down his ruling in favor of Mason and her extended family, citing California’s 1850 constitution that prohibited slavery.

Biddy eventually became a nurse, a California real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist. She was also founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

Grief (1812 or 1813-1873) and Toby Embers arrived with Bishop Crosby, who also owned Grief’s wife, Harriet. What little is known of Toby Embers concerns his immediate family.

Toby’s wife, Hannah, who had been the “property” of Robert Smith before her freedom, was an expert horse rider who became the unofficial midwife of the new settlement, answering any call to help deliver a newborn baby day or night. Toby’s daughter, Martha, married an ex-slave named Israel Beal, who became an esteemed member of the valley’s early history.

In fact, the Beals became the first black residents in the Redlands area when the community was still known by the name of Lugonia.

Of the two siblings, much more is known about Toby’s younger brother.

As roughly 60 percent of the Mormon community answered Young’s urgent recall with strict orders to sell their homes and property for whatever they could get in late 1857, Grief bought some land at what is now I Street just south of Mill, as well as in the vicinity of the Carousel Mall, thus becoming the first African-American owner of real-estate in the Inland Empire.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Well known local rancher Howard Blair dies

Howard Blair
 Needles Star

NEEDLES — Well-known local rancher Howard Blair passed away Feb. 6, 2016, in Newberry Springs, Calif.

If it was a Sunday around Needles, residents and friends probably saw the tip of a white cowboy hat, a big smile and a “Hi Hi” from the well-known local rancher. He always had a smile and pleasant word for everybody he met.

Blair was born in Long Beach, Calif., in 1926. His family homesteaded in Lanfair Valley in 1913. Blair spent most of his youth on the family ranch and loved the ranching way of life. That love led to eventually having his own ranch in Fish Lake Valley, Nev.

Blair finished eighth grade in Long Beach then worked odd jobs to help support his family growing up. Near the end of WWII, at age 17, he enlisted in the Navy for V6, (Victory and six months) and served as a second class machinist mate for three years.

He met and married Hazel Pearl Smith, raised her two young sons and the couple had three more children together. That’s when he worked and saved to buy the ranch in Nevada. Smith’s poor health led to having to sell that ranch and instead, Blair bought his uncle’s ranch north of Essex with his brother.

Ranching was always a big part of his life, but religion always played a part too. He became a founding member of the Needles Church of Christ. Rarely did he miss a Sunday in Needles to attend church.

Blair’s children attended Needles High School. He never missed a football game while his children were in school.

Aside from supporting his children, he loved to square dance and belonged to the Essex Square 8s Dance Club.

His wife, Hazel, passed away in 1969. Blair eventually remarried to Shirley Buegeler, of Needles.

Blair’s love of ranching also kept him involved in other ways. He was vice-president of the High Desert Cattlemen’s Association for many years. In 1990, he partnered with his son, Rob Blair, in the family ranch business.

Howard spent the rest of his years living the life he loved, working the ranch, raising cattle and spending time with his church family and loved ones.

A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 27 at the Needles Elks Lodge.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Lifetime resident tells of early life in Tri-state

History Lesson: Margaret Mary Soto Perry shared her life experiences growing up in the Tri-state during a special presentation hosted by the Laughlin library and co-sponsored by the Colorado River Museum and Historical Society. “The valley didn’t get electricity until the 60s and didn’t see television until the 70s,” she said. (DK McDONALD/The Daily News)

The Mohave Valley Daily News

LAUGHLIN — Margaret Mary Soto Perry lived in the Tri-state before the arrival of refrigeration, electricity, television, subdivisions and paved roads.

“I have to remind people that I wasn’t around in the 1800s or even for WWII,” she said. “But the valley didn’t get electricity until the ’60s and didn’t see television until the ’70s. Before people were moving here to build vacation homes, it was very old-timey.”

Soto Perry shared her life’s experiences growing up in the Tri-state during a presentation hosted by the Laughlin Library and co-sponsored by the Colorado River Museum and Historical Society.

“The Soto family has a revered name in this valley,” said attendee Mary Hughes, past president of the Colorado River Historical Society and Museum. “The family is known by people who study the history of the area. I can never get enough of the stories she tells.”

Soto Perry’s grandparents were pioneers in the valley. At one point the family ran 15,000 head of cattle and sheep over a huge area from Bullhead City south to Topock, and east from Silver Creek in the Boatman Hills to Goldroad.

“It all started when my grandfather first went from Spain to Mexico City,” Soto Perry said. “At the time, Pancho Villa was running amok, and my grandfather was raising horses and burros to supply his army.

“One day my grandfather was arrested for aiding and abetting the enemy, and scheduled to hang first thing in the morning. In the middle of the night, someone opened the gate of the cement bunker he was held in, and he was immediately put on a boat to San Francisco.

“Well, that was 1906, the year of the great San Francisco earthquake; he soon left there and stepped off the train in Needles. It was winter, and he noted that the weather was warm and beautiful. He made up his mind to get a ranch in the valley to raise cattle and sheep. And that’s what he did.”

Soto Perry, who was born in 1939, spent “a solitary but not lonely” childhood on land rich with trees, wildlife and hard work.

“There was nothing here,” she said. “The river was wide, wide, wide. There were forests of cottonwood, mulberry and willows, and arrow weed blanketed everything. The roads were ruts. It was very difficult to get through the valley without a horse.

“My grandmother loaded up vegetables from the garden and fresh meat, and sold them off the back of a buckboard wagon in Kingman, Needles and Oatman.

“My father leased a dairy farm, south of the current (Bullhead City) Safeway. He was a carpenter; he started the first garbage service in Needles.”

Twice a day, at 4 a.m. and at 5 p.m., Soto Perry walked down to bring the cows in for milking. She attended sixth and seventh grade in the Lil’ Red Schoolhouse, now a museum at Bullhead City Community Park.

“The family wasn’t big on education,” Soto Perry said. “They were big on hard work. That’s probably why I’ve lived so long; they worked me like a donkey.

“But there was a sense of peace, serenity, and a sense of well-being. You felt glad to be alive. There was a pattern to the days, and a sense of purpose, a tremendously good feeling. Work hard, eat well, and rest.”

Winter visitor Evie Augeson said she was surprised by some of what she learned during Soto Perry’s presentation.
“It was fun and interesting to hear,” she said. “You look out at what seems to be a barren landscape, and wouldn’t think agriculture is such a huge part of the history here.”

Tanya Brown-Wirth, Laughlin library branch manager said, “People here seem to like the historical lectures and events we offer. Maybe some are looking for a connection like they had at home; knowing the history of the place where they have chosen to live and play. Margaret’s history, having grown up with the region, is a fascinating look at how an area can change so much in a single lifetime.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Jennie Kelly Memorial at Salton Sea Yacht Club

May 1, 2010-Grand reopening of the restored North Shore Beach & Yacht Club at the Salton Sea (SLWORKING2-Flickr)
Kelly Supporters Rally to Bring Back the Salton Sea History Museum

North Shore, California--The Salton Sea History Museum celebrates the life of its founder, Jennie Kelly, on January 30, 2016, 1-5 pm, at Albert Frey's North Shore Beach and Yacht Club. Kelly, a Salton Sea resident for 35 years, died October 11, 2015, of cancer. She was 66.

Jennie was known throughout the Coachella Valley and beyond for her passionate advocacy for the Salton Sea and its history. She led the fight to save Rancho Dos Palmas, fought to save John Hilton's Art and Gem Shop, launched a groundbreaking exhibit of Salton Sea art (Valley of the Ancient Lake) and established the Salton Sea History Museum, at the urging of the late Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson.

More than 17,000 visitors from all over the world stopped by the modernist seaside landmark to learn about the Sea's history, before the museum was temporarily closed in 2011.

"To put the museum back where it belongs--that was Jennie's final wish," says Kelly's husband, Steve Johnson. Supporters are lobbying to have the museum reopened so the extensive archives gathered by Jennie can once again be shared with the public. Jennie's friends believe telling the story of the Sea is intrinsic to saving it, and that the museum is an integral part of that message.

Born in Arizona, Kelly worked as a model as a young woman, then as a technical illustrator. After moving to the Sea, she founded the first Chamber of Commerce in North Shore and also chaired the Community Council. She served on the Indio Sheriff's Mounted Posse and as a volunteer firefighter, as well as serving on the Riverside County Historical Commission. She was an avid backcountry horsewoman who often rode in the Indio Hills above North Shore. "Everything she did, she went into it with passion," says Johnson.

The Memorial reception is from 1-5 pm on January 30, 2016. For information about the event or efforts to restore the Museum, please call (760) 250-8927 or e-mail The museum's website is:

Friday, January 15, 2016

Museum building won’t move

Colorado River Museum building
The Daily News

BULLHEAD CITY — At its meeting Tuesday, the Heritage Center Task Force has decided not to move the Colorado River Museum building to the Colorado River Heritage Center at Bullhead City Community Park, “at this point,” said chairwoman Lisa McCabe.

The Heritage Center consists of the head frame from the Moss Mine and the Lil’ Red Schoolhouse, which was recently moved from its Third Street location.

Potential problems with moving the museum building, which served as Bullhead City’s first Catholic Church, include the integrity of the building — whether it could survive a move — and having to clean up the site after moving the building per the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land. The building itself is the property of Mohave County. The Board of Supervisors would have to approve any plans to move the building and transfer ownership, if required or desired.

Shawn Blackburn, Mohave County Parks director, said if the museum vacates the building, his department will find other uses for the facility, which borders Davis Camp, a county park.

Elsie Needles, Colorado River Historical Society and Museum president, said the current building doesn’t meet the needs of the museum.

“I want to see this museum move forward,” she said.

The task force is entertaining the idea of constructing a modular building in Community Park to serve as the new site of the museum. The modular design would allow for the museum to expand.

Roy Dean, owner of A-Arid State House Movers and Enterprises, moved the schoolhouse and participated in the meeting by phone from his Buckeye, Ariz., headquarters.

He said it would require “a lot of restoration to bring (the current building) up to code.”

Toward the end of Tuesday’s meeting, task force members discussed moving the General Store to Community Park. The 12-by 30-foot structure was relocated from Old Bullhead to the museum grounds in 1992. It served as a post office for a number of years and is said to be Bullhead City’s oldest building.

With $1,800 in the bank, the Task Force is a long way from accumulating the money needed for moving buildings or constructing new ones. Fundraising will be its focus, by selling commemorative bricks, seeking grants and corporate donations.

“There are a lot of groups in town that would help,” said Jim Zaborsky, owner of Village Construction.

The important thing is “to keep the train moving, get something going,” said Dick Whittington, Golden Vertex CEO and president, who — along with his wife Gillian — conceived the idea of a heritage center for Bullhead City.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Popular western artist Bill Bender dies at 97

Oro Grande resident's paintings were collected by President Eisenhower, J. Edgar Hoover

Bill Bender, considered one of the few original and last plein air western artists who captured the beauty of the American desert, died Jan. 5 on his 97th birthday as a result of a fall at his farm in Oro Grande. (Courtesy of Ann Japenga)

By Rene Ray De La Cruz
The Daily Press

Bill Bender, a working cowboy and western artist whose artwork was purchased by a President Dwight Eisenhower and other political leaders, has died.

Known as “Cowboy Bill” by those who knew him best, Bender died Jan. 5 on his 97th birthday as a result of a fall at his farm in Oro Grande, according to his wife, Helen Bender.

“He was a good man who worked hard and always kept moving,” Helen Bender, 83, told the Daily Press on Wednesday. “We were married for almost 60 years, then we moved to Oro Grande from the Los Angeles area.”

Helen Bender said the couple continued to live in the same house, an abandoned tavern, that they began fixing up back in the 1950s, “when there was nothing out here but dirt.”

“Bill was quite the accomplished artist and he, his wife and his mother were the nicest folks around,” said Joe Manner, a longtime resident of Oro Grande. “When I delivered mail, I never had to put it in their box because one of them would always come out and greet me.”

Those in the art world knew Bender for his paintings of desert landscapes, horses, cattle and ranch scenes; and illustrated stories and written work. As a stuntman, the cowboy began unleashing his artistic side while recovering from an injury suffered during a rodeo ride, his wife said.

Bender was considered one of the few original and last plein air western artists who captured the beauty of the American desert, according to many online art sites. Plein air paintings are created outdoors, with the painter reproducing the actual visual conditions seen at the time of the painting.

Bender’s friend, Mark Cliath, said some of the collectors of Bender’s work included FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark and President Eisenhower, who was surrounded by bodyguards when he visited the farm on Old Highway 66 for some painting pointers.

Over the century, Bender was one of many artists who would travel to the lower High Desert to find the perfect location to paint. The Oro Grande artist would often camp out under a cottonwood tree and survive on grapefruit while he worked on his masterpiece, according writer Ann Japenga.

Japenga, a Palm Springs writer specializing in stories about the California deserts and the West who operates the website, said Bender was good friend and the “poster boy for longevity.”

“Bill was into holistic medicine and he was the perfect picture of health,” Japenga told the Daily Press on Wednesday. “He was 100-percent cowboy, but still very caring and kind.”

From movie stuntman to a lineman who traveled by horse to string utility line from Kernville to Lone Pine, Japenga said Bill Bender lived an adventurous life.

“I just got a card from him and his handwriting was perfect,” Japenga said. “He was a man who left his mark on the art world and will truly be missed.”

Bender, who admired the work of artist James Swinnerton and his lifestyle, began taking “sketching trips” with Swinnerton on unpaved roads in the late ‘40s. Bender said the two would often park their car on high ground in Arizona, throw their sleeping bags near their car and cook steaks over an open fire, Japenga said.

“Bill’s artwork hangs in big buildings in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, yet he lived a simple life in a house that was probably in the family for over a hundred years,” Manner said. “They don’t make people like Bill anymore.”

Helen Bender said the family will have a private ceremony to celebrate her husband's life.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Traveling a forgotten road in the Cajon Pass

Crowder Canyon Bridge, then and now.
By Cliff Bandringa
Victor Valley Daily Press

There is a forgotten road in the Cajon Pass that was originally a wagon toll road built in 1861 and, later, was used by many early Route 66 travelers. There are no signs to point out this historic road or to tell you about its connection to the Mother Road but there is still evidence of where it once existed.

Early automobile travelers used this steep, narrow and hazardous road as a short cut when traveling Route 66 (although it was never used as an alignment for Route 66). Unlike old segments of 66 in the upper Cajon Pass, sections of this road can still be traveled on today.

Our trip begins at the Summit Inn located at the Cajon Summit and ends next to the truck scales located halfway through the Cajon Pass. Half of the trip is on dirt road with the other half on pavement and it can be traveled in either direction.

Even though most of the dirt road is maintained by the Forestry Service, it is still subject to deep ruts and bumps that make it difficult for normal vehicles. We have seen plenty of standard cars on this road but we don’t recommend it. A high-clearance vehicle, such as a truck or SUV, is best.

The historical Summit Inn (off the Oak Hills Road exit), is a favorite spot of tourists for breakfast or lunch. One of its most famous patrons was Elvis Presley. The story goes that Elvis wasn’t fond of flying to his frequent shows in Las Vegas so he and his entourage traveled by car. They would usually take up the one large booth in this roadside cafe.

As you leave Summit Inn, turn right onto the frontage road and head south. The pavement ends in half a mile but this short distance of pavement was the alignment of Route 66. The alignment then turned right, crossed the northbound lanes of I-15 and continued down the middle of I-15.

For our trip, continue on the dirt road (when the pavement ends) as it makes a quick left and then heads south. You will quickly see how rough the road is. At a 90-degree left turn there’s a great viewpoint of the Cajon Pass on the right.

Past the viewpoint, the road twists and turns and a road intersection is reached. Turn right here to pass through the obvious road cut. This road cut was originally dug for the Brown Toll Road and probably hand excavated in 1861, which is when the American Civil War started.

One of the first cross-country roads built in the USA was the National Old Trails Road. For the road’s alignment through the Cajon Pass, the toll road was still usable and it was logical to use the same alignment. However, because this section was steep and treacherous, the new road was realigned in 1918 to where I-15 is today. Thrill-seeking Route 66 travelers still used it, though.

Continue steeply down the old road south as it crosses four railroad tracks. Beyond the tracks, you might spot faint patches of pavement from the original road build in 1914.

Turn right onto Highway 138. Here, the new highway was built on top of the old road. Just before 138 turns into four lanes, the old road veered off to the left. We will see the other side of that road in a moment.

To walk on the old road, drive past the McDonalds on the frontage road next to I-15. At the end of the road, you’ll see a monument. Park here and walk to the end of the road to find a hiking trail. This is part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Walk up into what is called Crowder Canyon. Soon, you’ll be walking past an old bridge foundation and on old pavement from 1914, which was the first auto route through the Cajon.

Read an expanded version of this article at Along with driving directions, you’ll find a YouTube video and an interactive map.