Bonanza Springs by Steve Reyes
On a recent Sunday afternoon, my wife and I decided to explore the Needles to Ludlow Truck Trail (NS203) which runs east to west from Kelbaker Road. The intended stopping point was Bonanza Springs in the Clipper Mountains which is located a few miles east of Essex. When we first arrived at the spring we were amazed to see water in the desert! The water was clear and feeding some vegetation surrounding the springs. I first read about the springs in Joe De Kehoe’s book The Silence and the Sun. I learned the spring is part of the Lower Fenner Valley and played a role in the service of the Santa Fe Railroad. Prior to 1901 water from the spring was piped via 4” cast iron pipe to Danby to provide water for the train’s steam engine. The spring was once called home to people and the significance of the spring continues today.
According to the Bureau of Land Management’s website the Bonanza Springs Watchable Wildlife Area “Is one of the few natural watering areas for wildlife within the Mojave Desert. It is tucked into a beautiful, small canyon of yellow and white limestone. Visitors are asked to minimize their stays near the water and to use the adjacent viewing areas,
which have picnic tables and fire pits. Dispersed camping accommodations are available downstream for larger groups.” The area was completely devoid of trash and it did not appear anyone had visited in quite awhile.
According to an article appearing in the Los Angeles Times dated August 9, 1966 there were three people living at Bonanza Springs. There was a Jack Copley also known as “Desert Fats”who was attempting to raise catfish and bluegills in ponds. He told the reporter “Surprised to see water in the middle of all this dryness, ain’t you” as he threw horse meat to the fish. The ponds were fed by the springs and were home to hundreds of the fish. It seemed “Desert Fats” was planning on opening an “oasis in the middle of the Sahara.” Evidently the BLM stepped in and “Desert Fats,” and his business venture ended with him being told “Uh-Uh-No soap.”
“Desert Fats” claimed to have lived at Bonanza Springs for fifteen years and “Never made a dime out of the desert but I aint quit trying.” “Desert Fats” even attempted to raise frogs for a time. “Frog legs bring in good money. God, a pair runs $5 in a fancy restaurant. Just when the frogs were getting nice and fat wildcats and hawks wiped them out.” Sometimes the population at Bonanza Springs included Sam Mellos who split his time in Los Angeles. Al Stangberg who at the time of the article was vacationing at Lake Tahoe. At one time there was a fourth person living at the springs by the name of “Sparky.” One day “Sparky” ventured out into the desert after the sun “got to him” and his remains were found six months later.
In 2008, Joe de Kehoe interviewed Clarence Chambers in preparation for his book. During that interview Clarence explained how his father came to reside at the springs. Clarence Chambers has been a long time resident of Twentynine Palms / Wonder Valley and has drilled the majority of the wells in the area. In 1948 his father, Philip Chambers, got together with a friend and spent forty five years searching for the “Lost Dutch Oven” mine. They began their search for the mine camping at an old stone cabin which Clarence refers to as Tom Schofield’s cabin. In the 1960s he moved to Bonanza Springs because of the access to water. According to Clarence, his father Philip piped water approximately a mile and a half to two miles to his residence. Over the years Philip made several mining claims in the area and established a mill site in search of gold. Philip was married to Ellen Faye Chambers who worked at Amboy and the Cadiz store. They established a home at the springs and Clarence stayed until he was forced out by the BLM in 1989.
During the interview, Clarence made reference to an interview Ellen Chambers had with Huell Howser while he explored the desert and made stops in Wonder Valley and Amboy. The interview can be found on the Chapman University video archive.
According to the Needles Desert Star newspaper, the BLM partnered with members from the community in 1999, 2004 and 2008 to remove non-native plants at the springs. Today Bonanza Springs is a quiet and remote day use only area with picnic benches and fenced in parking areas. The access road from Route 66 is almost impassable as it requires a four wheel drive vehicle which is washed out in several areas. All that remains are concrete slabs where people once lived. The springs offer a panoramic view of Route 66 / National Trails Highway, Danby, and the Sante Fe Railroad. The brief history of Bonanza Springs cannot be complete without one mention of its relation to the Cadiz water project. In 2019, there was a scientific investigation to determine if the Cadiz Water Project would impact the springs. ~ Steve