I grew up in the Coachella Valley; my parents were "heavy earthwork" contractors, mostly building government projects, so I spent a lot of time on the back roads of the West. I'm a graduate of Vassar College (history major) and the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary. Retired from the Law, I now grow dates, sweet limes & figs on the family ranch, and am the State Senate appointee to the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy.
Snoopy’s brother Spike lives near Needles with his Cactus companion. As he said in Peanuts on October 12, 1993: “Life in the desert is exciting. Last night the sun went down and this morning the sun came up. There’s always something happening.”*
Needles was, and is, a railroad town
The Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad founded the town in 1883.
Needles is also on Historic Route 66
*As a boy, Charles Schultz lived in Needles 1928-1930.
Artist John Hilton burned paintings in bonfire in Box Canyon
According to Katherine Ainsworth’s 1978 biography of John Hilton, Maynard Dixon and Nicolai Fechin, both, advised Hilton to discard “unworthy” paintings. As noted in the biography as well as numerous newspaper and magazine articles, Hilton invited friends to a dramatic annual party in Box Canyon (east of Mecca, CA) when he would throw his rejects onto a bonfire at the stoke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. As the years passed, the party grew and others added to the bonfire, but Hilton reserved his painting burning for last.
One particularly memorable New Year’s was 1940/41 when the Los Angeles Times printed a photo of him tossing a painting into the fire.
Immediately to the right on the page was an article by Ed Ainsworth:
After several years the parties were discontinued; this may have even been the last, as a year later the US would be at war. Of course today, one would need a permit for such a fire, which the County Fire Department would never issue!
The City was incorporated in December 1946 and the City Hall was dedicated in October 1949. Over the years, it not only housed the City government, but also the post office, police department, justice court, and the public library. Today, City Council Chambers and administration occupy the entire building.
The Fire Station was built on land donated by the Coachella Land & Water Co. to Riverside County, circa 1905, when the town was being platted. When the City was incorporated in 1946, one of its first actions was to ask the County to donate the land to the new City. Next door to the site of the Fire Station, the new City Hall was built; to the north of City Hall and the Fire Station, approximately half of the parcel continued to be used as a park and is today Veterans’ Memorial Park.
A Time to Stop and Think About What Is Really IMPORTANT – I revisit a grade school lesson
In grade school we learned the Pilgrims and the local Native Americans came together to give thanks for the harvest. It makes a lovely picture book moment, but sadly our country has had much to learn; the color of one’s skin is, as the old saying goes, “only skin deep.”
Politics don’t enter into it, we should all Give Thanks this year, and every year for all those who risked/lost their lives for our freedom. And, for all those who have stood up for our freedom in other ways.
Today the trip from northern Conejo Valley (Thousand Oaks) to Oxnard and Port Hueneme on the Pacific, or Moorpark to the north, can be made via modern roads, but prior to the building of the Norwegian Grade, the journey was long and treacherous, especially when hauling dry farming crops.
The Norwegian Colony in the Conejo was founded by 5 families seeking a better future in the US. In 1890, they purchased 651 acres in the northern part of the valley from George Edwards, which they divided into 5 lots, which were then allocated by lottery:
Lot #1 – 199 acres to Ole Andersen;
Lot #2 – 111 acres to Lars Pedersen;
Lot #3 – 139 acres to Nils Olsen;
Lot #4 – 97 acres to Ole Nilsen;
Lot #5 – 105 acres to George Hansen.
With no source of irrigation water available, they were dry land farmers, working other jobs in the off season. Transporting their crops to market required traveling west to leave the valley over the Potrero and Conejo grades, or north on a precarious stagecoach road over a saddle in the mountains and down into the Santa Rosa Valley.*
After an accident with the wagons, leaving George Hansen bedridden for a year, the families combined the upper right of way, donated by Nils Olsen, with a 40-foot right of way bought for $50 from Adolf and Roumaine Wyseur.
“Historic Norwegian Grade was built by hand between 1900 and 1911, using picks, shovels, crow bars, farm equipment and $60 worth of dynamite given by the County of Ventura.
“The grade was constructed by members of the Norwegian Colony and their hired help to provide a safe way to move bales of hay and sacks of wheat and barley to the farmers on the Oxnard Plain and to the Hueneme Wharf.
“The route for the grade was selected because it provided a gradual descent with no hairpin turns and would be safer than existing routes to the Oxnard Plain and Moorpark.**
“In the early 1900’s, there were no bulldozers, earth moving equipment, etc. Work was done by hand using a star drill and a sledge hammer to pound holes into the very hard volcanic rock; dynamite was inserted into the holes, fuses lit, everyone ran for cover, and it blew. The resulting rocks and debris were moved by hand and a horse-drawn fresno (scraper), to build the narrow one lane roadway.
“Construction was done in the winter and early spring months because baling and harvesting took precedence during the summer and fall. The road was later widened to two lanes.”
The new route cut a full day off the trip. Today the farms are long gone from the Conejo; the Santa Rosa Valley has farms and scattered housing developments. In 2010, the City of Thousand Oaks renovated the deteriorating road, and unveiled the memorial plaque at its reopening.
*I am still trying to pin down the location of the wagon trail north to the Santa Rosa Valley. Accounts I have read say it was partially obliterated by grading in the 1950’s.
Built in 1903, Southern Pacific Santa Susana Depot sat on Los Angeles Ave. East of Tapo Street; it served the Rancho Simi area until the early 1970s when the SP closed it. Falling prey to age and vandalism, the deteriorating building was sold by the railroad for $1.06, and moved 2 miles east to its present site in May 1975 (6503 Katherine Road). After extensive restoration, the depot was reopened in 2000, as a museum and home of the local model railroaders club.
A passenger station, freight station, and telegraph office, it was based on Southern Pacific’s standard No. 22, combination depot plans; the depot has a recently restored stationmaster’s apartment on the second story.
Exhibits between today’s Union Pacific tracks and the depot: