Coachella Valley Trading Post

I only have a dim memory of this building from my childhood; as I recall, it was ramshackle by that time.

However, in its day, the Trading Post had been important. In April 1927, an article in the Los Angeles Times described an auto tour of the Coachella Valley to see the wild flowers and included a reference to a “fine new swimming pool” at the Coachella Valley Trading Post.

In his reminiscences to Katherine Ainsworth (The Man Who Captured Sunshine, 1978), artist John Hilton told her of picking up some good hints from Charles Safford, a graduate of the Chicago Institute of Art. “Stafford [sic]* lived and worked at the old Coachella Trading Post. He and I decorated the walls with our scenes. We were mighty proud of those pictures, but during World War II, the place became a U.S.O. center and the soldiers used our painting as dart boards.” (Ainsworth , page 99).

An undated postcard with no copyright symbol/notice; I believe this shot dates from the 1930s

I remember seeing a photograph of soldiers posed on the front porch of the Trading Post. During World War II, there were US newspaper articles, across the country, that Mrs. Edward. G. Robinson had organized bus trips for girls from Beverly Hills to travel to the Trading Post to dance with the service men; it cost them $5 and they had to take an oath not to drink alcohol or to leave the premises of the Trading Post during the visit. These trips were even made in August when approximately 2500 Army men would come to dance with the 200 girls, who slept on army cots after the dance; on Sunday they went swimming in the pool before returning to L.A. At least one soldier is reported to have jumped in the pool fully clothed!

I hope to find more history of the building; if you have anything to add, please let me know; thanks.

  • Should be Charles Safford.

NEW LIVERPOOL SALT WORKS

In 1893, George Durbrow and investors incorporated the New Liverpool Salt Company at Salton, on the Southern Pacific main line, south of Mecca, CA.

Salt was deposited on approximately 1000 acres of dry sea bed (ancient Lake Cahuilla) by seepage from salt springs in the foothills. Although called a mine, the salt works actually resembled a harvest operation, needing only to cut salt from the field, crush it, bag it, and send it by narrow gauge rail to the nearby railway station at Salton.
The quality, quantity, and uniqueness of its gathering led to it being featured in an 1899 issue of Strand Magazine and a 1901 issue of the National Geographic Magazine.

salt plow published in “A Common Crystal” by John R. Watkins, Strand Magazine 1899

In “The Saline Deposits of California,” California State Mining Bureau, Bulletin No. 24 (1902), Gilbert E. Bailey, described the operation:
“The sight at the salt works is an interesting one, for thousands of tons are piled up like huge snow drifts,…Indians operate cable plows, harvesting over 700 tons of pure salt per day. A portable railroad conveys the salt to the works.

The [crystal] lake is constantly being supplied by numerous springs in the adjacent foothills, which flow into the basin and quickly evaporate, leaving deposits of very pure salt that vary from 10 to 20 inches in thickness.”

In February 1891, the Colorado overflowed its banks, into the Mexican delta, leaving water standing in low areas. The following June, it overflowed again, reaching the standing water; the resulting flood from the commingled waters reached the Salton Basin, creating a lake approximately 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, but only 5 feet deep. Being shallow, it evaporated, leaving the Salt Works intact.

However, in 1905-1907, when the Colorado River overwhelmed the California Development Co. intakes for the Imperial Canal, the diverted water flooded the Salton Basin creating the Salton Sea. First the salt field was submerged, then the salt plant, and then the town of Salton and the rail lines.

salt works
Salt Works at Salton, Summer 1905. USGS photo

WHAT WAS THAT? A WASHBOARD FOR A GIANT?

1940.pdf

A COOLING TOWER FOR CONSTRUCTION OF THE COACHELLA CANAL

In 1938-40, World War II was looming on the horizon, and water for domestic sources of food was a high priority. Part of the Boulder Canyon Project, the Coachella Branch of the All American Canal was being built to bring Colorado River water to the Coachella Valley where the water level in wells was dropping drastically. Due to the extreme summer temperatures in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, US Bureau of Reclamation specified the “placing season” for concrete to be October through May, using water no hotter than 90̊ F. However, high temperatures in April, May and October shortened the season.

Since construction took place in unsettled, desert lands, water was first pumped from part of the canal that had been built to storage tanks or reservoirs; then it was pumped via a second 4″pipe line, lying on the surface of the ground up to 11 miles, to the construction sites. In April and May of 1939, placing concrete came to a halt.

The ten foot tall evaporative cooling tower, pictured above, was created to re-circulate the water at least twice, through a 220 gallon holding tank. On May 11 & 13, 1940, water in the pipeline reached 133̊ & 130̊. On the 13th, using the cooling tower, the water was lowered to 84̊ while usage was 540 gallons per hour; use of the tower enabled concrete placement throughout the “season.”

Based on report in Reclamation Era magazine, October 1940.

CAHUILLA WALK-IN WATER WELL

walk-in well

 

If you are familiar with the history of the Cahuilla People, or the Coachella Valley, you probably are familiar with the water well shown above. Sources of water in the desert Valley were scarce, especially in its eastern end. A freshwater lake, Ancient Lake Cahuilla, was intermittently formed by flooding from the Colorado River, but when the river resumed its course south to the Sea of Cortez, the lake would slowly evaporate. In order to survive, the Desert Cahuilla were one of the few (if not the only) Native Americans to dig water wells.

This photo is generally credited to Charles C. Pierce, a photographer from Los Angeles. He probably took the photo on a trip to the Valley in October, 1903, which was the subject of Edmund Mitchell’s article, “On Desert Roaming” in The Strand Magazine (January 1905).* In the article, Mitchell does not name Pierce, but says one of the party of four was “a professional landscape photographer from Los Angeles” and all of the photos were credited to Pierce. Mitchell describes the party’s visit to the Martinez and Torres Reservations (Torres-Martinez Reservation) where they found “wells dug as inclined planes.” Pierce’s notes say the well was at Toro, and he was told it was dug about 75 years earlier (circa 1827).

George Wharton James’ The Wonders of the Colorado Desert (2 volumes, 1906) included a drawing (below) by Carl Eytel that is obviously from the same time period as the photograph.

Eytel well
Due to artesian wells being drilled in the eastern Coachella Valley, James describes the well as having a neglected appearance: “Brush and weeds grow freely around it and the water that accumulates has a yellow appearance and is somewhat brackish to the taste, so that even wild animals despise and forsake it.”

When J. Smeaton Chase wrote California Desert Trails (1919), about his travels in the desert, he describes the wells as having become “shapeless pits filled with mesquit and other brush.”

*Per the notes on the Huntington Library’s collection of Pierce photographs in Online Archive of California, “The most outstanding aspect of his business, however, was the vast picture library he amassed over three decades at work. Aside from making his own photographs, Pierce acquired the negatives and prints of other regional photographers such as Emil Ellis, Parker and Knight, Ramsey, Herve Friend, L.M. Clendenon, George P. Thresher, George Wharton James, and F.M. Huddleston. Pierce eradicated the existing signatures from the photographs, stamped his own name on the images, and organized the lot into subject files. The consequence of Pierce’s business practices assured that most, if not all, of the connections between the images and their original creator are now lost. However, the archive which he advertised as the ‘C.C. Pierce Collection of Rare, Historical and Curious Photographs, Illustrating California, the Pacific Coast and the Southwest,’ became an invaluable resource for researchers and boosters alike, all of whom came to Pierce’s shop to locate an image for their purposes.” https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt7199q9m3/

Fig Tree John, his Wife and Grandchildren

A legendary figure in the Coachella Valley, Fig Tree John, a Cahuilla, was often photographed wearing a top hat. In July 1901, Frances Anthony in “Below Sea-Level,” The Land of Sunshine, described him as “the distinguished owner of an orchard of fig trees.” In “On the Desert,” The Youth’s Instructor, October 1905, Jocie Wallace, described a visit to his fig plantation, thirty of his trees being at least thirty years old and “quite an orchard” of younger trees.  It is generally believed these were Mission fig trees, the first figs planted in the Coachella Valley.

Life was not to remain idyllic for his family, as the 1905-1907 flooding by the Colorado River that created the Salton Sea inundated his home at Fig Tree John Springs, on the west side of the Salton Sea, near the Riverside/Imperial County line. At the height of the flooding his land was under 5 feet of water, forcing him to move a few miles to Agua Dulce (near Oasis). After the water settled in the Sea, it is said he returned to visit his old home almost every day, but never moved back.

Fig Tree John, Wife & Grandchildren,

This photo of his family is floating around the internet and pinned on Pinterest. with the label, “1934” and a Salton Sea Database Project logo in the lower right corner. In fact, Fig Tree John passed away in 1927. I found it printed in Wallace’s article, published October 17, 1905!

The Caravansary Hotel, Mecca, Calif.

As I write this, it is summer in the Coachella Valley, and last night the wind blew from the south, bringing humidity from the Gulf of California and l’eau de Salton Sea.

This is a dramatic change from early articles about Mecca, California. A stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad, the town was originally called Walters and was primarily a shipping point for ore from the mines to the north (there will be more on Walters in a later blog post).

With the drilling of artesian wells in the lower Coachella Valley and the introduction of date palms, Arabian names came into vogue; in the early 1900s, developers bought the town site, changing the name to Mecca. In 1904, the Mecca Promotion Committee issued a pamphlet predicting “Mecca is destined to become a famous winter resort as it lies just on the edge of the Colorado Desert, and the dry climate affords great relief to person suffering from all pulmonary and asthmatic diseases.” The south wing of the Caravansary Hotel had been built.

Caravansary

1904 phamphlet

In the January 1922 Good Health article , “The Colorado Desert,” Dr. John Harvey Kellogg praised Mecca, California, as a place to enjoy the benefits of “pure, dry air.” He describes Mecca as a small town with two to three hundred people and a hotel on the cottage plan, comprised of an adobe central building and 15/20 bungalows. “The climate of Mecca is ideal. The air is always dry and bracing. The sun shines everyday, good food can be obtained, and as a place for out-of-door living, it is unexcelled.”

Good Health.pdf

Good Health.pdf

The two photos above are from the Good Health article.

s-l1600cropped

This undated postcard has no copyright notice.  Judging by the growth of the palm trees near the main building, it was probably published around 1930.

Today, like many small towns in the US, Mecca has been bypassed by the highways.  It is a small agricultural community that mainly makes news when the migrant workers come to town, or stories are written about the problems of the shrinking Salton Sea.  There are no hotels in town, but it is still a beautiful part of the world.

While it is true Dr. Kellogg promoted healthy living and improved diet, his abhorrent belief in eugenics has (thankfully) been discredited; Good Health served as a both a health magazine and promotion for “race betterment.”  Eugenics was not mentioned in his article on the Colorado Desert, and I refer only to its value on the history of the Caravansary Hotel.  Mecca today has a diverse racial makeup, which is largely Hispanic.