History of Imperial, California
From: The History of Imperial County, California
Edited by: F. C. Farr
Published by: Elms and Franks
Berkeley, CA 1918

IMPERIAL
BY EDGAR F. HOWE

To THOSE who know, the city of Imperial always must remain in mind as a landmark in important history. I see the town in fancy now as it was in 1901, crudely constructed of canvas or rough lumber by amateur workmen, and possessing no touch of art or grace, its three frame buildings, two score of tents and a half dozen ramadas, or walled structures, surmounted by thatch of arrow weed.

Such was the town which first appeared in the heart of the Colorado Desert, when not another habitation existed within sixty miles. Lonesome ? Forlorn? Forbidding? Yes, all of these, but if anyone fancies the "natives," as the new come pioneers called themselves, played soccer ball with chunks of grief, he is mistaken, for never then was there a grievance but became a joke, and the stifled sob developed into laughter.

No green thing but the tawny scant vegetation of the desert was to be found for many miles, and only the stub tail end of the "town ditch," down which twice a week water was turned from the new main canal a dozen miles away, gave sign of connection with the outer world.

Roads there were none, and individual wagon tracks,numerous and devious in direction, formed a bewildering puzzle to one who sought them as a guide.

Far away in every direction the mystic aridity stretched like one scene from the inferno that Dante had overlooked.

Yet there were compensations. The air was free and boundless. The skies revealed a transparency and a depth of glorious blue which seemed to reveal all eternity, and more stars shone upon those brave pioneers than were ever seen before by human eye.

The sunrises and sunsets of that dry desert air gave tones of graded coloring that were not all subdued, for from the ashen and chocolate mountains and the yellow haze the color scheme ascended through blues and pinks and greens to royal purple, fringed with gold and scarlet.

And the mirage was there, was there in all possible sublimity, always lending its charm and mysticism, contorting the mountains into grotesque forms and transforming distant tents into sails of vessels moving placidly over peaceful waters. So regularly did several features of the mirage appear from sunrise to sunset that the versed "native" could almost utilize them in lieu of a sun dial. Of these the two most conspicuous forms were known as "The Battle Ship" and "The Golden Gate."

The former was the false refraction of light that at to each morning lifted the Black Buttes, in Mexico, above the horizon, presenting a vessel upon the water with turrets and masts, and a preposterously long gun reaching out above the prow.

"Golden Gate" was the expanse of mirage that spread its waters between the Cucupa and Santa Catarina mountains, with Signal Mountain rising as Alcatraz Island, and when this scene was caught with tents to give the sail effect the presentment of Golden Gate was complete and realistic.

Stretching out from the town in all directions, tents were beginning to appear as "claims" were filed upon, and as desolate looking as the town was in some of its aspects, I know for a fact that its small group of lights twinkling in the clear night air across the barren expanse was to more than one pioneer as a star of hope and of destiny.

Reference is made above to the three frame buildings, the only ones within many miles. Of these one was a church, another a store and the third a printing office, the latter now the sole remaining remnant of the earliest days.

Life was so primitive that when the first rocking chair appeared in the town it was a matter of remark, and many sought to share its comfort.

Who were these pioneers who dared the desert in its crudity? They were, almost without exception, of that race which has staked the American frontier from the days when the first settlers moved out into the Connecticut and Mohawk valleys. These individuals had tarried in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona and California. There were not many of the cowboy type, whom Frederick Remington called "Men with the bark on." Many more of them were persons of culture despite their love of the boundless out of doors.

"Is there no place I can sleep tonight?" asked a tenderfoot on learning that the tent house hotel was filled.

"Why, yes," said a "native," "here are five million acres," and to him to sleep in the open was nothing out of the routine of life.

But some of the scenes were pathetic, for most of those who came to the land of promise had been accustomed to some of the comforts and conveniences of life, and with the few women who came to help hew a piece of destiny out of the raw material one sometimes caught a glimpse of a tear on a face set with fortitude.

Then there were the covered wagon, the small equipment of farm implements, and usually a larger equipment of children. The tired horses had been driven from Arizona or Oklahoma or Missouri, or from the coast section of California, and the whole aggregation of brute and human and inanimate objects was disconsolate looking enough.

Heavy freight teams, many with from a dozen to a score of mules, came dragging into town from the main line of the railroad, thirty five miles away, after two days on the road, for that was the base of supply for all essentials of life in those days before production.

Three times a week the stage crept in, the dusty passengers crawled out, gazed about and said, "Well, is this it ?" It required one with poetic inspiration to see the vision of the future and to "give to airy nothings a local habitation and a name," and not all men are poets. But as poetry is not words but vision, more are poets than is generally thought, and they remained, and the next week they too were "natives."

And speaking of airy things recalls the wind. Men of scientific mind years before had urged the turning of the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, that the evaporation there might nullify the vacuum condition of the desert, which was credited with causing the north winds of the coast. The irrigation of the Valley has wrought that change. The winds here, as we knew them then, have become a thing of the past. But in those primal days, at least two days in every week, all the demon winds of the earth held their assemblies here, and vied with each other in bringing abject terror to many and dismay to all. Day and night they went howling past with an exhibit of force that it seemed nothing could withstand, and the parched, cut up desert simply lifted in sheets through which sight could not penetrate a dozen feet. With all objects blotted from vision, even the horses one drove, the traveler had no guide but the direction of the wind.

And winter passed and summer came, blistering heat bent down remorselessly. There were no electric lights or fans. There was no ice. Nothing that was perishable could be brought in. There was no milk, no eggs, no butter, no fresh fruit or vegetables or meat. You could take Your choice between ditch water in which the animalcula were abundant, canned goods that frequently went off like guns in the stores as they exploded with heat, and bacon and flapjacks.

The heat of that summer was something to read about rather than experience, and the writer may now as well publicly confess that when the thermometer reached 126 one day and threatened to break the world record of 127, he found the coolest place obtainable for the instrument for the remainder of the day.

The evaporation of something like a hundred billion cubic feet of water a year has brought about a reduction in maximum temperature of about fifteen degrees, and a raise of minimum winter temperature of practically as much, besides dispensing with the winds.

By slow stages the country about became inhabited and the town responded. Some person drove a buggy into town and that caused as much comment as the later arrival of the first automobile.

Finally a brick yard appeared, ushering in a new era for the Valley, with more secure construction and more pleasing aspect.

Early in the history of the town there came a business block with arcade the second story projecting over the sidewalk - and there was set the type of structure which henceforth was to prevail in all the business sections of Valley towns.

Here, too, there was first manifest the one great extravagance of the Valley, schools of most superior character compared with other improvements. The grammar school, first to appear, was a neat brick structure, and not long afterwards there was built the first high school building, at a cost of $65,000, the edifice being of a character which would have been creditable in a century old town of 10,000 persons.

The railroad branch coming down from the main line through the Valley, and for a time having a terminus here, brought a great change into the lives of the people and marked the end of the real pioneer life of the people, for an ice factory, electric plant and other modem institutions were growing up.

Pavements in time hid the dust of the main thoroughfares, and Imperial, changed in outward form and much in the spirit of the people, had become a modem municipality.


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