About Never Quite Lost

The roads that led somewhere and now go nowhere. The history that you see out of the corner of your eye. The flicker where past and present collide. The time and the road and the world that is never quite lost.

BALLARAT AND THE MYSTERY POWER WAGON

 

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Ballarat, at the base of the Panamint Mountain Range in southern California, was founded in 1897 and named after a gold camp in Australia by an Australian immigrant called George Riggins. However, Ballarat wasn’t a gold strike itself; instead, it was a supply town serving the mines in the Panamints.

KODAK Digital Still CameraFor its first few years, Ballarat thrived. Some 500 people made their homes in this desolate part of California and the town had seven saloons, a post office, school, jail, morgue, three hotels and a Wells Fargo station. But, apparently, no church.

Then, towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century, mining began to decline. The Ratcliff Mine in Pleasant Canyon, which had been one of the biggest markets for Ballarat, closed in 1903 and the town was soon dying. In 1917 came that final death knell, the closure of the post office. A few hardy characters – including the famous Shorty Harris and ‘Seldom Seen’ Slim hung on, but Ballarat is today most renowned for ‘residents’ who never lived there: the Manson Family.

KODAK Digital Still CameraIn the 1960s, Charles Manson and his followers moved into the Barker Ranch south of Ballarat, travelling through what was left of the town to get there. In October 1969, he and others were arrested at the Barker Ranch, Ballarat being the last place Manson was a free man. Today Ballarat has a small store run by Rocky Novak with irregular opening hours, the remaining building are mostly in ruins (a plan in the 1960s to make an RV park here failed miserably and finally petered out in the 1990s) and the only reminder of the Manson Family connection is an old Dodge Power Wagon.

There’s argument over exactly who this belonged to – although it definitely wasn’t Manson himself. Some believe it belonged to Charles ‘Tex’ Watson who broke down in Ballarat trying to escape. While Watson did own one of the two Power Wagons the Family needed to drive up Goler Wash to the ranch (they did get a Chevy school bus up to the ranch, although no-one’s too sure how they did it), and it did indeed stay in Ballarat for a while, it was eventually traded off to Leon Griffin, caretaker at Briggs’ Redlands Camp. Leon took the Power Wagon to pieces and then died.

KODAK Digital Still CameraSo, where did the Power Wagon now in Ballarat come from? One theory is that it belonged to Bobby Beausoleil and had been left at the ranch. When the arrests and trials were over, Kirk Barker, owner of the Barker Ranch, moved that Dodge down to Ballarat as a runaround. But no-one seems to know for sure.

Ballarat does have one other claim to a place in popular culture. At the beginning of Easy Rider, when Peter Fonda throws away his Rolex, he did so in Ballarat.

 

 

 

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THE MAN WHO LOVED CARS AND TRAINS

The old Route 66 bridge on Crookton Road.

There is a fluidity to Route 66 that those who love the road come to expect, to fear and sometimes to cherish. Like any living organism – and despite popular opinion it is still living – each year the road loses something, gains something…

‘Boxcar’ Billy Richey’s trackside cross.

In the autumn of 2016 I stopped at Crookton Overpass between Ash Fork and Seligman in Arizona. Leaning over the side of the 1930s bridge I spotted something that hadn’t been there a few months previously. While travelling, roadside crosses (or descanso as they’re sometimes called in the South West) are a familiar sight; memorials beside railroads less so. But clearly someone had cared enough to craft a homemade cross and then scramble down the embankment to set it up. The cross bore only the name ‘Boxcar’ Billy Richey and the words ‘ETERNAL SERVITUDE OF GREASE AND SPEED’ which sounded to me more like a car club saying than that of the railroad.

 

It was both. William Max ‘Billy’ Richey was born on 25 April 1978 in Winslow, Arizona and started his career for the BNSF in July 1997 when he was just 19 years old, following in the footsteps of his father. Seven years later he became a conductor and then, in 2012 he was promoted to locomotive engineer, a job he loved.

The smile that lit up a room.

Outside of his family of six children, his main passion was old cars and he was a proud member of the Highway Horrors Car Club (who gave him the nickname ‘Boxcar’) although he found time for fishing, camping and just about anything outdoors. His friends described him as the light of any party and say that, if Billy was smiling, then so was everyone else. That light was extinguished when, on 25 August 2015, Billy died suddenly in Surprise, Arizona. He was just 37 years old.

Billy’s final wishes were to have his ashes scattered in Sycamore Canyon, but, the following summer, fellow members of his car club decided to erect a permanent marker to their friend. On a bright July day, they put up a handmade cross on the side of the tracks at Crookton Overpass, overlooked by Route 66, combining both his job and his love of cars.

Members of the Highway Horrors CC setting up Billy’s memorial.

This is recent history. This is a memorial on Route 66 to a young man, hardly gone, who we can almost see out of the corner of our eye. It’s a timely reminder that Route 66 is not a museum for us to simply ramble through, peering curiously at things as if they were exhibits behind glass. It’s a living entity and there is a human story behind every building, every turn of the road and every roadside memorial.

Safe home, Billy Richey, safe home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cross sits just to the left side of the rails out of shot.

Train rolling on down the line.

 

 

 

THE BIRDS HAVE FLOWN VULTURE CITY

Arizona has many ghost towns, but among the finest is Vulture City near Wickenburg. It began life in 1863 after Henry Wickenburg discovered the Vulture mine (supposedly he was retrieving a vulture he’d shot when he found it). Gold fever would lead to a town of some 5000 people with a school, post office, saloon, stores, brothel, assay office (and, in later years, a gas station) becoming, at the time, one of the richest towns in Arizona. In order to feed a town of this size, Jack Swilling reopened irrigation channels in the Phoenix Valley that had been dug by Hohokam Native Americans and established a grain route; Wickenburg was directly responsible for the development and growth of Phoenix.

KODAK Digital Still CameraOver the years, the Vulture Mine produced $200 million of gold, although it’s likely almost as much simply disappeared into various pockets. The assay office was particularly prone to being burgled and thousands of dollars of gold was stolen over the years. 18 men are supposed to have been hung from the Ironwood tree which still stands (next to Henry Wickenburg’s cabins), all of them guilty of stealing gold or ore, although there’s no record of any such hangings actually taking place. It’s a good story though.

Henry Wickenburg sold the mine in 1866 for $85,000 but was swindled out of all but $20,000 after the owners claimed he didn’t have clear title to the mine. He spent years trying to sue the owners, running through every penny he had. On 14 May 1905, ill, tired and destitute, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Vulture City lasted until 1942 when the mine was closed on order of the government. Production had slowed considerably years before and the job had become ever more dangerous. In 1923, seven men were killed when the ceiling of a large underground chamber collapsed in on them, burying them and their twelve burros in the Glory Hole. Although the mine did reopen in the 1940s, it wasn’t for long and it soon closed permanently. Today Vulture City and the Vulture mine is privately owned and private property, although it does offer tours on weekends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHERE THE FRONTIER ENDED

To the right, the shell of the Trading Post and behind it, the Wilson’ house.

Roadside attractions on Route 66 came and went with varying degrees of success and durability but perhaps one which has been comprehensively forgotten and about which little history survives was the Frontier Museum between Santa Rosa and Cuervo in New Mexico.

There looks to be a certain amount of artistic licence with this postcard. The Museum never advertised its herds of cattle or horses and the countryside certainly doesn’t look like this bit of New Mexico!

But, back in the 1950s, when people would stop at almost anything to break a tedious journey, the Frontier Museum, around 10 miles east of Santa Rosa, welcomed countless visitors. The kids were attracted by the exhibits, the ‘real’ cowboys and the Wild West trading post, the adults probably more so by the cafe and the chance of a cold beer.

The Frontier was a complex which included the museum, complete with not very well painted murals on the side, the Trading Post, a service station, the Old Gay 90s Frontier Bar and three residential houses, all constructed in Western style. It was run by William S and Lucy Pearl Wilson; Lucy had been born in Pratt, Kansas, but moved to her husband’s home town of Texline in Texas when she was 18. William was a car mechanic and railroad worker and they lived in Texas with their two children, Charles and Jaunita (known as Nita) until buying the Frontier.

The Frontier Museum, now mostly collapsed, but still with the skeleton work of the original signs.

The museum was, as is the case with these places, a mixture of the old and the faux. Albuquerque carpenter, Roy Mattson, spent a year building a full scale exact replica of a Concord stagecoach in which retired rodeo rider, Hondo Marchand, would give rides to tourists. (Either this wasn’t a huge success or he fell out with the Wilsons because, by 1959, he was over in Anderson, Indiana, giving rides to shoppers at the Hoosier Supermarket.) Hondo, incidentally, was, as a young man, taught rope tricks by Will Rogers at the 101 Ranch in Bliss, Oklahoma and travelled with Will Rogers’ Wild West Show. He – and the stagecoach – would later retire to Texas with his wife, Dot.

The Museum complex – along the front would have been the cafe and the Old Gay 90s Frontier Bar.

Why the Wilsons chose to move in middle age to New Mexico to run a tourist attraction and cafe is unknown, but by 1960 they had clearly had enough. The complex was advertised for sale or trade in the Clovis News-Journal of 11th December 1960 and, at the bottom of the advert, Mr Wilson plaintively wrote; ‘I would like to retire’. Eventually the Wilsons did retire – although no-one was interesting in buying the property – and then Lucy died suddenly in 1977.

The service station on the Frontier Museum’s 76 acres.

It was finally the end for the Frontier Museum which had been shut up for years. The contents were sold to an orthodontist in southern California; Dr Alan Barbakow bought everything from sets of false teeth to ten horse-drawn wagons, much of which he used to decorate his offices. There was so much stuff that he hired 10 volunteers to each rent a car and trailer and transport the artifacts from Santa Rosa to Santa Clarita where the wagons were all restored before being put on display.

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Dr Alan Barbakow and some of his Frontier Museum collection. Photo by the Santa Clarita Signal.

Dr Barabakow retired around five years ago but he continues to cherish his collection of Western paraphernalia. The Frontier Museum and its buildings have not fared as well. After William Wilson’s death in 1983, the place was abandoned. Little remains of the buildings which housed the museum and cafe, while the Trading Post and service station are mere shells. Where people stopped to see cowboys and stagecoaches, the traffic thunders by on I-40 with few people even realising that was ever anything there.

The service station on the Frontier Museum’s 76 acres.

This was once the Trading Post although little now remains of its original Wild West-style wooden cladding.

The CAFE sign, gradually falling into the undergrowth.

For photos from 2003 before the place became completely derelict, I recommend http://www.lightrainproductions.com/Trip%20Reports/Frontier1.htm

The Frontier in its heyday – cowboys, Indians and beer, what more did the traveller need?

 

 

THE SADDEST TRADING POST ON 66

One of the earliest known photos of the Toonerville Trading Post, then selling Texaco fuel and with a bright mural around the top of the building.

Even in its heyday, Route 66 was not the continuous benign bright ribbon that some might imagine. Almost without exception, life was as hard as anywhere else – sometimes harder – and that highway traffic was comprised not only of the military, the commercial traveller and the tourist, but of darker elements. Some places seemed to attract sadness and tragedy more than others, and one such place was Toonerville in Arizona.

Toonerville in the 1960s, now a Shell station and concentrating on the cafe and beer rather than Indian curios.

The Toonerville Trading Post, one of four along a short stretch of Route 66, was built and opened by Earl Tinnin in 1935. He and his wife, Elsie, ran the post and raised two children there, Helen and George Earl. Then, in August 1947, tragedy struck. Apparently, while playing with toy guns, the 14-year-old George picked up a real weapon; the .32 pistol went off and shot him in the left side of his face, killing the boy. In these days of health and safety, the incident raises questions – why was a real gun mixed in with toys? Why didn’t a boy of almost fifteen who had been raised in an isolated area and thus presumably around firearms recognise the difference? It was recorded as an accident, and the Tinnins continue to operate the trading post for a further seven years until, in 1954, Earl sold Toonerville to Merritt Dow ‘Slick’ McAlister and moved to Flagstaff to run the Nor Star and Ben Franklin motels.

The interior of the Toonerville Trading Post [Coconino County Sheriff’s Department]

McAlister had previously run the Vermilion Cliff Lodge on Route 89 for six years, but as manager rather than owner, and so he must have jumped at the chance to be his own boss with the purchase of Toonerville. Born in 1911, McAlister was, by some accounts, a feisty character for much of his life, the subject of numerous reports of threatening people with his pistol and getting into fights. Indeed, as a 21-year-old, he was involved in a dance hall brawl in which a young man was shot and almost died, although there’s no indication McAlister was at fault. However, by 1971, McAlister was 60 and apparently a changed character who rarely even carried a gun. He had run the post for over sixteen years with his third wife, Pearl, who he had married in 1947. She then had a 14-year-old son, Bronson ‘Buster’ Lamoure (a daughter, Rita Mae, had died while a baby) who appears to be the closest to a child that McAlister had, despite his three trips down the aisle.

As the couple approached retirement age they were preparing to wind down. They’d made attempts to sell the trading post with possibly more enthusiasm they had in keeping it going. As Route 66 was realigned and then I-40 opened, the trading post stood apart from the road with just a single GASOLINE sign to promote it. (The trading post did have the only local alcohol licence in the area which brought in local trade.) It may have been this loneliness that, on the afternoon of 30th August 1971, attracted three young people to stop; contemporary newspaper reports first said it was two black couples in two cars, but it appears to have actually been two males and a woman in a small blue sports car and a light coloured sedan.

Within moments of their arrival, Slick McAlister lay dead and his wife desperately injured with a gunshot wound. She had been shot in the back of the head as she cooked hamburgers for the trio, one of whom then shot McAlister in the chest before they ransacked the shop and living quarters, stealing $70 but missing a larger stash of money. However, while they may have assumed the couple were both dead, Pearl later regained consciousness and managed to ring their friends, the Greys, who ran the Twin Arrows trading post a mile down the road. The Greys arrived to find Pearl in a pool of blood, Slick dead and the hamburgers still frying on the stove top.

The Coroner’s Jury examine the murder scene and the open cash register. [Arizona Daily Sun]

Police initially thought they had a major lead when they believed that Slick wrote down the license plates of any cars stopping for gas. They would later discover that he only did so when the customer was paying by credit card (and it appears that the trio stopped for fuel at Twin Arrows after the robbery), but not before a gentleman from Tucson whose number plate was on that pad was well and truly scared and forced to prove his car had been in the garage for several days.

Slick McAlister’s gravestone in Pinal Cemetery, Central Heights, Arizona.

Two brothers and a girl were arrested shortly afterwards in Las Vegas, but Mrs McAlister couldn’t identify them and their fingerprints didn’t match those found at the scene. And from that point on the trail went cold. No-one has ever been arrested for the crime and Pearl died in 1999, still not knowing who had slain her husband and almost killed her. In 2014, the Toonerville murder was reopened by the cold case officers of the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department. No new evidence or leads have yet come to light.

Toonerville around a month before Mary Smeal’s death. I haven’t had the heart to photograph it since.

But it wasn’t to be the last tragedy at Toonerville. In recent years, the trading post was converted to a private residence and occupied by Mary Smeal, a leading member of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona and chief financial officer for the Hopi Tribe Economic Development Cooperation. Mary had campaigned to save and refurbish the Twin Arrows trading post nearby; many people knew that she had been one of the volunteers involved in preserving and repainting the iconic arrows in 2009, fewer knew that she had paid for all the materials herself. Her next project was to restore the Toonerville property but that all ended a year ago this week. On 16th November 2016, colleagues became concerned that the normally conscientious Mary hadn’t turned up for work. A police welfare check discovered that she had been shot dead by her partner, Jeffrey Jones, who had then turned the gun on himself.

Now Toonerville stands abandoned again, the scene of three deaths wrapped in mystery and about which we will probably never know the full truth.

Toonerville in the 1960s, now a Shell station and concentrating on the cafe and beer rather than Indian curios.

YUCCA – THE BYPASS THAT WAS BYPASSED

 

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Because of the scenic allure of Sitgreaves Pass and the quaint mining town charm of Oatman, most Route 66 travellers opt for this alignment of the Mother Road, many without realising that there is another option which flourished for some twenty years.

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In 1952, Route 66 was realigned to bypass Oatman and the treacherous mountain road, taking a route through Yucca. There had been a town here since the 1880s when it was a service stop for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, part of a line that ran from St Louis, Missouri, to Needles, California. In 1913, the Old Trails Road ran through the Yucca region (and, indeed, parts of that road still exist). It was home to a huge airfield during World War II that would later become the Arizona Proving Grounds. But the coming of Route 66 created a real boom for Yucca; motels, bars and cafes opened, along with a Whiting Brothers’ truck stop.

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The boom lasted just twenty years. In the early 1970s, Interstate 40 ploughed straight through the middle of Yucca and, like so many 66 towns, business owners could only watch as the traffic rolled past a few feet away heading for Needles or Kingman. The Whiting Brothers’ truck stop was one of the first casualties and nothing remains of it now but its iconic sign. A café survived into this century, but the motel is now derelict. On the other side of the highway, the Honolulu Bar was open until fairly recently but is now closed until further notice, which seems pretty permanent. Another 21st century casualty was a garage and salvage yard, now deserted and seized by Mohave County, although one of Yucca’s most famous landmarks, the semi on a stick, still stands. You can’t beat a truck on a stick.

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THE SLOW DEATH OF THE LUDLOW CAFE

The Ludlow cafe in the late 1940s. The freestanding lettering at the front and the LUDLOW CAFE sign survived into the 1990s.

Out in the Mojave desert, on the side of Route 66, the Ludlow Cafe was once a welcome stop to travellers across California. But, over the last ten years, I’ve watched the building that once housed the cafe become ever more dilapidated until, one day, it was gone.

Not to be confused with the A-frame Ludlow Cafe further west and that, thanks to its position at the top of the off ramp for junction 50 of Interstate 40, still thrives, this Ludlow Cafe was a plain box-like building beside the canopied gas station and was built of lumber salvaged from the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad (the same place from where Mother Preston ‘borrowed’ timber!). Run for over twenty years by Rex and Lillian Warnix, it was sold in the 1960s to Laurel and Cameron Friend who owned other properties on the east side of Ludlow, including the next door 76 gas station.

Versions of this wanted ad would run regularly in the San Bernardino County Sun for almost 20 years

It was clearly always difficult to get good staff – and then to get them to stay in the middle of nowhere – and, from 1948 an advertisement ran in the classifieds section of the San Bernardino County Sun asking for women staff. That ad would run several times a year for the next twenty years (although, by 1956, the cafe had apparently got a telephone – perhaps they weren’t willing to give the number out to prospective employees before, although as it was Ludlow 3, any waitress keen enough could have made an educated guess).

The Ludlow Cafe in 2007, boarded up and the signage gone, but still in reasonable shape.

The Friends moved in 1975 and it’s likely that the cafe closed then. For some years it retained its streamlined lettering and, in 1990, when Troy Paiva (a man responsible for so many of the trips I have made in the last few years) used it for one of his ‘light painting’ photographs, the cafe was still open to the elements, the glass gone from the windows, but the counter still in place. If you look at the ‘1959 Cadillac on Route 66‘ channel on Youtube, you will find (among many of Anthony Reichardt’s other wonderful films) a video from August 1992, by which time the cafe was boarded up. When  I first saw the cafe fifteen years later in 2007, the freestanding lettering and the cafe sign were long gone, but the building was still in reasonable shape.

This was October 2008, probably not long after its first fire.

That all changed when I passed by a year later. Winter in the Mojave is cold at nights and apparently transients sheltering in the building had lost control of a fire. I hope that was the case. If the cafe had to burn, then better it was because it was giving shelter and comfort, if in reduced circumstances, as it had all its working life than because it was the victim of kids with too much time on their hands or a casual arsonist.

2010, the fire still evident, and the boarding falling away.

The gutted building was eventually boarded up again in a somewhat half-hearted way, but, by the last time I saw the Ludlow Cafe in 2014, the building was an open, dead-eyed shell.

And then the next year it was gone, another fire, one which, this time, had reduced it to a pile of rubble and charred wood.

 

Spring 2014, the last time I would see the Ludlow Cafe. It was open wide and graffiti artists had found it by now. A year later ti

That was the Ludlow Cafe. As far as I’m aware, only a handful of photos – or possibly just one – exist of it when it was a working, busy cafe. Sadly, there are many more thousands that, like mine, record its slow death in the desert.