Treasures of the Mojave Desert

Indian Wells Station — a touchstone in local history

Treasures of the Mojave DesertBy REBECCA NEIPP

News Review Staff Writer

The California Gold Rush, construction of the L.A. Aqueduct, migration of homesteaders, refugees from the Dust Bowl and the architects of the Navy base at China Lake have all left their fingerprints on the shaping of the Indian Wells Valley.

But the sustainability of each of the aforementioned cultural movements was made possible by the discovery and use by indigenous peoples of the artesian spring that would play a critical role to the humans moving to, and through, the valley.

“Native peoples had long traveled through the Indian Wells Valley on the ‘Big Trail,’ which hugged the lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada,” reads a passage from “Indian Wells Valley Stage and Freight Stops: 1874-1906,” written by Lou Pracchia and Elizabeth Babcock and published by the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert

“When miners and homesteaders arrived, they readily observed and soon appropriated Native American trails connecting permanent and seasonal campsites on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. In the desert environment, both walker and horseman quickly recognized that the rational choice was to follow native paths because they usually led to water.”

One of the first appearances Indian Wells makes in recorded history was during the Gold Rush of 1849. That year a party of travelers was making its way west across the arid Mojave Desert. Capt. Edward Doty and his Jayhawkers broke off for a more northerly route out of Death Valley. The Bennett and Arcane families, less fortunate in the route they chose to follow, were left stranded without water.

After an astonishing five-day trek, William Manley and John Rogers were delighted to find water — along with Capt. Doty and his traveling companions — at Indian Wells. The party replenished their stores and went on to find help and reportedly rescue the families left behind.

By the 1860s,Indian Wells Station was established as a watering hole along the route designated for travel between Los Angeles and the now-defunct Cerro Gordo mine. Replacement animals for the journey were reportedly kept just west of the station in Indian Wells Canyon — where traces of a corral can still be found today.

The stop was also the scene of a racially motivated murder in 1874, when a teamster, discharged from Cerro Gordo, allegedly shot and killed the Chinese cook employed at the station.

By 1908, when construction started on the aqueduct, work crews joined the homesteading and mining communities that set up residence in Inyokern, Randsburg and Trona.

“The name of the Indian Wells Station gives rightful recognition of its importance to the Native Americans who occupied this site before outsiders searching for precious metals took over and widened the trail between watering holes,” wrote Pracchia and Babcock.

Today, the landmark is now the site of Indian Wells Lodge, Indian Wells Brewing Co. and several private residences.

While countless thousands of residents and visitors each year still stop at the historical marker, located in front of the lodge on Highway 14 just south of the 395 junction, the once-critical importance of the locale has largely faded with the passage of time.

However, the well still remains, pumping out water around the clock at the rate of 6,500 gallons per day.

Pictured: This photo of two men and their dogs, included in “Indian Wells Valley Stage and Freight Stops:?1874-1906,” shows what Indian Wells Station looked like in a bygone era.?The book is available for purchase at the Historic USO Building. -- Photo by Everett Grose, courtesy of HSUMD

Story First Published: 2017-02-24