By Mark Gutglueck
In Hesperia, Apple Valley and Lucerne Valley, where the soil consisted of a deep and rich mixture of disintegrated granite and sediment, the climate was suitable for all order of fruit except citrus and in each of those remote communities, the late 1880s and early 1890s were characterized by the efforts of earnest farmers to cultivate apple, pear, cherry and fig orchards and vineyards.
James Goulding, a former Indian fighter, was driving a herd of cattle through Hesperia in the early 1880s and arrived hours after an unseasonable snow storm. The entire community was helping harvest a crop of red apples before the frost ruined the fruit. Impressed by the agricultural potential Goulding was sold on the area. He moved to Lucerne Valley in the 1890s and started the Box S Ranch, which became a landmark for weary mining men and cattlemen who watered their horses at his wide troughs, fed with artesian waters. His fruit orchard provided more treats and his hospitality was a legend. He lived into old age, residing in a small house to the rear of the Jackrabbit Cafe owned by Lou Cowan and his attractive wife. Dr. A
F. Robinson and his family later purchased the Box S. Ranch.
In 1890, the county board of supervisors, at the prompting of then-supervisor John A. Johnson and with the backing of Jacob Victor, approved the construction of a bridge across the Mojave River at the Upper Mojave Narrow. It was completed in September 1890, but during tests of its load bearing capacity later that month, it collapsed when a 20-mule team and a full wagon of ore gingerly attempted to traverse it, with roughly half of the townspeople of Victor looking on in horror. The following year, the county rebid the contract and by 1892, a sounder means of crossing the river at the same location was in place.
In February 1893 a Minnesota company purchased outright or bought options on property that carried with it the existing water claims around the Mojave River and a suitable site for a dam and reservoir above the Upper Mojave Narrows, seeking to build a 175-foot high and 150-foot-wide dam that would house enough water to irrigate 250,000 acres in the High Desert. When the Panic of ‘93 hit later that year, the resolve to continue the effort dissolved. A handful of the participants reformed as another corporation based in Springfield, Illinois, still intent upon a venture to harness the Mojave River. That effort, too, foundered. But in 1895, J.W. Wilson and the corporation he had formed, the Columbia Colonization Company of Chicago, bought the Victor reservoir project for a promissory note of $80,000. The Colombia Colonization Company then entered into agreements with land owners who had homesteaded 320-acre ranges to permanently provide those homesteaders with water in exchange for 280 of their acres. Questions about the legality of the water land bargains emerged and the Columbia Colonization Company subsequently faltered when it failed to deliver on its promissory note to the Springfield, Illinois company, which then attempted to reassert its water rights and possession of the dam site.
That scheme was superseded by another group of speculators, the Appleton Land and Water Company of Los Angeles, led by P. D. Hatch. Hatch’s plan was to construct a dam much closer to the ultimate source of the water, more than 11 miles above the Victor reservoir to not only control the flow of the Mojave River itself but to reroute a major portion of the water flow coming northward down the slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains in flumes and aqueducts eastward on the other side of Hesperia.
At that time, both wells and the Mojave River were being tapped by a handful of farmers who planted non-citrus orchards in what would eventually become known as Apple Valley.
Simultaneously, up in the San Bernardino Mountains, the Arrowhead Reservoir Company had formed. That company’s goal was in no small part crosswise of what were the intentions of the Appleton Land and Water Company and other speculators in the desert in that it had designs to dam up the water at a spot in the mountains and then divert the water through a tunnel to be dug and blasted out through the mountains southward to irrigate San Bernardino, Highland, Redlands, Colton and other growing communities well removed from the Victor Valley.
These competing designs and claims on the Mojave River’s water intensified in the late 1890s.
In 1899, Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Division of Forestry, which would later become the United States Forest Service, personally came through the Victor Valley during a tour of California and its vast undeveloped wildlands. Upon his return to Washington, he commissioned a comprehensive survey of the Mojave River watershed. After President William McKinley was succeeded by the more conservation-minded Theodore Roosevelt, the Newlands Reclamation Act, authored by congressman Francis G. Newlands of Nevada, was passed by Congress in 1902, funding irrigation projects for the arid lands of the American West.
The act’s passage set off a second round of even more intensive and bitter legal battles between the Arrowhead Reservoir Company, and nearly all of the water interests along the Mojave River. The Hesperia Land and Water Company, led by its then-president, W. A. Field, in both legal and bureaucratic filings, maintained that the Arrowhead Reservoir Company’s proposed project would deplete, obstruct or eradicate the natural flow of water into the Mojave River. To neutralize the resistance to its project, the Arrowhead Reservoir Company, composed of its own small stakes West Coast investors who were backed by a syndicate of larger stakeholders from the East Coast assembled and headed by James Westwater of Ohio, employed Arthur E. Poole of Los Angeles to purchase options on the properties and ranches lying along the lower Mojave River, including the land held by the Columbia Colonization Company and the Verde Ranch, originally developed by John Brown and his two sons but by that time owned by E.C. Sterling. By these purchases, Poole secured for the Arrowhead Reservoir Company the lion’s share of water rights along the Mojave River through the Victor Valley, including the property that had been intended as dam and reservoir sites in the area. In 1904, the Arrowhead Reservoir Company commenced construction of a dam in the mountains.
In February 1906, it was revealed that Poole and Westwater were affiliated with the Arrowhead Reservoir Company, prompting them to announce that they intended, in a project ostensibly unrelated to the Arrowhead undertaking, to construct a dam in the Victor Valley along the Mojave River that would be used for both irrigation and power generation. There is some question as to whether that representation was a sincere one. While Poole and Westwater in fact contracted with a firm from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that had built a reservoir in Columbus, Ohio and declared the intention of initiating construction on the Victorville Dam by July 1906, by that summer, Westwater’s East Coast co-investors were expressing doubts about any large projects in California in the wake of the San Francisco Earthquake. As the Arrowhead Reservoir Company’s access to capital dried up and Poole failed to make good on the $335,000 promissory note he had provided to Sterling in exchange for the 4,000-acre Verde Ranch, he instituted a series of financial maneuvers including securing short term loans and making partial payments to prevent Sterling from reassuming title to the property. Ultimately Poole was unsuccessful and the Arrowhead Reservoir Company was not able to retain control of the Verde Ranch or its attendant water rights.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, The Arrowhead Reservoir Company continued to assert its Mojave River Basin water claims, making renewals on them every two months. But during the same time frame, Field and his Hesperia Land and Water Company claimed to have indisputable possession or control over 33,000 acres bordering the river. Field marshaled his company’s filing for one million miners inches on both forks of the Mojave, which predated the Arrowhead Reservoir Company’s competing claims by more than two years, to assert that his company’s rights to the disputed water eclipsed the rights Poole adduced. The Hesperia Land and Water Company had consistently utilized 5,000 inches of water from the East Fork every year for two decades, establishing, Field maintained, an inviolable right that would legally preclude the Arrowhead Reservoir Company or any other entity from diverting the Mojave River’s water away from the desert.
In 1909, a slew of other riparian owners along the Mojave filed suits against the Arrowhead Reservoir Company to prevent the diversion of the San Bernardino Mountain water away the Mojave River Basin. While these suits were pending, the California Supreme Court entered a judgment in a case in the San Joaquin Valley involving a similar proposed rechanneling of water from its natural drainage area which barred such diversions where they would negatively impact existing agricultural operations.
Thereafter, the company’s subsidiary, the Arrowhead Lake Company, pursued transforming the once-contemplated reservoir site into a resort, completing that project, which had only minimal impact on the flow of water northward into the Mojave Desert, in 1922.
In 1897, Victor had a population of 617. A freighting station was the major business. There was also a blacksmith and a livery, three hotels, two general stores, a wholesale liquor store, a saloon, three eating establishments and a Chinese laundry.
In 1904, at the importuning of the U.S. Postal Service, the name of Victor was changed to Victorville to prevent the misrouting of mail because of the existence of another town bearing the same name in Colorado.
By 1907, the town had grown to nearly 2,000 and a new railroad depot was constructed. That same year, there were 55 first through eighth grade students attending Victorville’s lone school, a two room affair, located at 6th and C streets. There was no local high school and those who wanted to attend one needed to travel to San Bernardino and board there Monday through Friday to further their juvenile education.
Records show that by 1908, Victroville had 79 students crowded into the two-room school and the town’s fledgling school board used its authority to sell $2,500 in school bonds to add two more rooms to the schoolhouse.
In 1908, Mrs. E.M. Potts in conjunction with a group of Los Angeles investors, sought to adapt the lime burning operations owned by F. O . Wyman in the vicinity of Oro Grande into a cement plant. Mrs. Potts undertook the project as a complement to her husband’s Southern California real estate ventures. By 1910 the construction of the Golden State Portland Cement Company plant in Oro Grande and Mrs. Potts brought in W. P. Echdahl, the former manger of a cement plant in Chicago, to run it.
By 1911, Victorville had grown to the extent that it was a magnet for mercantilism and existed as the center of trade in the area, so much so that by 1911, a de facto government for the town was established in the form of the Victorville Chamber of Commerce.
The National Old Trails Road, also known as the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, was established in 1912, and became part of the National Auto Trail system in the United States. Running 2,448 miles from Baltimore, Maryland to California, it passed through Victorville.
In September 1913 Dr. H. E. Sweet undertook the publication of the weekly Victor News-Herald, which contained as one of its features the California Farmer Section.
In October 1913, a San Francisco corporation, of which J. R. Wilbur was president, Ray K. Barrows vice president and A. L. Dahl secretary and treasurer, filed an application at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Forestry Service for a right of way to dig a tunnel twenty miles long through a portion of the San Bernardino Mountains to divert flood waters from the Mojave River to provide power and irrigation to citrus orchards in and around the cities of San Bernardino, Redlands and Riverside, and through the wide expanse of territory in that vicinity, where an abundance of water would be useful for orange cultivation. One of the corporation’s board members was Albert Eugene Boynton, at that time the speaker pro tem of the California State Senate. Wilbur’s corporation proposed locating a reservoir for the water at Victorville and a powerhouse to be driven by the gravity fed water in San Bernardino.
The October 17, 1913 edition of the Victor News Herald warned its readership of the threat to the area’s water resource in a headline that read “WOULD STEAL THE RIVER A San Francisco Capitalist Would Tunnel 20 Miles to Drain the Mojave”
In the body of the News-Herald article it was stated : “Let us whisper right here a word that will stand. The water CANNOT be deflected. Not for a moment will the people of Victor Valley stand for any such scheme. They want that water and will fight for it to the end of time. They will not for their lives permit any corporation to take from their homes and the land that needs it the waters of the north watershed to supply to irrigation on the south.”
The day after the News-Herald’s exposé, the chamber of commerce with all due haste called an emergency meeting and at the suggestion of its reclamation committee chairman, John D. Reavis, voted to increase the chamber’s irrigation committed from five to fourteen members and to, according to the News-Herald, “to retain the most competent water attorney and engineer available.” The committee was instructed to immediately file a protest with the government against the granting of a permit for right of way for a tunnel to divert water from the Victor Valley’s watershed to the San Bernardino Valley, the News-Herald reported “on the grounds that it is contrary to law.”
By Mark Gutglueck