August 31, 2018

Photo Essay: Whispers of Madness at a Hilltop Dungeon for the Sick

Today, most tourists find themselves in the remote, rural town of La Rumorosa—part of the Tecate municipality—to visit the nearby cave paintings.

But in the mid-1920s, Governor Abelardo L. Rodríguez traveled to La Rumorosa to escape the blistering heat of Mexicali...

...and he brought the federal headquarters with him.

With its closer proximity to the Pacific Ocean and its high elevation, La Rumorosa was known to be much more temperate than where the Mexican government had been headquartered farther inland.

In fact, La Rumorosa (a.k.a. "The Whisperer," known for its whistling winds) was downright chilly compared to Mexicali—and so, at the highest point of the village, Campo Alaska was established.

Functioning as both a military base and Mexican government administrative offices, barracks and even a school were built and used by federal workers, military staff, and their families—at least, until the mercury dropped enough for them to return to Mexicali.

As much as the cooler temperatures must've been a relief for those who were forced to relocate twice a year... can imagine what a hassle it was to move staff, paperwork, and supplies across the Sierra de Juárez mountain range...

...even if the Camino Nacional toll road supposedly made travel across the Northern Territory of Baja California easier.

Eventually, it made more sense to use the hilltop facility in the tiny village (with no proper border crossing to the U.S., though it's situated at the border across from Jacumba Hot Springs) to house people who wouldn't be going anywhere else—at least, not anytime soon.

So, in 1931, Governor Carlos Trejo Lerdo de Tejada converted Campo Alaska into a facility for patients without much hope: the insane and those infected with TB and other infectious diseases. 

It's unclear whether the whispering wind would have comforted or further maddened the "idiots" and "imbeciles" of the asylum (a.k.a. manicomioLa Casa de los Locos or "House of the Madmen").

The tuberculosis infirmary (Hospital Antituberculoso del Distrito Norte) ran concurrently with the asylum, as both types of patients had been receiving "treatment" in squalor at the nearby Civic Hospital and were subsequently evicted and rehospitalized at Campo Alaska. Nobody wanted to have much of anything to do with the crazy or contagious, so they got lumped in together.

The Rumorosa Hospital, like many facilities at the time, was fraught with corruption and the perceived unfair treatment of its patients—something that's now obvious, given the nickname it was known by and its use of seclusion as treatment of "madness."

In fact, the operation of the hospital didn't differ too much from a military operation, as it was necessary to keep the manicomial patients under constant surveillance.

A local paper published an editorial criticizing the hospital's "terrible conditions," citing famine and theft of blankets and other supplies that made the sanitarium unlivable—particularly during the unseasonable freeze of the winter of 1935-6.

Doctors and nurses weren't held accountable for their actions, and patients were held in corrals that weren't fit for any human being. But then again, at the time, the mentally ill weren't considered deserving of humane treatment because they weren't human.

Of course, all of that negligence only aggravated the patients' suffering—and eventually (though not soon enough), the abuses were denounced.

But there was such a deluge of complaints that pretty much all of them got lost in the shuffle and didn't survive bureaucracy.

So, instead of improving conditions at La Rumorosa, the patients were simply relocated—again—in 1955.

By 1958, the site was completely abandoned.

In 2004, Campo Alaska was designated an important cultural site. The federal building was restored and converted into a museum of local history (though not of local insanity and infection) and the other structures have been preserved in a state of arrested decay.

And despite all of the travelers who head west to Tecate or east to Mexicali over the National Road, most of them don't know that Campo Alaska ever existed—or that the site is open to visitors now.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Little Valley of Ancient Art and Astronomy
Photo Essay: Lanterman Developmental Center, Pomona, Haunted & Closing
Photo Essay: Rancho Los Amigos, Abandoned County Poor Farm, Downey (Exterior—Updated for 2018)

Another One Bites the Dust: Santa Monica Edition (Updated for 2022)

[Last updated 7/8/22 10:34 PM PT—info on sculpture removal added]
[Last updated 12/13/21 11:04 AM PT—info on stained glass removal added]

The largest of Millard Sheets's mosaic murals commissioned by Home Savings and Loan is was on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica.

It's It was the only such work by Sheets (essentially, a bank commission) in Santa Monica.

August 30, 2018

Photo Essay: Upon the Opening of the 2018 LA County Fair

The Los Angeles County Fair ranks as the country’s fourth-largest and is bigger than many state fairs. This year, it opens on August 31 and runs through September 23.

I've spent the last six years visiting the so-called "Fairplex," and I've discovered that there's more to it than meets the eye.

The "Fairplex" fairgrounds have been home to the LA County Fair since 1922 (the carnival in its current location since 195), but there are plenty of other attractions to explore there—including museums and historical sites.

For one, it's the former site of the Pomona Assembly Center, a detention camp for Japanese-Californians during the first few months of World War II in 1942. (More on that below.)

There's even a gallery in the 1937-era “Fine Arts Building” that you can visit year-round, even when the fair isn’t in session—thanks to muralist, mosaicist, and sometimes architect Millard Sheets, born in Pomona and director of the Fair’s fine arts exhibit for 25 years. It was dedicated as the Millard Sheets Gallery in 1994, though it was later rechristened as the Millard Sheets Center for the Arts at Fairplex.

There is, of course, the Farm at Fairplex and the Fairplex Garden Railroad (accessible via two time-warp faux bois bridges)... well as the RailGiants Train Museum (which I still haven't posted about after visiting in early 2017, but stay tuned) and the hot rod museum (in the fair's former Home Arts Building).

But the fairgrounds themselves are pretty interesting, too—built in 1922 on top of a beet and barley field smack-dab in the Pomona Valley's middle of nowhere, surrounded by orchards, with the San Gabriel Mountains looming in the distance.

Many of the outdoor plazas, fountains, and other landscaping of today were added in 1989, the same year that Buildings 5, 6, 7, and 8 were renovated.

Even with no exhibits showing in the halls, the buildings themselves are actually quite interesting.

Many of them date back to the WPA era, when the federal government helped replace the fair's livestock barns (which had burned down) and temporary tents...

...with permanent structures that were surprisingly deco-styled, considering they were being used to house agricultural and livestock exhibits (like rabbits and chickens).

They were added to the grounds in both 1937 and 1938 and not only still stand but are still used today for various fair- and non-fair-related activities throughout the year.

The LA County Fair has run continuously since 1922, with the exception of one day in 2001 (September 11) and six years during World War II, when the Army took over and used it as part of the war relocation effort (hence the Japanese internment camp), a camp for German and Italian prisoners of war, and a desert training center.

When the fair reopened in 1948 after the end of the war, attendance surpassed the one-million mark for the first time and has hit that milestone every year since, except one.

As interesting as the entire complex is, the LA County Fair itself is notable for a variety of reasons. Of its three mascots, the oldest is Thummer the pig, who joined the Fair Association in 1948 (though he didn't get his moniker until a "Name the Pig" contest in 1952).

In 1955, a fair vendor introduced what was to become known as the "frisbee" to the public for the first time.

Upon the fair's 95th anniversary in 2017, what had been the largest transitional Ferris wheel in the Western Hemisphere (La Grande Wheel, above) was replaced by the smaller but more modern La Grande Wheel XL, whose enclosed and air-conditioned gondolas only reach 130 feet in the air.

Today, the fair is comprised of a sprawling 543 acres, which are impossible to explore all in one day.

And with this year's theme being Route 66 (Foothill Boulevard is just a stone's throw away)—and featuring a "haunted" Route 66 attraction—I might just have to go back to the fairground for the actual fair for the first time since 2012 (when I went twice).

See also my article for KCET, "Five Year-Round Reasons to Visit the L.A. County Fairgrounds."

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Farming at the LA County Fairgrounds
Photo Essay: Tiny Villages at the LA County Fairgrounds (Updated for 2018)
Another Missed Calling
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Back to Bakersfield

August 26, 2018

Photo Essay: A Tale of Two Ghost Towns in Daggett, CA

Daggett first caught my interest as a ghost town along Route 66—one where silver mining had been replaced by solar farms.

But when I went five years ago, I knew I was missing out on something.

I knew there must be something else to see—I just didn't know where to look.

It turns out that Daggett isn't just one ghost town but two—and the other one, a former company town and military base—can be found at the airport.

Barstow-Daggett Airport was officially built in 1933, but its beginnings date back to 1930—when air flight wasn't so common, so it was outfitted with a radio beacon and used as a Desert Airways Communication Station to help pilots navigate. The next year, a 40-foot tower followed; and in 1932, three runways were built as flight activity began to increase.

In the late 1930s, it operated as a municipal airport and civil air field, a "designated landing area" for civilians, and expanded greatly through the end of the decade, thanks to funds supplied by the WPA as part of FDR's New Deal.

In 1942, the War Department chose it as a Modification Center, which Douglas Aircraft Company established as the Daggett Army Air Field later that year. As a tenant, Douglas continued to operate it—and modify as many as 4300 existing aircraft for special military needs (mainly Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers and C-47 Skytrain transport airplanes)—until 1944.

Fighter pilots received advanced training here in 1944. The flying weather was reportedly excellent.

U.S. Army Air Force operations were suspended in 1945, and the Navy took it over from the Army in 1946. In 1958-9, San Bernardino County took over jurisdiction, and it continues to oversee it today.

But the Army presence didn't disappear completely from Daggett Airport. Its proximity to Barstow (only a dozen or so miles west of the airport) and the Fort Irwin installation makes it a likely candidate for Army-owned UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and LUH-72 Lakota helicopters to operate out of the airport—especially since the Barstow airport closed in 1961.

Supposedly, there are 46 aircraft based at this field, three-quarters of which are military-owned. The three-sided, redwood hangar sheds were built to accommodate up to 36 aircraft at any given time. (Only Hangar Shed No. 4 remains.)

And Barstow-Daggett Airport has been called "one of the busiest small airports in the country."

But when I visited last November, I didn't see any aircraft at all—neither on the ground nor in the air.

I didn't see any people, either.

Between headquarters and flight operations buildings, hangars, barracks, utilities, storage, and fuel operations, there were about 65 buildings and 20 other structures at one time in what became known as "Douglas Town."

Nearly 1000 people could have been housed in those barracks and family cottages—though since being declared surplus in 1945, many of them are now gone. The few remaining are derelict.

And the residents who once lived in the 1940s-era housing built for civilian crew and military personnel were evicted in 2012.

I think I've now seen most of it, though I didn't really understand what I was looking at while I was there. And although I saw signs for a swimming pool, I didn't find it.

But I know it's there.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Route 66's Daggett, From Silver to Solar
Photo Essay: A Fake Iraq in the Middle of the Mojave Desert
Photo Essay: George Air Force Base, Abandoned & Consumed
Photo Essay: George Air Force Base, Under Blockade & Demolition