The expeditions passing through the desert in the mid- to late-1800s saw only arid, barren land. They stopped at the palm tree oasis long enough to refresh, water the horses, and replenish their canteens. It took vision and grit to see the possibilities of this land.
What follows are some of the pioneering men who laid the foundation for today’s Palm Springs. Visit the Palm Springs Historical Society at the Village Green on Palm Canyon Drive to learn more about the dozens of other colorful men who contributed to the early days of Palm Springs.
Jack Summers, the first white man to live in what is now Palm Springs, was the Palm Springs Way Station agent for the William Bradshaw Stage Line that ran from San Bernardino to Wickenburg, Ariz., just beyond the Colorado River. The Bradshaw line carried mail, travelers, and those wanting to mine for gold in La Paz, New Mexico Territory (now Arizona). Summers and his wife lived in the adobe station from 1865 until the stage line ceased operations in 1877.
By 1875, the railroad was building tracks at Seven Palms, six miles north of the way station. Members of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians worked as laborers. When the railroad opened in 1877, it was the end of the stage line. The old Seven Palms Train Depot is now the location where Amtrak trains pick up and discharge passengers.
John Guthrie McCallum (1826-1897) symbolizes the “no room for failure” attitude of early white settlers in Palm Springs. He was a successful and politically connected San Francisco attorney who served as a state senator. In search of a warmer, drier climate for his eldest son, who suffered from tuberculosis, he took on the position of Indian agent for the San Bernardino Mission Indians in 1883. His son made scant improvement, so when McCallum heard about an even drier climate and the curative powers of the hot mineral waters of Agua Caliente, he resigned his post in 1885 and moved his family to what was known as Palm City. McCallum purchased 320 acres in what is now downtown Palm Springs and a one-fifth interest in Palm City Water Co. He built an adobe house on his land near the hot springs and opened a small store. A few months later, he bought more land, had a surveyor lay out a subdivision, and within a year had sold 46 of the 76 lots.
McCallum envisioned a community of desert ranchers who produced and sold crops year-round. However, to do this, he needed access to water — a lot more water. He formed Palm Valley Land and Water Co. with three partners from Los Angeles. Soon a 19-mile, rock-lined wash was built to bring water from Whitewater River to the desert floor. According to Palm Springs Legends by Greg Niemann (2006), McCallum ran ads promoting his new development: “Perfect climate, wonderful scenery, pure mountain water; the earliest fruit region in the state; absolute cure for all pulmonary and kindred diseases.” By 1890, Palm Valley had given way to the name Palm Springs.
The ads drew visitors, crops were plentiful, and those visitors became residents. By 1893, McCallum had increased his landholdings to more than 6,000 acres. A large rainfall that same year ruined the crops and destroyed the irrigation canals. The rain was followed by an 11-year drought. With ruined fields, many of the settlers abandoned Palm Springs. McCallum and other white settlers eventually lost their petition with the federal government to gain control over the Agua Caliente’s Tahquitz and Andreas canyon water rights. McCallum died of heart failure at the age of 70.
Welwood Murray (1832-1914) lived in Banning and was a friend of McCallum. In 1886, McCallum told him about Palm Valley and the great opportunities. Murray immediately bought five acres across from his friend and opened Palm Springs Hotel for visitors coming to buy land. The one-story, ranch-style hotel could accommodate up to 26 guests. To enhance the hotel, Murray leased land at the hot springs from the Indians for $100 a year and built a bathhouse for the comfort of his hotel guests. That bathhouse was located where the Spa Resort Casino is now.
Murray was interested in vegetation and planted 22 varieties of fruit trees and other plants. Concerned about the lack of reading materials for residents, he created a borrowing library in a separate adobe building at the back of his hotel, often lending out his own books. The drought of 1894 killed most of his beloved vegetation, and a disheartened Murray tried unsuccessfully to sell the hotel. His son and wife died before him, and he buried them on his land, which heirs later donated to the city. Murray himself was buried there in 1914. Palm Springs Hotel closed in 1909, and the structure was demolished in 1954. Murray’s son gave the City of Palm Springs his father’s land in exchange for the city building a public library, which still bears the Welwood Murray name, on the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way.
David Manley Blanchard came to Palm Valley for the dry climate because of his pneumonia, which had turned into tuberculosis. Arriving in 1897 during the drought, Blanchard bought mules and worked delivering mail between Palm Valley and the train station at Seven Palms. After a time, he opened up a feed and grocery store in the old stagecoach way station. Blanchard also served as the postmaster and a barber. In 1913, he sold his store to Carl Lykken and J.H. Bartlett. Lykken eventually bought out Bartlett.
Carl Lykken (1884-1972) also served as postmaster and bought and operated the first local telephone out of his general store. His telephone extended to The Desert Inn, and he also had a dry battery to connect his telephone to the telegraph at the train station, allowing him to contact the outside world. In 1929, Lykken built the first house with central heating. An enthusiastic hiker and rider, he was active in founding many of Palm Springs’ most iconic institutions. He was a founding member of the Palm Springs Library Board and Palm Springs Desert Museum and was a charter member of the Polo Club and Desert Riders. Lykken started the Palm Springs Police and Fire Protection districts. His daughter, Jane Hoff, still lives in the Coachella Valley. In recognition of his years of service and his love of the hiking and riding, the old Skyline Trail was expanded and renamed the Lykken Trail.
Prescott T. Stevens (1846-1932) came to The Desert Inn from Hollywood around 1914 for a healthier environment for his wife’s respiratory problems. He bought large tracts of land on the north and eastern sides of town. He also bought shares in Palm Valley Water Co. and in 1927 created Whitewater Mutual Water Co. He put in underground piping to bring water to Palm Springs from Whitewater Canyon at Windy Point. It ensured a steady supply of water, despite wind or rain; many of the homes in northern Palm Springs still use this water system. Stevens then financed fellow pioneer Hicks’ purchase of 20 acres of land in Las Palmas and Merita Vista. Stevens financed and Hicks built El Mirador Hotel, the first luxury hotel with an 18-hole golf course that catered to the Hollywood crowd. Unfortunately, it opened in 1929 during the Depression, and Stevens was forced to sell the property to his creditors in 1931. He died shortly thereafter and never saw the eventual successful fruition of his dream.
Alvah Hicks (1884-1944) homesteaded land north of Palm Springs in 1912 and moved to Palm Springs in 1915, according to grandson James Hicks. A master carpenter by trade, Hicks built many of The Desert Inn buildings and oil magnate Tom O’Donnell’s house above what is now the O’Donnell Golf Course. Hicks also built the Ingleside Inn and many of the finest houses in the 1920s and ’30s. His son, Harold, says that his father “… didn’t have a great deal of money, but he had an admirer in Mr. Tom O’Donnell. My father built his house, and he was very much attracted to my father. … O’Donnell said ‘Why don’t you buy the water company and get everything squared away?’ My father said ‘That’s a good idea, but I don’t have any money.’” (Community Connection, May 10, 2005)
O’Donnell financed Hicks’ purchase of Whitewater Mutual Water Co. from Stevens in the 1920s, and Hicks founded Palm Springs Water Co. Hicks also opened the first building supply store at what is now Sunny Dunes Road and Palm Canyon Drive. He made many successful real estate purchases, including buying land for $5 an acre that he eventually sold to Charles Farrell and Ralph Bellamy for $66 an acre — the land that would become the legendary Racquet Club.
Francis F. Crocker (1900-1992) is the visionary electrical engineer who dreamt up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. He asked Desert Inn owner Owen Earl Coffman (1892-1967) to help him with this endeavor. Coffman spent many years lobbying local and state politicians. The tram finally opened in 1963 and was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world. Look for a full story on the history of the tramway in the September 2013 issue of Palm Springs Life.
Frank Bogert (1910-2009) came to Palm Springs in 1927 and soon became an icon of the Palm Springs lifestyle. Tall and lanky, he was an expert horseman, photographer, promoter, and developer. His photographs of celebrities cavorting in the sun helped publicize Palm Springs to the rest of the world. He was the longest-serving mayor of the city and wrote several books on the history of Palm Springs.