September 02, 2017

Photo Essay: The Ranch & Railroad at Old Woman Springs

If you were a former railroad fireman and engineer, and if you decided you wanted to have a railroad of your own, what would you do?

Well, if you were J. Dale Gentry, a successful businessman from San Bernardino, you'd just buy one and move it to wherever you owned land and could build a depot...

...a water tower...

...a railroad barn...

...and an engine shed.

And so Gentry ushered in the Johnson Valley's "Age of Steam" in 1957 with the Cottonwood and Southern Railroad, whose rolling stock included two flat cars, a caboose, and a 22-ton, 0-6-2 Baldwin saddle tank steam engine built in 1897 that was formerly used on a Hawaiian sugar plantation before being relocated to his cattle ranch.

It didn't matter that the narrow-gauge railroad only went back and forth along less than two miles of track. Because the train wasn't just a novelty—it also connected the two major natural springs on the property, Cottonwood Spring and Old Woman Spring.

Gentry had won the ranch in a lawsuit against his former business parter, cattleman Albert "Swarty" Swarthout, who had homesteaded the ranch in 1907 to use it as a winter pasture. They'd had a falling out in 1938—and after nearly 10 years of litigation, Gentry got Old Woman Springs in the settlement while Swarty got the summer range at Heart Bar Ranch, near Big Bear.

During his time on the ranch, Swarty installed an extensive irrigation system to reap the full benefits from the spring water...

...and then planted fruit trees, as well as alfalfa fields for the cattle to feed on.

For decades, there was only one spring on the property to speak of—the "Old Woman Spring," so named in 1856 by a surveyor for the U.S. Land Office, Henry Washington, whose team discovered a an elderly Native American woman camping there.

Depending on who tells the story, it could've been a dozen or more old women, contrary to its name—which would've made more sense, since the tribesmen of migratory Native Americans (the Piutes, Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, and Serrano were all active in the area at the time) might've left some of their female elders at the springs while they traveled to hunt and gather (piƱon nuts) farther afield.

With its natural water supply, it would've been a good place to hunker down and escape the summer heat while waiting for the rest of the tribe to return in winter.

Maybe that's why in 1909, a desperado named Willie Boy—the subject of the last well-known hunt for a wanted man by a posse on horseback—decided to hideout here while on the run after shooting his lover's father at Gilman Springs.

(There are also rumors that he'd worked as a ranch hand for Swarty and that the two were friends. But then again, there are a lot of unsubstantiated claims when it comes to the story of Willie Boy.)

And it turns out, there was even more water than those first surveyors thought—because in 1953, a caretaker managed to open up a second spring, now known as Cottonwood Springs (no relation to the one in Joshua Tree National Park). The railroad that Gentry brought onto the property four years later connected the two springs.

Ranching operations, though, hadn't turned a profit since before 1929, despite having survived the Great Depression...

...but with over 400 acres of deeded land, and another 1600 acres with both water and grazing rights, Old Woman Springs Ranch was (and is) still valuable property.

In 1977, William Church bought Old Woman Springs Ranch and planted a fruit orchard.

And although ownership has changed hands since then, it's still private property—though there's been some talk of trying to open it up to the public as some kind of resort or retreat.

In the meantime, the only way I know of getting onto the property is during the Morongo Basin Historical Society's annual tour.

If you want to take a peek at the property look for the E Clampus Vitus historical plaque along Old Woman Springs Road, which faces Cottonwood Spring and is positioned right along the old landing strip, where you might catch a small, private plane taking off.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The End of the Old West at Gilman Ranch
Photo Essay: A Historic Oasis in the Valley of the Oaks
Photo Essay: The Ruins of Santa Fe Springs

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