Tuesday, May 04, 2021

An unsolved mystery in early Huntington Beach

San Pedro Harbor, circa 1890. (Courtesy WaterAndPower.org)

In May 1891, a mysterious man with a gunshot wound was found dead on the shore at Shell Beach -- now called Huntington Beach. It was the first time that sparsely inhabited corner of Orange County made the newspapers in any significant way, and the details of the story inspire head-scratching.

Visitors to today's Huntington Beach were so few in that era that it took days for anyone to notice the body lying in the surf. It was discovered late in the day on May 14th, and a phone call was placed to Orange County Sheriff Theo Lacy the following morning. Upon arrival, it was found that the dead man had a large bullet hole in his head. By later that same day, the body was in Anaheim, undergoing an autopsy by Coroner Frank Ey.

According to the Los Angeles Herald, "The deceased, when examined, had no air in the lungs whatever, one of the surest signs that dissolution must have taken place before the body reached the water."

The following day, the Los Angeles Times reported the man was "about 55 years of age. He had gray hair and whiskers, the latter trimmed close to the face. His weight was about one hundred and seventy pounds. The body was dressed in a blue suit of clothes and checked shirt. The hole in the head was made by a large-sized bullet, probably a Winchester Rifle ball. There was $65 on the body when it was found. The money was securely sewed with a fine wire in the pocket of the pants and so secreted as to have almost been overlooked by the Coroner. There is no clew as to the circumstances of the death or identity of the deceased."

Orange County Coroner Frank Ey. (Courtesy First American Corp)

In fact, the body was that of David Crockett, a baker with a hazy past. 

Around May fourth Crockett had arrived in San Pedro from Los Angeles and checked in at Proche's Hotel & Restaurant. He said he was from Sacramento, but that his relatives lived in Springfield, Illinois. While in town, he idled about and unsuccessfully searched for someone willing write out his will for him. Finding no takers, he returned to Los Angeles. 

On May 9th, he returned to San Pedro, went into a bank, and drew out an amount of cash. That evening, he asked a hotel clerk if she would write his will for him. When she refused, he said she would soon discover why he'd made the request. Hours later, Crockett's hat and coat (with about $6 left in the pockets) were found abandoned on a pile of lumber on the San Pedro Lumber Company wharf.

San Pedro locals presumed he had killed himself. Once in the water, unusually strong tides that night would have pulled him past Smith's Island and out of the bay, and the usual down-coast currents could easily have carried him to Shell Beach.

Less than a week later, Orange County, Sheriff Lacy and Santa Ana Constable Jack Landell were investigating their mystery victim, absolutely confident they had a case of homicide on their hands. They didn't make their suspicions public immediately, not wanting to tip off the killer. Soon, they were on the trail of a man who had been on Smith's Island (just inside the entrance to San Pedro Bay), but who had left by boat about the same time as Crockett's disappearance.

Orange County Sheriff Theophilus “Theo” Lacy

Meanwhile photographs of the dead man were distributed around Southern California, and soon a positive identification was made. 

Now the San Pedro authorities had a body to go with their supposed suicide. Likewise, the Orange County authorities switched tracks completely, dropped their murder investigation, and adopted the suicide theory wholeheartedly.

But more than 120 years later, some of the facts still don't seem to jibe. 

Perhaps the missing rifle and bullet ended up at the bottom of the bay. But how likely is it that Crockett shot himself in the head with a Winchester rifle? Not only would that be fairly awkward, but one would think the lengthy news articles concerning his suspected suicide would have made mention of him owning, buying, or carrying a hard-to-conceal rifle. 

And where did the gun and bullet go? Into the bay? 

And more importantly, how could a man die from a gunshot on a wharf, have time for all the last traces of air to leave his lungs, and only then fall into bay -- All without leaving anything more than a hat and coat behind as evidence? At the very least, there should have been blood on the wharf.

Certainly, Crockett was preparing for his own death. But was he planning suicide, or did he know someone was coming to kill him?

And most of all, what was the rest of Crockett's story?

Perhaps some intrepid historian will stumble across at least a few more of the answers someday.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Why is W. H. Spurgeon called “Uncle Billy?”

The ever-bewhiskered William H. Spurgeon

I was recently asked why local historians sometimes refer to Santa Ana’s founding father, William Henry Spurgeon (1829-1915), as “Uncle Billy.” 

“’Uncle Billy’ seems too familiar,” writes one of my favorite readers. “Contemporaries may have called him that (and he may have even encouraged it), but it just seems weird to be referring to him that way now.  At this point, there's not anyone alive who would have called him that.”

It's a fair point. But one might also point out that Spurgeon was (as a very public figure and politician) known by the public as Uncle Billy and was often referred to as such in the press. It’s a bit like folk artist Anna Mary Robertson Moses, who was widely known as “Grandma Moses” and who is still regularly referred to in that way almost sixty years after her death. Likewise, at least some contingent of locals have been calling William Spurgeon “Uncle Billy” since at least the early 1890s.

My aforementioned reader replies that it would at least be an improvement to refer to him as Uncle Billy Spurgeon -- not just Uncle Billy -- since he's not as nationally well known as Grandma Moses and thus requires additional identification. Again, a  fair point.

But let's take a step back and look at the man himself,...

W. H. Spurgeon was born in Kentucky, raised in Missouri, and first came to California in 1852 to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush. He returned to Missouri in 1859 but in 1865 returned overland to California with his wife Martha, his parents, and other relatives. When Martha died in 1867 he returned to Missouri again before finally coming back to California for good in 1869.

The third structure to bear the title of The Spurgeon Building

In 1868 and 1869, farmer Jacob Ross, Sr. bought a few thousand acres of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana from the heirs of the Yorba family. Upon his return to California, Spurgeon and a business associate, Major Ward Bradford, were looking for a place to establish a new town. An engineer who’d worked on partitioning the Yorbas’ rancho extolled the merits of that land to Spurgeon. So, in October 1869, Spurgeon and Bradford purchased seventy four acres from Ross for $594. The mustard on the land grew so high that Spurgeon had to climb a sycamore tree to see the property on which he’d just spent most of his life savings.

Bradford briefly owned the west half of the land before selling his interest and moving out of the area. Spurgeon owned the east half and made big plans. But it was initially a rough, pioneer life. In 1872, Spurgeon married Jennie English, who later recalled moving into the first house in town, at Sycamore St. and Second St, "which as yet had no roof, no doors and no windows."

Spurgeon mapped out a 24-block town site, which he named Santa Ana in honor of the old rancho. The original town boundaries were First St., Spurgeon St., Seventh St. and West St. (now Broadway). A street adjacent to the tree Spurgeon had climbed was appropriately named Sycamore. 

As the town grew, Spurgeon remained its chief booster and benefactor. He built the first road into town, he sold lots at low prices to encourage newcomers, and he asked various businesses to relocate to Santa Ana. He also started the town’s first store, the First National Bank of Santa Ana, the Santa Ana Gas & Electric Co., and the Santa Ana post office, where he served as Postmaster. 

Mrs. William Spurgeon, III and William Spurgeon IV plant a sycamore near the site of the original climbed by Uncle Billy. Historian Jim Sleeper (left) looks on. (Oct. 1976)

Spurgeon dug the town’s first artesian well and founded the town’s water company. He built roads from Anaheim to Santa Ana and on to Tustin, as well as the first road from Santa Ana to the coast. 

He built the Spurgeon Building at Fourth and Sycamore (the first of several with that name) and finagled to get his town included on the stagecoach line. He then served as the town’s Wells Fargo agent. He also sat on the boards of the Santa Ana Land Improvement Co., the Santa Ana Valley Walnut Growers’ Association, and the Santa Ana & Newport Railroad, and served for three years as president of the critically important Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Co. (SAVI). 

Perhaps most critically, in the late 1870s Spurgeon convinced the Southern Pacific Railroad to bring its Anaheim line down into Santa Ana, bypassing the rival communities of Orange and Tustin and ensuring Santa Ana’s continued growth and prosperity.

It also quickly became one of the area’s most important pollical movers and shakers. In 1877 and 1878 he served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, representing the portion of the county that included Santa Ana.

When the City of Santa Ana incorporated in 1886, Spurgeon was the obvious choice as the town’s first mayor. The following year – despite being an ardent Democrat in the Republican-leaning 78th District – he was also elected to the State Assembly. Over the next few years, Spurgeon’s combined efforts with Republican James McFadden helped lead to the 1889 creation of the County of Orange. This new county had Santa Ana as its county seat and William H. Spurgeon as the chairman of its first Board of Supervisors. Later, Spurgeon sold land to the county (at a discount) for a courthouse, and Orange County’s government has been centered in that part of town ever since.

The Spurgeons with a giant rose bush, Santa Ana, 1913.

An early use of Spurgeon’s nickname, “Uncle Billy,” appeared in a June 25, 1892 Los Angeles Times article about a meeting of local Democrat party bigwigs. It mentions that “Uncle Billy Spurgeon was the unanimous choice . . . for grand marshal of the evening.” 

Two years later, the Los Angeles Herald (Aug 14, 1894) referred to “Uncle Billy” in an article about Santa Ana Democrats, and never even mentioned his full name, assuming readers would already know.

In fact, newspapers from the Anaheim Gazette to the Santa Ana Standard soon began frequently referring to him casually as Uncle Billy or Uncle Billy Spurgeon.

The reasoning behind the moniker isn’t spelled out in print until a 1907 biographical article in the Santa Ana Register, which cited many of the accomplishments of “Uncle Billy Spurgeon, as he is lovingly called by all who know him.”

Indeed, because of all his efforts – and perhaps also because of his personality – the citizens of the burgeoning City of Santa Ana came to feel a real affection and kinship for their energetic, resourceful, and benevolent patriarch. From those warm feelings, it seems, sprang the moniker “Uncle Billy.”

Those who have studied local history – from Carey McWilliams to Terry Stephenson to Phil Brigandi – have run across this nickname countless times in newspapers and pioneer accounts. Accordingly, their own works sometimes reference “Uncle Billy” as well.

I'll admit I've used the nickname myself -- a habit I picked up from Brigandi, who picked it up from from Jim Sleeper (and possibly Don Meadows), who, in turn, undoubtedly learned it from a wide array of old-timers. 

Is it one of those quirky local mannerism that helps tie us together as a community across the generations? Is it an ongoing tribute to an avuncular pioneer? Or is it just weird and inappropriate? 

You be the judge.

Friday, April 30, 2021

El Salvador Park, Santa Ana

A modern photo of the community center at El Salvador Park

Although not one of the City of Santa Ana’s oldest parks, El Salvador Park – located on what’s now West Civic Center Drive in the heart of the Artesia-Pilar barrio (a.k.a. Colonia Artesia) -- is among its most historic. 

Plans for the park began in the mid-1950s, and city documents from early 1956 refer to its location by the working title "Eighth and Artesia Park Site." By October the name was abbreviated to "Artesia Park." And by 1957, construction on the park was well under way.

At their April 1, 1957 meeting, the City Council not only approved more upgrades for Artesia Park but also (in a seemingly unrelated action) unanimously approved a resolution requested by the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce, "endorsing and supporting the establishment of the 'People to People' Program with the City of Santa Ana, El Salvador." People-to-People was a sister-city-type program organized by the U.S. State Department, intended to foster friendship between nations. 

Almost a year later, at a Feb. 3, 1958 meeting, the Council made another decision about their under-development park: "…At the oral request of E. H. Armstrong, Chairman of the People to People Program, … Artesia Park was renamed El Salvador Park.” 

The same proclamation also stipulated that “March 2, 1958 be proclaimed as El Salvador Day, as would “the first Sunday of March of each year thereafter.” The Council also went “on record as officially recognizing the People to People Program,” and directed City staff to authorize the “purchase a bronze plaque and [to] place same in El Salvador Park."

In Fall 1958, the City of Santa Ana purchased the final parcel needed to develop El Salvador Park. They then hired the architectural firm of Finnegan & Wilde to design the community building and in Nov. 1959 hired the R. L. Steinmetz Co. to build it. In June 1960, the city took bids on the construction of a parking lot there. Things were clearly taking shape. 

By later that same year, (according to locals who remember it,) a young Edward "Ted" Kennedy used the new park as a venue for a political rally in support of his presidential candidate brother, John F. Kennedy.

By January 1961, events were being held somewhat regularly in the new community center, and in 1962 Steinmetz was hired again to add handball courts to the park.

But El Salvador Park was destined to be home to much more than sports, playgrounds, and the usual community center fare. Over the years, it would be a bustling hub of activity – both good and bad. Wedged between John C. Fremont Elementary School, the little Corner Grocery store, and rows of modest homes, the park was the scene of low-rider cruise nights, family reunions, and political and social events of varying degrees of significance. 

On Sept. 12, 1970, the park played host to a large march memorializing journalist and activist Ruben Salazar, who’d been killed a couple weeks earlier in East L.A. during a protest by the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War. 

Two years later, in early June 1972, about 250 primarily Latino and Black students from local high schools and junior high schools ditched class and marched to the park to protest school conditions. Their demands included hiring faculty, administration, and staff that reflected “the ethnic makeup of the community;” the addition of community oversite to prevent “injustices,” and the implementation of various measures to limit the school’s ability to discipline students. Massive suspensions at Valley High School and Smedley Intermediate School had helped spark the unrest. Ironically, many of the students participating in the protest march were immediately disciplined (i.e. given suspensions).

Cesar Chavez at El Salvador Park, 1972.
 On Oct. 19,1972, Cesar Chavez, noted activist and director of United Farm Workers, gave a brief speech against state ballot Proposition 22 at a rally at El Salvador Park. The controversial proposition, as Chavez saw it, would have limited farm workers' rights to unionize or strike. (It was defeated at the polls the following month.) Chavez spoke in both Spanish and English. Soft drinks and tamales were served. (Local historian Manny Escamilla says Cesar Chavez also spoke at El Salvador Park once during the Delano Grape Strike, which took place between 1965 and 1970.)

Since at least the late 1960s, the park has also been known as a hub for crime – from arson to narcotics to murder. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the gang known as F-Troop and the Mexican Mafia controlled the park. Both the L.A. Times and the Santa Ana Police Department called it "one of Santa Ana's deadliest neighborhoods."

In 1992, El Salvador Park was the site of a gathering of 200 members of fifty warring local Mexican-American gangs, called by Mexican Mafia leader Peter "Sana" Ojeda (a.k.a. “The O.C. Godfather”). It was said to be a truce, but police surveillance discovered another agenda. Ojeda addressed those assembled and told them to end drive-by shootings and to demand "taxation" from neighborhood drug dealers. It turned out this meeting was just a test run. Because it proved successful for the Mexican Mafia, they soon held similar meetings across Southern California. It was a critical turning point in the rise of the Mexican Mafia, which made gang crime more efficient (if no less lethal), much less visible to the public, and less blatant a target for police and politicians. 

According to journalist Sam Quinones – who has long covered gangs in California – this event ultimately changed a number of things. First, property values in old gang neighborhood went up – a boon to working-class folks whose homes were suddenly worth more. Secondly, those higher prices drove people on society’s margins out of previously low-rent homes and into homelessness. But it also made the average person on the street safer from violent crime. At least on the surface, professionalizing gang activity helped clean up the streets. 

For a host of reasons, events in unassuming little El Salvador Park have played a significant role in the course of California's history.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Japanese in O.C.: A brief introduction

At work in Orange County's once-burgeoning celery industry.

One occasionally hears claims (often made by Angelenos) that “Orange County isn’t very diverse.” But anyone who's spent more than a weekend here could tell you differently. People have been coming here from all over the world since long before this land was Orange County. The Japanese are among those who arrived early, stayed, contributed significantly, and became part of the very fabric of the region. 

Although Japanese laborers came to Orange County as early as the 1880s, the greater influx arrived around 1900. Most were from agricultural areas of Japan south or west of Tokyo, and their skills and talents were needed in a young county whose economy hinged almost entirely on farming. Many Japanese immigrants began their lives in California as field workers and gradually became farmers in their own right. Within ten years they were doing most of the work in our lucrative celery fields, were leasing land as sharecroppers, and were introducing the area to crops like strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers. In 1908, a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between Japan and the U.S. prohibited the immigration of more Japanese laborers, but allowed the wives (including “picture brides”), children and parents of those already here to come to the United States. Unlike the earlier influx of Chinese laborers, the Japanese started families here and put down roots. 

Garden Grove Japanese Language School, 1991 (Now demolished.)

Also unlike the Chinese, the Japanese-Americans (a.k.a. Nikkei) were not primarily clustered in just a few small neighborhoods. Although certain communities, like Talbert (Fountain Valley), had more Japanese residents than others, Nikkei could be found across much of Orange County. 

Instead of gathering in “Japantowns” the community was brought together through involvement in groups like Japanese farming associations, women’s clubs, sports clubs (for kendo, judo, baseball, etc.) and Japanese prefectural associations (based on which region of Japan one’s family hailed from). Children, although American-born, were sent to Japanese language schools in the afternoons or on Saturdays, to learn the language and culture of their ancestors. 

Dedication of Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church, Warner Ave., Dec. 9, 1934.

Churches were also extremely important factors in creating and maintaining a Nikkei community in Orange County. They were social and cultural hubs as well as spiritual ones. The earliest such churches here were the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church (in what’s now Huntington Beach), the Anaheim Japanese Free Methodist Church, and the Orange County Buddhist Church and Japanese Language School in Talbert. The ministers of these churches often also served in a broader community leadership role, providing advice and mediation on a wide variety of issues. (All three of these churches remain today, although both the Presbyterians and Methodists have removed the word “Japanese” from their names.)

In 1935, city and county leaders held a banquet in Santa Ana to honor their Nikkei friends and neighbors. Obviously, not all of Orange County's roughly 1,700 Japanese Americans attended. But representatives of five local Japanese organizations were on hand, as well as prominent local famers and Los Angeles’ Consul General of Japan. There was entertainment and traditional Japanese dance, but the real point of the evening – as driven home by one prominent speaker after another – was to underscore the growing friendship and interdependence between Orange County’s Anglo population and the once-seemingly-foreign Nikkei community. 

Japanese Community Center & School, Crystal Cove. Built 1932. Is "Cottage 34" today.

Only eight years later, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, President Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 9066, which ordered everyone of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast to be rounded up and forced into incarceration camps. (Most from Orange County were sent to Poston, Arizona.) In this flagrant and massive violation of civil liberties, about 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their homes and land, including about 1,900 Orange Countians. Most were U.S. citizens. In some cases, neighbors held their land, equipment and animals for them until they could return. Far more often, they lost their homes, businesses and farms forever. And while some returned to Orange County after the war, the community was never the same again. 

Those who did return found a rapidly changing region, with less agriculture and a booming population of newcomers who often looked upon the Japanese more as vanquished enemies than as old friends and neighbors. Still, the Japanese- American population grew to include some of the region’s most prominent individuals, from Superior Court judges to successful business owners to elected officials.    

Living quarters, Poston, Arizona, during World War II

After raising $50,000 amongst themselves, in 1970 a consortium of local Japanese-American families created a beautiful Japanese garden and tea house adjacent to the shining new symbol of Orange County government – the Orange County Central Justice Center in Santa Ana. Despite all that had happened to them, they presented this magnanimous gift in gratitude to the county and in honor of their pioneer parents and grandparents who helped build the county. 

Today, more than 31,000 people of Japanese descent live in Orange County. A small percentage of them are descended from our pioneer Nikkei families. And like most locals, too few fully appreciate the important role Japanese-Americans played in shaping and building Orange County. 

Japanese garden dedication, Santa Ana Civic Center, Nov. 15, 1970


[Author's note: My thanks to Patti Hirahara, Stephanie George, Blythe Wilson and Doug McIntosh for their help. For more on the history of the Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Orange County, see the book Sowing Dreams, Cultivating Lives : Nikkei Farmers in Pre-World War II Orange County by Stephanie George and Carlota Haider. For more about Wintersburg, see Mary Urashima's blog: Historic Wintersburg or her book of the same title. To dig even deeper and do your own research, visit the amazing collections at the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral & Public History at CSU Fullerton.]

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Santa Ana Winds still blow

Detail, 1936 Orange County historical map by Gladyce Ashby and Fred Groos for WPA
When Orange Countians brag to relatives “back east” about our perfect weather, we usually fail to mention our meteorological dirty little secret: The Santa Ana winds. This odd phenomenon is among Southern California’s most characteristic and most unpleasant features. The winds have such an impact that they permeate our history, folklore and popular culture: From Bad Religion’s “Los Angeles Is Burning,” all the way back to Richard Henry Dana’s description of an 1835 visit marred by “hellish winds that scourge this land from the north-east.” 

The Santa Anas begin when high and low pressure systems are arranged in such a way that thin, high-altitude air is pushed rapidly down the southwestern slopes of the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains.  As the air descends it becomes more compressed, which both heats and dries the air. In short, it’s miserable.

These hot, sporadic gales from the northeast drive our worst wildfires, uproot trees, ravage crops, damage roofs, chap lips until they’re bloody, turn skin and eyes dry and itchy, send the allergic into paroxysms, and send asthmatics to the hospital. In the days before eucalyptus wind breaks, it was common for the Santa Anas to flatten whole structures, as they did with El Modena’s first Quaker church in 1887 and with one of Tustin’s still-under-construction blimp hangars in 1942. 
The winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon (shown here around the 1910s), which runs from the east edge of Placentia to the west edge of Corona. The canyon, in turn, is named for the Santa Ana River running through it.
Some even believe that the dry winds have an effect on our personalities. Raymond Chandler, describing the Santa Ana winds in his 1938 short story “Red Wind,” wrote, “On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.” 

The winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon where they blow with tremendous force and from whence they seem to emanate. The earliest published reference yet found to “Santa Ana winds” was in the April 12, 1873 edition of the Anaheim Gazette. In fact, it was likely the early pioneers of Anaheim who gave the wind its name.
The Santa Ana winds have driven most of Orange County’s worst brushfires, including the terrible Laguna Beach Fire of Oct. 1993.
Meanwhile, the people of the City of Santa Ana have never been pleased to have their name attached to such an unpleasant phenomenon. Alternate names have been applied over time, including devil winds, zantannas, northers, red winds or east winds. But no name ever replaced “Santa Ana.” 

In 1887, the Santa Ana Herald’s editor began promoting the name “Riverside winds” as an alternative.  Historian Jim Sleeper pointed out that it really would have been a better name, since Santa Ana is “only a recipient and not the source of these flatulent blasts of Mother Nature.”

The Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce and local real estate salesmen began complaining about the moniker “Santa Ana winds” as early as 1902. But it wasn’t until 1922 that Santa Ana resident Cotton Mather (a descendant of THE Cotton Mather,) proposed changing the unpleasant wind’s name to Santana, to lessen its perceived connection to the city. He told the Santa Ana Register, erroneously, that santana is an Indian word meaning windstorm, and he encouraged local newspapers to start using the new name. Although most people continued to call the winds by their correct name, one occasionally still hears an unwitting reference to Mather’s “Santana” P.R. ploy.
Firefighters clear brush as the wind-driven Green River Fire (1948) bears down on a Silverado Canyon church.
For thousands or maybe millions of years, the Santa Anas have blown violently a few times a year – primarily between October and March. But if it seems like the winds have become more frequent (albeit a bit less violent) in recent years, you may be onto something. Some scientists believe that climate change is not only expanding the Santa Ana wind “season,” but is also producing drier winds. Santa Ana conditions seem to be rapidly becoming the new normal.  If this keeps up, we may all have to move “back east” where the weather’s better.
Damage to oil derrick from Santa Ana winds (Courtesy Santa Ana Public Library)


[Much of this article was drawn from several earlier articles by the author, which appeared in Orange Coast magazine, the OCHS’ County Courier, and the O.C. History Roundup blog, and appeared in a similar combined form later in the March 2018 County Connection newsletter.]

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Desert Jim Mine, Knott’s Berry Farm

The Desert Jim Mine, Ghost Town, 1940s.
 When Walter Knott opened his faux “Ghost Town” on his berry farm in 1941, one of the original points of interest was the Desert Jim Mine (a.k.a. Desert Jim's Diggin's) – a tableau located between the Ghost Town Grill and the Drug Store on the south side of Main Street. It appeared as if a deep mine shaft (actually a shallow hole) had been sunk between the two buildings, with a hoist and various equipment at the top. 

The scene was designed by Ghost Town’s first artist/designer Paul Swartz, but within a year or so it bore an explanatory panel designed by Swartz’s replacement, Knott’s longtime in-house artist Paul von Klieben. The panel read,…

"DESERT JIM'S DISCOVERY 80 YEARS AGO -- A tiny vein of high grade ore kept Jim hopefully working for 20 years, driving a 700-foot tunnel through solid rock -- Just enough gold to provide a living and toiling ever onward he dreamed of the riches the widening of that little vein would bring.

"The crude homemade wheelbarrow and the little dump car helped get the ore out. Sorted, the high grade carried to the arrastra down by a spring half a mile away was ground to powder from which the gold was extracted with quicksilver. This exhibit, arrastra, wheelbarrow, dump car, rocks, etc., depict a real mining venture 45 miles across the desert from what is now Baker, California.

"Picture the labor and patience required to get gold from the desert with the few crude tools used by Desert Jim. With this crude blower he made his own tools."

Paul von Klieben drawing from the Ghost Town News Souvenir Edition, circa 1942.

This tableau in Knott’s Ghost Town reflected a very particular slice of California history. As the Gold Rush faded out, prospectors began looking farther and farther afield for better diggin’s. By the early 1860s, many were searching for gold and silver in the Mojave. But making a living there proved grueling. The logistics of bringing in water, fuel and other supplies were extremely difficult. High-quality ore was scarce, and the available equipment made mining slow and arduous. 

By the mid-1860s, the desert mining boom was already waning, with investors becoming more reticent and with Indian hostilities increasing. Then, starting around the 1880s, the yield from many of the remaining productive mines began to decrease.  The mines that survived were mostly large-scale operations.

A blurb about Knott’s Desert Jim Mine, printed in the December 1941 edition of Desert Magazine, stated that the "wheelbarrow, tiny dump cart and remaining tools" were all brought to Knott's from the original Desert Jim Mine site, "40 miles . . . from what is now Baker."

A small feature about the display in the Ghost Town News Souvenir Edition (published at Knott's Berry Farm, circa 1942) read, "Come on and I'll show you JIM'S MINE. That's a nice tribute to Jim. You know how some of them fellows get the fever -- just pack up and leave everything -- to hunt sudden riches. It says on the board that old Jim located enough gold to keep him going until he died. Well, we all have a right to pick our own way through life . . ."

The accompanying illustration by von Klieben later also decorated the menu of the adjacent Ghost Town Grill.

Paul Swartz hoists Walter Knott out of the Desert Jim Mine, Ghost Town, circa 1940.

Work to expand the Grill began in early 1953. According to the February 1953 issue of the Knotty Post employee magazine, the plan was to add seventy-five new seats to the restaurant and that "the space between the Grill and the Print Shop [the same building as the Drug Store] will be utilized as will a portion of the old Steak House kitchen behind the print shop."  At this time, von Klieben’s replacement, artist Otheto Weston, filled in the Desert Jim Mine and designed and built a new entrance for the restaurant. 

Attempts to locate the original circa 1860s-1880s Desert Jim Mine, forty to forty-five miles from Baker, have not yet panned out. But numerous clues, near misses, and possible leads for further research have come to light.

The only known/documented Desert Jim Mine I could find was near Surprise, Arizona, circa 1883, and seems unlikely to be the correct mine. 

Weston's plan for the new Ghost Town Grill entrance, displacing Desert Jim, 1953.
Three mines closer to the target: Jim, Jim #1 and Jim #2, appear to be roughly the correct distance from Baker (T 19/20 N, R 9 E, SBBM), and were located near what’s now the Kingston Range Wilderness nature preserve. However, these mines lack the “Desert” half of the “Desert Jim” name that would clinch the connection. 

Further muddying the waters, a good number of mines named “Lucky Jim” have also come and gone, including some in the Mojave. Indeed, in helping me search for the Desert Jim Mine, both desert mining historian Larry Vredenburgh and Ken Stack of Stack’s Liberty Ranch came up with “Lucky Jim” as the closest match. 

Stack found references to a Lucky Jim Mine, near Carbonate Peak in the Old Woman Mountains of San Bernardino County, about fifty miles southeast of Baker (34.57944 - 115.13583). This mine, he says, “was worked for just about twenty years,” matching the description on Knott’s Desert Jim Mine panel. “Seems it was abandoned in 1930, so the opportunity to pick up any scattered equipment would have been good for Knott.”
A tourist poses in Ghost Town. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)
Vredenburgh found references to a “700 foot long” tunnel (also matching the panel’s description) at the “the Lucky [Jim] Mine owned by a J. E. Stevenson, located about thirteen miles southeast of Baker.” Note the substantially different distance from Baker.

Suffice it to say that the original mine’s exact name and location bear further investigation. 

But if, as Knott’s claimed, “Desert Jim” indeed worked his own little mine in the Mojave for twenty years, beginning around 1860 and ending around 1880, old Jim was undoubtedly a tenacious, rugged, and optimistic soul, active throughout the halcyon years (such as they were) of small-time prospectors working little claims in the California desert. 
Close-up of Jim's dump car. (Courtesy Chris Merritt) 
As such, the little scene was the perfect fit for Ghost Town, in which Walter Knott used the setting of a forgotten mining town to not only entertain the public but also promote the ideals of hard work, perseverance, entrepreneurism and independence.


[Thanks to Eric Lynxwiler and Chris Merritt for letting me pick their brains and photo collections; to Ken Stack, Eric Plunkett, and Larry Vredenburgh for searching through old mining reports and other dusty tomes for me; to Allen Palovik for the technical assist; and to Steve Lech and Nick Cataldo for pointing me toward additional clues.]

Friday, April 09, 2021

Orange County’s Last Train Robbery

Wanted poster for Orange County’s last train robber. (Courtesy UCI)
Although cattle and cowboys still roamed the hills of Orange County in the 1920s, the days of the “Wild West” were largely over. Covered wagons, Indian villages and shootouts in the streets were by then the stuff of Tom Mix movies. And certainly it was assumed that the era of train robbery was over.

But on Aug. 24, 1925, sometime between a 7:40 p.m. departure from Oceanside and an 8:42 p.m. arrival in Santa Ana, the baggage and mail car of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway’s Number 75 train became the scene of a robbery and murder. 

The bandit first climbed on top of the already-rolling car and pried open a ventilator. Express agent Elmer Ellsworth Campbell, 62, was inside. As Campbell looked up to see what the noise was, he was shot through the head from above. As the train rattled swiftly down the tracks, the criminal attached a rope ladder to the ventilator with army picket pins and climbed down next to the car’s door. While Campbell lay unconscious in a spreading pool of blood, the robber used a hatchet to break a window in the door and force entry. 

Although ruthless, the criminal had clearly never robbed a train before. Had he known his “business,” he would have been aware of which kinds of mail bags held items of potential value and which did not. Instead, he went through a lot of bags of worthless mail and never disturbed any bags of registered mail. He also came unprepared to blow open the car’s safe. 

Authorities later said the criminal probably expected to find a large shipment of gold from the San Diego back country headed for the San Francisco mint. Instead, he seems to have come away with $27 from an express company strong box. After taking the cash, he escaped through the far door of the car, either immediately upon arrival in Santa Ana or while still en route.
The Santa Fe (ATSF) depot in Oceanside, 1931. (Courtesy Kansas Historical Society)
As the train pulled into Santa Ana, the baggage master, Tim Hill, pointed out the rope ladder and broken window to telegrapher Frank Claypool. The two entered the car and discovered Campbell, unconscious but still alive. Soon the depot was awash in policemen and railroad detectives. Campbell was sent to Santa Ana Valley Hospital where he died several days later without ever having regained consciousness. 

Some stories indicate that more than $2,000 was taken from the mail sacks, but contemporary accounts indicate that the postmaster had no idea what was in the mail on the #75. He wasn’t even able to say with certainty that any mail had been taken.

Some speculated that two robbers had worked in tandem on the train and that at least one or two others had assisted in the planning and getaway stages of the crime. 

The Santa Fe Railroad and the American Railway Express Co. each offered thousand dollar rewards for the arrest and conviction of the assailants. Reward posters and embellished stories spread across the Southwest, with some newspapers even claiming that a $10,000 reward had been offered for the criminals, dead or alive. 

The public was understandably eager to provide “tips.” It began with reports from Riverside, Lake Elsinore, Santa Ana and San Onofre of a large dark-colored car racing through their respective towns late on the night of the robbery. Another tip led to the arrest of two known Los Angeles criminals and Santa Ana hairdresser Pearl Anderson, who were all later released.
The Santa Fe depot in Santa Ana, 1925. (Courtesy Rob Richardson)
Later, a supply sergeant at the Monterey Presidio – freshly arrested for trying to rob a theater safe – claimed his commanding officer, First Lieutenant Clarence Kennedy Aikin, was really the brains behind the Santa Fe robbery. The authorities in Monterey County were greatly excited about this breakthrough. The San Diego grand jury was looking forward to investigating as well. The press waited anxiously for a sensational trial. But the story fell apart almost immediately under the first attempts at investigation. Aikin was released from suspicion but resigned his commission, his reputation unjustly sullied by poor journalism.

Orange County’s last train robber was never found. 


[This article originally appeared in the Orange County Historical Society's County Courier in early 2019, and another version appeared later in the April 2019 edition of County Connection.]

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Historic Wintersburg update

The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church in 1910.

In the April 1 edition of Rafu Shimpo, former Assemblyman Warren Furutani wrote about some of those opposing the preservation of Historic Wintersburg – an important Japanese American historical site in Huntington Beach. While many of the pro-bulldozer crowd are driven by the usual greed or banal ignorance, some of the opposition to preservation is, he says, “based on a simmering and festering hate against Asians, specifically Japanese.”

He writes that because of Mary Urashima’s work to save Wintersburg, “she has become a ‘proxy’ target for the haters and racists that have come out from … the shadows to attack Mary. But in actuality the attacks are on the Japanese and Asian community. …Mary has received graphics and pictures depicting anti-Asian attitudes, old World War II-type anti-Japanese ads and one superimposing Mary’s face on a woman bound and placed on the railroad tracks... In other words, a death threat couched in an old-time graphic.”

Furutani calls on civic leaders and the general public to “…Shine a bright light on these cowardly actions by anonymous haters and racists. We can stand with Mary and the Wintersburg Project. The bright, warm light of the truth and exposing the festering hate that lingers just below the surface and right under our noses will drive these cowards back under the rocks from whence they came.”

I do not believe that there's a large number of people in Huntington Beach (despite recent smears against this city) who are racist. But after watching the Wintersburg battle for many years, I know that at least some of that kind of evil exists in our midst. And I know that even a relative handful of dregs can do a lot of harm and deserve to be called out for their egregious behavior. 

Yes, world history is full of racism (and other unfortunate isms) at every turn -- but it's most disheartening to see the study and preservation of local history subverted to serve modern racist purposes (or any other stupid social agenda). Local history is a search for the truth and can be a lot of fun, too. Seeing it bastardized and used as a tool to spread ignorance and grind axes is infuriating. And seeing Mary threatened is sad and extremely upsetting.

See https://www.rafu.com/2021/04/og-san-just-below-the-surface