“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”
—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Perhaps no dusty desert town from the 19th Century exemplified Steinbeck’s quote better than Daggett, California. Shootouts, saloons, hangings and frontier justice, the old town had it all.
Early Daggett was a lively camp in the 1880s when nearby Calico was producing silver and borate. Like many desert towns of the era, it was distinctly a man’s town.
About eight miles from the future town site of Barstow, alongside the Mojave River, Daggett attracted many men who were seeking their fortunes in the nearby hills.
Silver was the prize at first, and when the silver began to peter out, it was Borax. As we know from our earlier story about Jerome, Arizona, we know what followed the miners.
Yep, you guessed it. Just like train cars following a steam engine, drifters, blacksmiths, bar keepers, promoters, gamblers, bawdy house girls and other old west regulars soon arrived in Daggett. Well before the 20th Century, Daggett was about to get wild. To some degree, it’s stayed that way to this very day.
Once called “Calico Junction,” Daggett was renamed in 1883 after then Lieutenant Governor John R. Daggett, owner of the Bismarck Mine in the Calico Mountains. Mr. Daggett developed the first ore mill for the mines a little between his namesake town, and the area we now know as Yermo.
There were no mines at Daggett; it served only as an outfitting center for the mines and for shipping ore. Primarily because of the mines, and objectively because the river was there, the people came. Water solved so many problems in the desert.
Because of the Mojave River’s sandy soil, it is capable of causing “flash floods” during cloudbursts. In 1901, four individuals, including Theodore Strong Van Dyke and his son Dix Van Dyke, formed a new company and started to improve the old dam and line the old Daggett Ditch.
Through their efforts, they were able to bring irrigation to 320 acres of new farm land east of Daggett (including the Van Dykes’ ranch) by 1902. This was the first large area to be irrigated in the Mojave Desert. There were fish in it in the 1950s and it was still in use into the 1970s. Also known as Mineola Canal and the Wind and Water ditch.
It was a site suitable for a rendezvous, reminiscent of the days of trappers and explorers. Here the men could relax when they came in from the mines where they worked hard and long. Here they could go for a spree if that was what they wanted, and no one thought anything about it one way or another. An 1893 article from the Savannah Courier (Savannah, Tennessee) paints a colorful picture of life in those rugged days of yore.
The famous 20 Mule Team Borax trademark was named after the method of hauling borax across the desert to markets east. For several years, Daggett served as the terminal of the real 20 Mule Team.
Two hundred men worked in the borax mines and mills. Daggett was a supply point for the borax fields in Death Valley as well for the Calico borate mines, and its former silver boom. Barstow was only a railroad stop and division point then, and Victorville, about thirty miles toward Cajon Pass, was then mainly a cattle grazing area.
The Southern Pacific Railroad, along with the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (later the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and BSNF) from Mojave was completed in the area in 1882. It soon became apparent the name of Calico Junction was confusing, as it was next to the neighboring town to Calico where silver was being mined.
The ATSF moved to Barstow because property values became too high during the silver boom. Otherwise, Daggett would have become the main station and heavy rail yard of the area. In 1903, the Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, later the Union Pacific Railroad, also built their line from Las Vegas through Daggett. They were serviced at the roundhouse in Barstow.
Both railroads were 3 ft gauge, and both were serviced by two steam “pufferbilly” locomotives each. But after 1910, both of these railroads were closed down and abandoned due to the mining companies moving on to greener pastures found to the north in Death Valley. The old railroad beds can still be traced in some places in the desert, but now most of the old grades have been paved over to support cars and off-road vehicles.
Railroad tracks were the center of a 400 foot right-a-way that divided the town. The south side was the residential area–the business firms took the north side. In its peak there were about 50 homes and shacks. Most of them were made of rough boards standing on end, with slats nailed over the cracks. Only a few were ever painted.
Some of them were finished inside with cheese cloth covered with paper. The desert can be a windy country, and the early settlers must have had their tenacity tested in the thrown-together shacks with no means of shutting out the wind which can penetrate the smallest crack.
Whiskey barrels served as water tanks for domestic use. Water was pumped from a well in the river. The pump operated only two hours a day, and if one forgot to fill the house tank it was most unfortunate.
The Daggett garage began life in the 1880s at the borax town of Marion, located on the northeast shore of Calico dry lake, as a locomotive repair workhouse for the narrow-gauge Borate and Daggett Railroad.
Daggett blacksmith Seymour Alf used a 20 mule team to move the building to the Waterloo Mill in mine, southwest of Calico, circa 1896, where it served a similar purpose for a silver ore narrow-gauge railroad.
Walter Alf, Seymour Alf’s son, moved to the building to its current location in Daggett circa 1912. The building was an auto repair shop on the National Old Trails Highway until World War II, when it became a mess hall for the United States Army troops guarding the local railroad bridges.
The Fouts brothers bought the building in 1946 and operated an automotive garage and machine shop in the building until the mid-1980s. The building is currently owned and operated by the Golden Mining and Trucking Company. Historical marker information courtesy of HMdb.org
There were the usual saloons, stores and restaurants of a mining camp. Dingy rooming houses had beds that sold for 50 cents a night. There was a drug store, a barber shop, and the inevitable livery stable. Animals came and went, roaming the area; there were always dogs straying about the town, and pigs rooted everywhere.
A low branched pepper tree stood in front of the Mike Walsh Saloon where the cronies of the town gathered to exchange gossip. Here the loafers sat daily and spun their tales of the mines, the road, and their opinions of life in general and the desert in particular. The group was called “The Pepper Tree Club”.
They enjoyed their place in the sun as they sat hopefully waiting for hand-out drinks the proprietor often furnished. He realized very little profit from the clubsters, but joined them occasionally, since some of them he had known for a long time. All he asked is that they behaved.
An evangelist eventually came to Daggett, for it was a town without churches, and he was greatly grieved. He held his services in the schoolhouse. The meeting was well attended and the people were generous with their money. When he asked for all who had been saved to stand up, no one stood.
The minister denounced the sins of the world and asked for those who wanted to be saved to stand up. Again, no one stood. It was too much for the evangelist and he left the next day, labeling Daggett as the worst town he had ever known.
But the truth is, Daggett was never really bad.
In 1901, John C. Van Dyke published a landmark book, The Desert, the first volume to counter the common wisdom of the day condemning deserts as ugly wastelands. Instead, with a poetry and power not since surpassed, The Desert praised the arid lands for their beauty, for their lava peaks that glow like hot iron after sunsets, and for their storms that whirl up in showers of gold.
Van Dyke did not actually make it out to the desert West until he was 43 years old. Both he and his older brother Theodore suffered from an unknown respiratory ailment, and years prior Theodore had “gone native” and relocated to a ranch near the rough and tumble mining town of Daggett.
Encouraged by his brother’s recovery, Van Dyke sought out the dry climate of the desert. A respected naturalist, author, rancher, all-around outdoorsman and Daggett’s justice of the peace, Theodore Strong Van Dyke prided himself as a personal friend and colleague of soon-to-be president Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir.
When twenty-two-year-old Dix Van Dyke arrived in Daggett, California, in 1901, the town was a wild and raucous frontier settlement, with barrooms and brothels, silver mines and land swindles, cattle drives, and shootouts at the Bucket of Blood saloon. Dix, a ranch-boy with no formal education but whose father and uncle were writers, became the town’s unofficial historian.
According to the records of Dix Van Dyke, everyone worked a seven day week. He said there were four holidays that were always celebrated: St. Patrick’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. According to Van Dyke, St. Patrick’s Day took precedence as there were many Irishmen in town. On that day they got everything they wanted of food and drink. He wrote, “It was a lucky hobo that got stranded in Daggett on that special day.”
Dix also reveals the Van Dyke ranch as an unlikely crossroads for intellectuals, some of them famous. Conservationist John Muir’s visits included one memorable argument with Dix’s Uncle John. Muir admirers may be surprised at the tangle of family relationships begun when daughter Helen married Daggett resident Buel Funk.
On March 3, 1910 Mary Beale wrote a letter to John Muir, one of the first nature conservationists and guiding hand behind Yosemite National Park, about a problem she had. At around that time Mary had contracted pneumonia and the effects of the disease left her with lingering health problems.
To help his friend, John Burroughs also inquired to Muir about the VanDyke Ranch in Daggett. Muir’s daughter, Helen Muir Funk, was in the same situation and found that desert living helped her. Helen Muir Funk’s home is now the home of the Augustan Society in Daggett.
Later in 1910 Mary Beal moved to the Van Dyke Ranch. At first glance the rough town of Daggett was not a good fit for the shy Mary but she thrived there until shortly before her death in 1964. She first moved into a tent house at the Van Dyke Ranch. Tent houses, with wooden floors, walls and a canvas roof, were common temporary housing at the time.
Mary had an interest in plants since childhood so she turned her interest into a long standing passion. At that time there weren’t many books on desert plants so when William L. Jepson, a professor at the University of California at Berkley, published A Manual of Flowering Plants of California in 1925, Mary discovered her passion.
Mary got a copy and it soon became her bible and the book is still used as a source today. Jepson also became a friend and visited Daggett many times. Mary would also send her samples and notes to Jepson in Berkley and they are still part of the Jepson collection.
During the 1930s, Mary Beale hiked the Providence Mountains and identified several species of plants and wildflowers. Her friends, Jack and Ida Mitchell, built a road, trails and stairs where they led tours of limestone caverns. Yes you guessed it, named Mitchell Caverns.
Mary was also good friends with Minerva Hoyt, and the two were fervent desert explorers together. Hoyt, a southern belle from Mississippi, is remembered for her role in the establishment of Joshua Tree National Monument, now Joshua Tree National Park.
Mary went all over the desert to take pictures, get samples and study desert wildflowers even though she didn’t drive. In 1938 she won a photo contest sponsored by Desert Magazine. Mary had an article published in the magazine in 1939.
It is not known how she got the job of writing the articles but the fact that Desert Magazine editors and writers were frequent visitors to the Van Dyke Ranch might be the reason she got the gig. Mary wrote articles regularly for the magazine for 14 years when she had to stop because of health problems.
In 1953 Mary Beale’s passion was made into a trail when the Mary Beale Nature Trail at Mitchell Caverns was dedicated. Mary died in 1964. She was buried in a grave next to Dix Van Dyke in Daggett Pioneer Cemetery.
“A bitter wind was blowing over the Mohave,” says Linnie Marsh Wolfe, when an aging John Muir arrived at a desert ranch late in the winter of 1914. Most people know that Muir took sick with his final illness near an obscure desert town called Daggett. However, beyond that, little is known about his relationship to Daggett, to the Mojave desert, and to the friends he made there during the last seven years of his life.
Yet the period is rich with Muir’s personal involvement, with ironies, and his influence on others, and it is a period awaiting further exploration by students of Muir. A mountain and ice man, Muir didn’t go willingly to the California desert. Rather, it was the health of daughter Helen that forced him out there in his final years.
Muir lived on the Van Dyke Ranch, one mile East of Daggett. The ranch was owned by Theodore Strong Van Dyke, a well-known outdoor writer of the day who shared Muir’s sympathy for nature.
The old California Agricultural Inspection Station mentioned in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was located in Daggett right across the road from the ski lodge building, formerly the Minneola Land Development Company sales office.
The inspection station featured in the 1939 movie version of his book was built in 1930 and was used until 1953 when a newer inspection station down the road replaced it. This was the third inspection station built in Daggett.
“…Daggett. Pop. 245, alt. 2006 ft. As you approach Daggett from the east, you will be stopped at the CALIFORNIA INSPECTION STATION, located at this point to check cars coming from the east. Here all westbound cars are stopped and careful inspection made to prevent unwitting importation of fruit and plant diseases and parasites.
The inspection is quite thorough: you will probably be asked to open all suitcases, untie all parcels, and unlock rear trunk compartments for inspection. The state has expressed regret at being compelled to make this inspection, but the great citrus and vegetable industries of the state make it imperative that a check be made. Even a few disease-bearing fruits or plants can multiply quickly. Keep the admission certificate they give you.
Daggett itself is a tree-shaded little old town that was formerly the location of smelters which handled the ore brought down from nearby mountains. Some of the old store buildings remain, but the town is now quiet. There are two trailer camps but no cabins. Cafes, garage and gas stations.” ~A Guidebook to Highway 66 by Jack D. Rittenhouse, 1946, page 118.
When the interstate replaced Route 66, the inspection station was moved to Needles on Interstate 40.
In his book, “Upper Mojave Desert–A Living Legacy,” young John T. Connelly recalled, “My Uncle Jerome would take me across the river to the Daggett business district to buy groceries and supplies at Hillis’ store.
I’ll never forget a woman named Mrs. Preston. She had a saloon and a grocery store. She’d walk to the depot, pick up a quarter of beef, throw it over her shoulder, and carry it back to her store.
She was quite a character, I’ll tell you. Always ready to a fight a man at the drop of a hat. Yes, indeed, she was some gal.” Mathilde Preston became known by locals as Mother Preston and Ma Preston.
Ma Preston moved to Ludlow after marrying Tom Preston, who had discovered a silver lode in Calico but moved to Ludlow for the construction boom.
Besides being a miner, Tom had been a partner in a saloon venture in Calico. Sadly, Tom tended to drink away his profits until he met Mathilde, a tough-as-nails stocky woman from France with big ideas.
Mathilde became one of the principal land owners in several mining towns, and also operated a number of ‘boarding houses.’ According to Dix Van Dyke, in his book, “Daggett, Life in a Frontier Town,” those boarding houses tended to lean heavily towards the definition of brothels, making “Madame Preston” also a “Madam Preston.”
“Ma Preston was a madam of sumptuous proportions and valorous spirit, capable of locking the head of an unruly client in the crook of an immense arm and pummeling his face with her windmilling fist.”
Ironically, this the only known authenticated facial photo of Mathilde Preston and it wasn’t even her own passport. Both Tom and Mathilde returned to her native France to live out the rest of their days near Paris. In 1926, Mathilda passed away exactly five months and one day after Thomas died of natural causes.
The official cause on her death certificate was attributed to “myocardial insufficiency” –Mathilde had often said she could not live without Tom–and apparently died of a broken heart.
Since Tom and Mathilde’s marriage bore no children, she left a sizable estate, even by today’s standards, to her two nephews. Update: For more about Ma Preston, please read our article: https://www.thedesertway.com/ludlow-ca/
Another frequent visitor to Daggett was Death Valley Scotty, who claimed to have a fabulously rich gold mine at a secret location north of Daggett. Only decades later was it discovered that Scotty’s wealth came from an eccentric Chicago millionaire. The Old Stone Hotel, built in 1883, was once an “office” for Death Valley Scotty.
Other notables who stayed at the Stone Hotel are Lt. Governor John Daggett, John Muir (whose daughter, Helen, was a resident of Daggett) and “Borax” Smith. Prospector Frank “Shorty” Harris was also a frequent visitor to Daggett.
Bill Frakes was another colorful Daggett character, who tried unsuccessfully to breed coyote-killing sheep, and who prowled the wild river bottoms tracking real and imagined malefactors.
In 1930, the Barstow-Daggett Airport and Beacon became an important site of air aviation in southern California. By 1943, in the early years of World War II, the Daggett tower, because of its proximity to military operations at the Victorville Army Air Base, increased its workload 400 to 500%. By 1955, it was among the top ten busiest stations in the nation. It ended in 1961 when the airport was relocated.
Nowadays, Daggett ghost town boasts a population of about 200. Daggett is a station on the BNSF Railway on the Needles Subdivision. Trains are frequent on the line as this line goes to Chicago. It is also a junction of the Union Pacific’s Cima subdivision, the former LA& SL line from Salt Lake City, and Utah via Las Vegas, Nevada. The UP runs via track rights on the BNSF and goes to Riverside, California.
County Service Area 40 provides television broadcast from Elephant Mountain near Daggett and Newberry Springs to a 100 square mile area encompassing Barstow, Daggett, Hinkley, Newberry Springs and Yermo. This CSA provides service to approximately 35,000 households and is funded by property taxes and rental income.
Daggett Museum has reopened on weekends from 1pm-4pm. The museum is located at 3370 Second Street in Daggett.
“The deserts should never be reclaimed. They are the breathing spaces of the West and should be preserved forever.” (The Desert 59)
Citations and Additional Information
The Mojave River and Its Valley by Erma Peirson, 1970
Upper Mojave Desert–A Living Legacy by Mary Ann O’Conley, 1969
Daggett: Life in a Mojave Frontier Town by Dix Van Dyke, Edited by Peter Wild, 1997
The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances by John C. Van Dyke, 1901
The Grapes of Wrathby John Steinbeck, 1939
Keepers of the Caves, 2nd Ed. by Jack Mitchell, 2003