Vanderbilt and Homestead Tour
May 7, 2010
By Debbie Miller Marschke
On Friday, May 9, 2010 at Noon, my husband Steve and I joined our group assembled at the Baker Valero station and headed north on the I-15. We started out with 4 vehicles: Glenn Shaw, Bob & Sue Jaussaud, Dave “BigBird” Given and Sir Bob Rodemeyer. After taking Cima Road south into the Mojave National Preserve, we left the pavement to head east into the Ivanpah Range. First we visited Riley’s Camp. This was the primary home of John Riley Bembry, prospector and entrepreneur in this range for more than 50 years. He prospected and filed hundreds of claims in this area; in fact, during my research of “Riley” I obtained a list of his claims which printed out on 6 pages, which boggled my mind. Being a businessman, Riley did turn around and sell his prospects which contributed to the mining development in this region of the Mojave. We could see his efforts dotting the mountainsides around us, including the Standard Mines One and Two. At the time of his death, Riley still held title to 60 claims. However, his most lasting legacy is the Mojave Cross at Sunrise Rock (near Teutonia Peak). Riley was a World War One veteran and, in 1934, he erected the original cross as a place of reflection for war veterans. Once the site became a part of the Mojave National Preserve, it was constantly plagued with controversy.
Before moving on from Riley’s Camp, we followed the road back behind his cabin to the saddle and overlook down upon the workings of the Morning Star Mine. It was an awesome view and the surrounding geology was interesting. We moved on to where one of Riley’s neighbors, the Geer family, has been established. Our group checked out the Geer Camp cabin and site. Mr. Geer was the foreman at the Standard Mines, and thus the junkpiles were particularly attractive. The group had fanned out behind the cabin and discussing our finds. Since I had visited this site previously, I took the opportunity to explore farther back into the rocks. I found a natural alcove and after some scrutiny I discovered some rock art. I beckoned to the group and we all studied the find together. The pictographs were a faint rust coloration, and mostly appeared as score marks. We all were thrilled with the unexpected find.
We took our vehicles for a short hop over to the next neighboring camp and cabins – more artifact exploration and mystery junk piles. Within minutes everyone had followed their interests and had spread out over the property. I had been expecting Mal & Jean Roode and Mignon Slentz to join our trip, and when I checked the CB, I could hear them calling us but they could not receive our transmissions. A quick cell phone call to Mignon put the group on track, and by late afternoon our group was completely assembled and enjoying the scattered mining cabins together. We found the largest collective dome of claret cup hedgehog cactus any of us had ever seen! It had a three foot diameter, was in glorious bloom, and pretty darn close to being perfect. Wowee! Our last stop was the small cemetery where J. Riley Bembry was buried alongside another prospector. All in all it was a pleasant spring day and the roadsides treated us with displays of desert marigold, paintbrush, indigo, paper bag bush, and dominated by great showings of apricot mallow.
Our evening was spent camped at the headframe of one of Riley’s 1935 finds, the Evening Star Mine. It is the largest standing headframe in the East Mojave, and impressive. I think I saw Glenn and Mal climbing upon the structure to get a better look. We had a lightly breezy evening which was pleasant for all but Sir Bob. Apparently, his new air mattress tried to escape in the cover of darkness by jumping out of Bob’s truck bed, dumping him off and giving Bob some unintended intimate time with his new Tacoma’s bed. Luckily, nobody heard the resultant reaction!
We decided on Saturday morning that our route out of the area should include a pass by Riley’s controversial cross. Despite a recent Supreme Court ruling ten days previous that would allow the cross to be displayed, the cross was still encased upon the rock in a plywood box. Nevertheless, our homage to Riley was a meaningful experience for all. The Cima store was open for business, so we treated ourselves to an ice cream breakfast. We traveled on pavement southeast until the road turned to graded gravel at Ivanpah Road.
Our first stop as we entered the area previously known as Vanderbilt was the fast-fading Vanderbilt cemetery. There are 30 known graves here but only a few can be recognized now. Here we paid our respect to the still present headstone of Charlie Bell, who was buried here after his death June 29, 1932. Bell was the watchman at Vanderbilt’s Gold Bronze Mine, and he remained a resident there until his body was found amongst the charred remains of his cabin. Bell was remarkable because he was paralyzed on one side of his body and had adapted to his disability; he drove a Model T and managed the complications of it’s operation through ingenuity or utilizing the kindness of others. The historic main “drag” into the 1891 town Vanderbilt is unusual because it tracks in the drainage contours. This meant that the primary street was narrow and the buildings were either on the ascending slopes on each side, or partially dug in around the bottom of the drainage. I took the group to the ruins of the only known stone walled home in Vanderbilt, which was the former residence of Virgil Earp. Earp operated a saloon and dance/meeting hall for two years, about 1892-1894, called “The Whist Club”. It was the only two story building in town and open 24 hours. Though not much of the town remains today, there are still some interesting dugouts, foundations, adits, shafts, mining ruins, timbers and can dumps. I had some photographs to share which were taken in this area in the 1950’s. We moved the group to three different locations so that everyone could have a chance to wander around Vanderbilt and to check out the areas that beckoned to be explored. Vanderbilt’s namesake was East Coast tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt; the founding residents had hoped they’d all be “as rich as Vanderbilts” when gold was found by a Piute Indian. “Old Man Beatty” was successful in gold production from the first mine, The Boomerang. The whole operation was initially frustrated by want of adequate transportation of the ore and the locality of spring water. Railroader Issac Blake completed his Nevada Southern line from Goffs to Manvel (Barnwell) in 1893, and Vanderbilt boomed to more than 2000 residents in short order. However, the concentrated veins were quickly played out, leaving the more difficult-to-extract gold within mineral sulphides. Technology had not been developed adequately to continue the necessary processes to separate the gold from the earth, and the town slid into a deadly decline. I’m not exactly sure how long it took for the town to ghost, but the post office closed in 1900. Our group enjoyed our stay at Vanderbilt until, out of nowhere, a very suspicious man popped up. He was dressed in military camoflauge bedecked with Indian beading, vagabond-like long hair, and was clearly armed with a sidearm and bowie knife. I approached him and asked if he was visiting Vanderbilt too, to which he dreamily replied, “no, I’m looking for the underground river…” I asked him if he was interested in the nearby legendary Kokoweef Mountain, and he wistfully said “ uh, no, it’s an underground river that my brother and I swam in when we were kids…” This fellow also did not remember his name, or so he claimed. I handed him a copy of the educational materials I had prepared for the group regarding the town, and we hastily sashayed our vehicles to another location to give this man some space. Then he proceeded to walk out of Vanderbilt (presumably to where he had entered) and we all speculated as to what was REALLY up with this guy. He made us all uncomfortable so we didn’t dally longer than it took to eat lunch.
Our next stop was at the Sharp Homestead. In the early 1900’s, the East Mojave enjoyed a higher annual rainfall and thus dry farming was successful during this era. The homestead was located right next to the railroad line, and the Sharp Family’s post office box was in Maruba. Dennis Casebier’s organization, the MDHCA, published the book “Maruba” which details the life and times of the Sharp family as they treasured their time at the homestead. Not much remains at the site but some bits of junk and concrete work, but the area still is characteristically clear of Joshua trees where the crops had been furrowed. We traveled down Lanfair Road to another homestead site where the Bell family had several homesteads. Lumber remains from the homestead cabins, and I had some historic photographs to tease the images into our minds of how things must have been. We rolled into Goffs around 4 o’clock, and everyone was ready for a cold beverage and a chance to relax. Our group camped literally parallel to the Goffs Depot. This property, owned by the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association, has procured and preserved history and artifacts from the East Mojave. Beginning in 1954, Dennis Casebier has gathered this history and founded an organization that continues through the efforts of volunteers; everyone involved here is interested in supporting the endeavor in perpetuity. The newest structure, the Goffs Depot, is a replica of the original railroad depot with a significant improvement; it is a shell that contains a state-of-the-art library and archive containing the culmination of Casebier’s life work. I think the rest goes without clarification, because most Desert Explorers are familiar with the goings-on at Goffs and many of us volunteer there. We had a fabulous potluck dinner at the Goffs Flywheel Café, and we were thrilled to sit down in the restored Goffs Schoolhouse as students (just like the homesteaders children) and be dazzled with Casebiers wonderful powerpoint lecture about the success of the ongoing historical preservation that has continued at Goffs.
Our tour of Goffs was not finished on Saturday. We all were free to experience the property at our leisure. Sunday morning, caretaker Hugh Brown opened up the Goffs Depot so we could see for ourselves what was being procured there. Immediately, everyone was captivated by photographs, albums, or collections that were being processed into the library depository. Hugh really didn’t need to say much…the minute the door was opened, we all flowed in with wide eyes. Even Bob Jaussaud was quiet and focused on a recently procured photo collection! We could have walked around moon-eyed all day, but I finally got the group to saddle up and ride on. We headed north on Lanfair Road and west on Cedar Canyon Road. Before we reached Rock Springs, we veered south to the homestead site of the Lorenzo & Harriet Watson family. The corrals are still there but no structures remain. However, Casebier has quite a bit of known history of this family from his oral histories taken from Betty Stokes Ordway, sister of Harriet Watson. Betty Stokes was the belle of the East Mojave, and was sweet on a cowboy & gunslinger who had worked for the Rock Springs Cattle Company: Matt Burts. Burts was one of the gunmen involved in the crime mystery shootout at Government Holes November 8, 1925. As a bonus, I took our group up the sandy Watson Wash and had everyone march up a trail-less hill to a large boulder. The boulder bears the inscription “Betty Stokes, March 21, 1921”. What fun! In the interest of continuity, the group backtracked the way we had come to an escarpment which bore a nice collection of Indian petroglyphs. We had lunch at the base of the escarpment and Mignon finally got the little bird out of her car that had hitchhiked from Goffs. Our trip concluded at this point, and we split off at Cedar Canyon Road to make a beeline home. You would think this is the end of the story, but it’s not! I was back at work on Monday morning and I got a call from Dave Given alerting me that Riley’s controversial cross had been stolen by protestors that Sunday evening! What a shock! For the next two weeks, the Cross was spotlighted on local news and CNN. A $125,000 reward was posted. The perpetrators released word that the cross will be returned only when a “non offensive” alternative is erected in it’s place. Then on May 21, someone erected a replacement cross, which the Park service promptly removed. The story does not end here, but continues and can be easily followed through internet postings. It is a poignant reminder to me that we must appreciate what is still left to see, and treasure the memories we build together , because you never can predict what will happen next.
(photos by Debbie Miller Marschke)