The Southern Pacific Railroad completed tracks from Los Angeles to Indio, California, in 1876; the following year the rails were extended to Yuma, and by 1883, the “Sunset Route” from Los Angeles to New Orleans was completed, opening a new route for California produce to reach markets.
As part of the railroad line, a few miles south of Indio, a 3 car side spur was built at the site of present day City of Coachella. From there mesquite & ironwood were loaded onto boxcars for stove wood. Around 1900, Jason L. Rector pitched his tent and began harvesting wood for his employers, the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. And the A. N. Towne Estate. In 1901, he quite his job, tapped a well at an artesian spring, built an adobe house, and in 1902 organized the Coachella Valley Produce Association.*
With irrigation now possible, cantaloupe became “king.” Indeed, Rector’s well was located on Cantaloupe Avenue (now Grapefruit Blvd./Highway 111).
How did Woodspur become Coachella?
There is debate about how the name came about, but there is no debate that the people in the area did not like the name Woodspur. The main two theories are that Coachella was a compromise (or cross) between Cahuilla (or Coahuilla, name of the local tribe) and Conchilla (Spanish, after the small shells found all over the area from when it had been underwater), or that it was a printer’s typographical error. The oldest “first person” account I have found is a letter from Elmer Proctor.**
What is in a Name? Fast forward to the late Twentieth Century, when annual the world famous Coachella Music Festival began. *** Today the two names, Woodstock and Coachella, are often linked, but could it have been Woodstock and Woodspur?
* From the biography of Jason L. Rector in History of Riverside County California with Biographical Sketches by Elmer, Wallace Holmes, Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, 1912.
Since Mr. Rector was still alive and active in 1912, I assume this information is correct.
**Desert Magazine, Palm Desert, November 1945, page 33; excerpts from letter to the editor from Elmo Proctor:
“A United Stites department of the interior engineer (I think his name was Mendenhall), by government authority, had made a survey of the Salton Sea quadrangle and it was suggested that then was an auspicious time to give the valley a more appropriate name. Suggestions were asked for. The name “Conchilla,” submitted by Mr. Tingman, was chosen by a vote of the few prospectors, homesteaders and railroaders present in the small gathering.
I was present when the maps arrived in Indio giving the valley its new name. Must have been about 1898. Before that it had been called “Salton Sea Sink.” I was a clerk in A. G. Tingman’s store, one of the two (the other belonged to a Mr. Talent, also in Indio) that served railroad and desert people for over a hundred miles in all directions.
I well remember how badly put out Mr. Tingman was when the maps arrived and it was found that the engineer’s longhand was so unreadable that the name had been interpreted “Coachella.”
When I was in elementary school in Coachella, the little shell version (Conchilla) was what I was told.
*** The festival is actually held in a still rural area annexed by the City of Indio.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
The two photos above are from the Good Health article.
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.