Some Observations Regarding the Local Knowledge of
Desert Hot Springs, California
Its Founding & Populating
Told by Stagecoach Jack
(in his own words)
November 1, 1995 © XXVI by John J. Hunt
I lived out here for more than ten years, and started coming out here a dozen years before that, and in that time I became well-acquainted with the city they call Desert Hot Springs. It was odd at first how little information about the place I could find, but after questioning my old friend Fred, who owned a little motel with hot mineral water, I was sent to a couple of folks who knew something about the first people who came here, and the ones who found the mineral water. After spending many glorious days and nights enjoying the hot mineral water, and seeing as I have a curious bent, I wanted to know who was behind this enterprise.
First of all, I was curious to know why people, who I gathered were in some ways educated and fairly normal, would choose this particular parcel of desert in the first place. On the surface it was bleak and hot and appeared rather hostile-looking. Of course I was to learn, as did all the others who came out to the southern slopes of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, in the funnel of the San Gorgonio Pass, that it was what was beneath the sand that was important, indeed, the most precious commodity on God’s earth, water. And not just any water, mind you, but a mineral-laden liquid some have called the “miracle waters.”
After studying the beginnings of this little community, I realized that the water under their feet was what kept those first people here; without it any dreams they may have carried out here, would have vanished quicker than the beads on your brow in the middle of May.
Now, remember that I am speaking about white people, mainly, so-called pioneers, because the Native Americans had been living in this area for a thousand or more years. You could say they knew the lay of the land pretty well. The various bands of Indians in this area are called Cahuilla [K? we ah], and you can find them in the Pass and throughout the Coachella Valley. In Palm Springs they’re called the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. In Spanish this means the “hot water” Indians. They own a natural hot mineral spring right in the middle of down town Palm Springs. After all, that’s where the name comes from.
Now imagine if you will, some moonless yet starry night, that there are no houses, no buildings, and no lights, and you are out here all by your lonesome next to a small camp fire. Well, you go ahead and try to conjure that up in your mind, then you’ll see how intimidating it was for those first settlers to venture up through that unfriendly chaparral and plop down on the cold sand. But that’s what they did.
Here’s the thing you have to keep in your mind. Before the water was discovered by these people, not one of them had an inkling that there was any. That’s the reason no one wanted to be in this area. Too dry. Summertime it was a toaster oven. The government owned it. Somewhere along in the 1880s the government began offering the land in the valley for homesteading. The Desert Lands Act said people could file a claim on a quarter-section [160 acres] after four years if they had been living on the land seven months a year during that time, and could show proof of irrigation. Show proof of irrigation! Now how could anyone who was in the desert to begin with have any irrigation to show proof of? Maybe if he was next to a river. What a lot of idiots these guys in Washington must be. I bet they never suffered a dry throat in their lives.
Now there was that stink hole down by the two bunches of palms, if you scraped away some of the cattle dung and green scum, maybe you could drink it — maybe if your life depended upon it. Look, I’m not saying people were nuts to drift out here, but I do believe a soul must have been in a desperate state of mind to think they could just come out here and build a house and plant a garden and live happily-ever-after. Of course there are individuals who are well-suited to the particular rigors of life on the cutting edge of civilization. Because that’s what it was. In 1900 there were only a hand full of Cahuilla Indians and a couple of white people living over in Palm Valley, as Palm Springs used to be called. No seeker of government land had ventured north past that dubious oasis of Two Bunch Palms — not until 1910.
This early period of life in the area of Two Bunch Palms and Seven Palms, farther to the south, was peopled by the original pioneers, Hilda Gray was one of them and she can tell us some of their names; “Well, there was Coolidge, and Jack Riley, and the MacCargers. And Widow MacCarger has all them youngins. And Ethel Rouse the schoolteacher. Then there are the three Green families, and Conway and Grandma Riley. And don’t forget Jack Thieson.” Hilda forgot to mention Bill Anderson, Mike Driscoll, Joe Baunhorn and many others who came seeking desert life. Some of them thought it was Utopia.
As I understand it, the year 1913 in Southern California brought tough times. Mother Nature had done her thing that year, freezing weather had destroyed the citrus crop, so unemployment was high. Naturally, this brought out lots of people looking for a better life. One of those dreamer/drifter types arrived in October of that year, hoping to make something of himself. He had the odd name of Cabot Yerxa.
Now it appears his mother was from a very famous family from back east, the Cabots. It is said in history books that their relative, John, came over in a sailing boat and found Newfoundland for the British way back in fourteen hundred and something. Just after Columbus. They even say John and Chris were schoolmates in Italy. Pretty interesting, huh?
Anyway, this fellow Cabot comes from these well-to-do folks in Boston. But they don’t pay him no mind, or, at least, they pretend to know nothin’ about him. He was kind of persona non grotto, if you know what I mean. But his head was harder than a boulder. It also seems to me he was either very dumb or he was a clever man, for anyone who trudged out here with some sardines and bologna and a canteen of water, as he tells us they did (he had dragged along his friend Bob Carr, or Carr had dragged him, I’m not positive who was to blame) and believed they could subsist for very long, must have been very clever — and fearless. They needed to be creative to survive and free from fear they were. They were entranced by the new desertscape, the lush, rose-tinted mountains, the many shades of reds and rusts and sand-like russets and browns, and even in the rain they rejoiced and gave thanks for their new freedom.
Maybe it wasn’t the land at all, maybe it was this idea of freedom that drove these poor souls out here to brave the desert. Of course the number one thing on everyone’s mind was water. The nearest place they could get fresh water was way over at Garnet, where the Southern Pacific Railroad had a pipe coming out of the mountain. Now that’s a good hike in anyone’s book, but they had to do it every other day just to get enough water to exist.
And hear tell how they conserved that water. Not a drop was wasted. Even the mop was wrung out and dripped on the pepper plants. No one went visiting without taking along their own drinking water. They were a water-conscious lot, that’s for certain.
That’s where this fella Cabot comes in. Now he soon realized that this search for water would hinder any kind of serious life out here. And none of them would be able to “prove up” their land claims without showing that danged “proof of irrigation” to the government inspectors.
First thing him and his buddy Bob did was hike the whole territory, searching around the desert for any hidden portions, or signs of water. They did find a lot of broken pottery pieces, that told them Indians had once been in the area. That also meant most likely there was water, at least at one time. This was one of those arrows of light that stuck in the rear of his mind.
And one night that arrow burst into flames when Cabot was across the valley having a meal with a friend and an old Indian told him that when he was a boy his people had dug a well not far from Cabot’s holdings. The flame lit up the whole desert. Cabot was positive he had been right — there was water under his hill and he was now sure of it.
Today you can go out to Miracle Hill and see his old place. That’s what he named it, because he dug a well and found hot water on that hill, then down a ways he found cold water, which was better for drinking. This would appear as a miracle to any desert man. It made his dream of desert life a reality. Only a few percent of those dreamers who came to the desert and tried to stake out government land succeeded. He was one of them.
Cabot was a colorful individual, to say the least. Here’s an old postcard showin’ Cabot standin’ next to his Old Indian Pueblo out on Miracle Hill. The place is still there and it’s a real interestin’ place to visit.
Now Cabot knew the value of the hot water. This fellow had been around. After all, he had lived with the Sioux and Inuit, and had traveled extensively as a young man. However, the Great Depression drove everyone from their homesteads. By 1932 there were only two hardy souls left in the whole area. This Cabot fella had moved to Moor Park, over in the San Fernando Valley, where he pursued his business of general store proprietor.
Now this is where it gets interesting. This is how Desert Hot Springs comes to life, so to speak. Cabot meets Coffee. This fella L.W. Coffee drops in one day and Cabot tells him all about the desert and his holdings and the hot water. Coffee knows all about such things. He’s been to the spas of Europe. He wants to take a look. Cabot steers him to his homestead.
From how I see this story, which I have read about in a history book, this fella Coffee had grand ideas about the place once he pays a visit and tests the water. He sees a community based on the hot water. Bath houses, spas, hot pools, swimming, soaking, sweats and saunas, he installs it all. He develops the town and puts it on the map. He opens his bath house in 1941. That’s the official opening of this little spa community. Here’s a picture of the way Coffee’s appeared when it opened.
I always wondered if Cabot knew Coffee would actually make a town out of the place. Or have a great effect on his own life. When it seemed clear that Coffee was developing a real place, Cabot moved back to his homestead, and he started work on his monument to the Pueblo Indians, and would not again depart this desert.
Now this fellow Coffee was a shrewd business man, no doubt about it. Of course he ran into obstacles, as most dreamers do, but he was able to surmount them. First off, there was the war. That put a crimp in his plans. Hell, that war put a crimp in everybody’s plans — didn’t it? But when the shootin’ was over and done with, things really got started out here. All kinds of folks began hearin’ about this hot mineral water, as well as the appealin’ climate, and before too long there was near a hundred spas offerin’ the hot mineral water to travelers from the world over.
Now, I’d like to say everything was roses after that, but the politicians got involved and we know how politicians like to mess up a good thing. The town kinda got off track, even more after Coffee passed away, which was in 1957. After all, this fella had created the place, put down wells, laid out streets, sold parcels to the new inhabitants, and promoted Desert Hot Springs as a health center. Coffee said it better than anyone: Instead of being operated by an individual or corporation, the town has been sub-divided into a health community where all property owners can establish their own home or business and participate in the benefits derived from the highly beneficial natural hot mineral water where the individual can become a part of the resort community.
I still believe that Coffee’s words are as true today as when he uttered them. There are many here who believe in his vision and keep up his work. Since his time the number of spas have fallen off, but there’s a new crop of believers who carry on his beneficial work.
You know they tore down Coffee’s Bath House back in ’91, which was a true shame. Don’t know why the town would allow this to happen. I see the lot is still vacant. But when Coffee threw it up, there was nothing like it anywhere in this here desert. And when he did, he placed a bronze plaque in the wall. And on that there commemorative plaque he had written some words which as far as I’m concerned still have meaning today.
THIS BATH HOUSE
LILLIAN T. COFFEE
Who developed these
God given curative hot
Mineral waters, so long
Hidden beneath the
Sands of the desert,
Waiting for the time to
Arrive when suffering
Humanity could enjoy
The Wealth of Health
So if you’re hankerin’ to get a taste of real relaxation, and settle in to a healthy life style, why come on out to Desert Hot Springs and see what makes the place so special. You won’t be sorry. I’m not. Because to use Mr. Coffee’s words, this here is “Where Wealth in Health Greets You.”
See you around, Pardner.