Monday, April 15, 2024

East of Tehachapi

Eastbound Union Pacific stacks roll downgrade toward the Mojave Desert.  California Highway 58 parallels the tracks.

"And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden."  Genesis 4:16.

John Steinbeck's most ambitious novel bears the title East of Eden and was a best seller from its release in 1952 to 2003 when it was picked up by Ophra's Book Club.  Your author is uncertain if an endorsement from Ophra is a token of literary excellence, but that did not matter to Steinbeck, who had been dead 48 years when Ophra noticed him. 

Cain left the presence of the Lord because he had killed his brother.  I do not wish to indicate by the title of this article that the land east of Tehachapi is outside the presence of God, although some of it might be, as the discussion below about California City will indicate.

Trains east of Tehachapi, however, are outside the attention of most railfans, which is a pity, because the eastern climb from the Mojave Desert to the summit just west of Monolith contains some of the most spectacular scenery in North America.  

West of Tehachapi the famous Loop draws railfans and simple tourists alike, thousands each year.  To the east lies a land bereft of trees, as open as the solar system, where the railroad runs through Cache Creek Canyon that appears, to the casual observor, to have been created by God specifically to allow trains to climb the mountains and enter California's Central Valley.  

Westbound BNSF stacks have left the Mojave Desert and are entering Cache Creek Canyon that leads upgrade to Tehachapi.  Cache Creek (dry most of the year) is to the right of the tracks.  The Mojave Desert fills the enormous valley in the background.

In the eastern mouth of the canyon.

Eastbound manifest.

To understand this country, one must understand the histories of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe in California.

Building south through the San Joaquin Valley, the Southern Pacific sought entrance to the Los Angeles Basin.  The Transverse Ranges (so named because they run east-west, unlike the Sierra Nevada and Coast Range) stood directly in the railroad's path, however, and the SP decided that Tejon Pass (the route later chosen by Interstate 5 for direct north/south access) was infeasible for railroad construction.  So the locating engineers turned east at Bakersfield and climbed Tehachapi Pass instead -- no easy accomplishment.  At the summit, the railroad followed Cache Creek down to the high Mojave Desert, then rotated south to Palmdale, where it entered Soledad Canyon and began a tortuous descent back west and south to enter the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.

In the 1960's, the SP constructed the Palmdale Cut-off to allow trains to bypass the Los Angeles Basin entirely as they headed east to Arizona and beyond.  Today the Soledad Canyon line hosts a commuter railroad.

In the 19th century, the Southern Pacific was the only railroad connection from San Francisco and the agricultural Mecca of the Central Valley to the east and south, giving the SP a monopoly on rates.  This led, among several things, to Frank Norris's novel The Octopus, which examined the conflict between California wheat farmers and an imaginary railroad that everyone understood to be the Southern Pacific.

The San Francisco Traffic Association was formed in 1891 to build an independent railroad  from San Francisco Bay down through the valley to a connection with the Santa Fe.  Trains could then run directly to Los Angeles or continue east all the way to Chicago, thus providing rate relief from the SP.

Construction south from Stockton commenced in November 1895.  Over 25 miles of track were laid across the board-flat valley by December. By August 1896, 123 miles to Fresno were completed.  By June 1897, 30 miles to Hanford were in operation, and by June 1898, the 80 miles to Bakersfield marked the completion of a competing railroad -- the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railway.

In December 1898, Santa Fe purchased the SF&SJV Railway.  Santa Fe already had a line from Barstow to Mojave, built originally by the SP to stifle competition (that's another story), but the AT&SF had no connection between Mojave and the Central Valley. 

So the Santa Fe looked at constructing a line southwest between Barstow and Mojave to Antelope Valley, then due west along the Los Angeles County - Kern County boundary to a location where a long tunnel (over 7,000 feet) would turn northwest to Lebec, then down into the San Joaquin Valley.  Surveys were conducted as far as the proposed tunnel.  Additional surveys were made south of Bakersfield to the base of the mountains, as well as in Grapevine Canyon (the only feasible route south from the Central Valley).

Proposed AT&SF route to Bakersfield.

Surveying abruptly stopped in 1890, and the Santa Fe procured trackage rights from the SP across Tehachapi Pass to Bakersfield and a connection to the recently purchased SF&SJV.  Santa Fe extended the line from Stockton to Richmond in 1900 and to Oakland in 1904.

No doubt the proposed line through Lebec and across the Transverse Ranges was abandoned once the survey crews looked closely at Grapevine Canyon.  Interstate 5 follows this route and contains a southbound grade of six percent for five miles.  Filled with blind curves of fifteen degrees and more, the original highway was notorious for fatal accidents.

A small section of the original highway.  Interstate 5 blasts a straight line through the canyon on a six percent grade.

The original highway through Grapevine Canyon.

Today (April 2024), both UP and BNSF run trains through Cache Creek Canyon.  Whenever your author has been on the line, traffic frequency seems to be about three-fifths BNSF and two-fifths UP.

Terrain covered in this article.

This westbound BNSF Z is climbing north out of Mojave, California, where it joined the UP tracks to Tehachhapi.  The junction is beneath a highway today (April 2024) and not worth photography.  In about a mile, the tracks will turn west, cross the Second Los Angeles Aquaduct and enter Cache Creek Canyon.   

A westbound BNSF oil train prepares to enter Cache Creek Canyon.

At sundown of a rainy wintrer's day, eastbound BNSF heads to the junction.

DPU on same train.

 Another eastbound BNSF freight has made the turn south.  In the background looms California City, a village with a checkered past, as discussed below.

To understand this country, one must also understand the history of its water development.  The valleys of Southern California are deserts with rain falling only in winter.  Nine months of the year are dry, which is why the Los Angeles Dodgers almost never have a rain-out at home.

The mountains receive more rain -- why they are covered with evergreens -- but the terrain is much too rugged for human habitation.  In 1850, the population of Los Angeles was thus only 1,610.  In 1880 -- 11, 183.  This sleepy little village could not support substantial growth because of lack of water.

In 1913, the first Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, bringing water from the Owens Valley of the Sierra Nevada to the parched community slightly inland from the Pacific.  Los Angeles did not inform the farmers and ranchers of the Owens Valley that the aqueduct would drain away their water, making their properties worthless, which led to the Owens Valley Water Wars, eventually won by Los Angeles, the moneyed interest, which always prevails. 

The Second Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in 1970 and runs side-by-side with the railroad line south to Palmdale. 

With the establishment of these aqueducts to bring water from the mountains to the desert, followed by the introduction of home air conditioning to provide relief from the summer heat, combined with a beautifully mild winter climate, southern California's population exploded.  It seemed like heaven, and everyone wanted to live there.

Eastbound UP stacks have left the canyon and are turning south.

BNSF entering canyon.  Joshua Tree in foreground.

In the late 1940's, Nathan Mendelsohn, called Nat by friend and foe alike, a Czechoslovakian immigrant, educated at Columbia with a Ph.D in sociology, moved to southern California and began dabbling in real estate.  

Nat Mendelsohn.  Image courtesy of Kern County Historical Society.

As this image demonstrates, he looked good in a suit and tie.  He looked serious, as though he might have something important to say.  The photograph was probably taken at one his real estate seminars.  By all accounts, he was a mezmerizing public speaker who could sell almlost anything to almost anyone.

Mendelsohn quickly discovered that (1) the Golden State was undergoing a post-war population boom, and (2) almost anyone with a brain could make money buying and then re-selling California real estate.  

He bought and sold small properties for a while.  Then his dreams grew larger, and with the help of partners he created two centrally-planned cities in the southern California desert:  Riverside and Hesperia.  Both prospered and still thrive in the 21st century.  

But like everything else in life, California's Nirvana came with a cost -- overcrowding.  Greater Los Angeles is composed of several separate desert valleys.  All are fenced by mountains, and access to the ocean is limited to a narrow strip running about 40 miles from northwest to southeast.  Once the valleys are full, there is nowhere to grow.

The valleys were not yet full in the 1950's.  There were still orange groves in Orange County.  But anyone could see that if the metastasizing growth continued, people would eventually be crammed together like cattle in a feed lot -- which is what Los Angeles and environs looks like in the 21st century.

BNSF is running downgrade and south on Union Pacific trackage rights.


Union Pacific stacks have exited Cache Creek Canyon and are running south to Palmdale.

South to Palmdale.

Turning south out of the canyon.

For heavy grainers, oil trains and manifests, BNSF uses a helper set, seen here traveling back downgrade to Mojave.


Mendelsohn purchased a ranch in the high desert north of and across the mountains from Los Angeles.  Artesian wells on the property had produced a steady flow of water for years, supporting luxuriant alfalfa in the middle of desolation.  Always dreaming big, Mendelsohn purchased even more nearby land, intending to create a city of 200 square miles, with a golf course, university, mall, airport and massive central park.  Half a million people would live along winding residential streets. 

The Los Angeles Basin was a desert, and it had flowered.  Mendelsohn believed he could recreate the same magic in another desert.  Or perhaps not.  Perhaps he knew that Los Angeles had been a sleepy desert village until the creation of massive aqueducts that brought water from the Sierra Nevada.  The second Los Angeles Aqueduct was only about 10 miles away, but Mendelsohn could not use it.  Perhaps he knew this as well.

Here is the trick.  Real estate developers can make money even if their projects fail.  How?  By selling land to others who then bear the eventual loss.

So perhaps Mendelsohn was like a tone-deaf musician who believes he can play the violin.  Perhaps he believed that artesian wells could produce enough water to support his dream.  But perhaps, instead, he knew that buying and selling land in California was guaranteed to make money only if you were the first to buy and first to sell.  So perhaps he knew that he could make money regardless of what became of California City, provided he could covince people to purchase land in the desert.  

And how would he convince people to purchase land in the desert?  Well, they could purchase lots in his paradise for almost nothing, then later build a house or instead resell the property for a profit.  Other desert communities had flourished.  California City would, too.  Everyone wanted to live in California.  Anyone could sell land there.  He would make money.  So would his purchasers.  Everyone would grow rich -- until the music stopped.  

Westbound entering the canyon.

Eastbound exiting the canyon.

The serpentine route into the canyon.

Your author believes, though cannot prove, that Mendelsohn knew California City was not destined for prosperity -- because he did not sell land in the traditional manner.  He did not offer lots for sale through traditional real estate agents.  Instead, he enrolled people in a school that supposedly gave students the skills to become real estate agents themselves.  Graduates were required to purchase land in Caliornia City, then pressure family and friends to join the party, then keep on selling California City to the thousands more waiting to purchase.

Mendelsohn advertised in newspapers throughout the West.  By 1970, he had graduated over 3000 salesmen who opened 24 offices throughout the world.  Eventually, over 73,000 souls purchased land in California City.  Mendelsohn made millions.

High-pressure sales tactics were used to enroll students.  As the advertisement below indicates, people could attend the initial seminar for free, where they were bombarded by claims of unlimited opportunity.

Years ago your author, a young man who did not know any better, attended a real estate seminar that likely was similar to Mendolsohn's.  

"Anyone can sell real estate!  Anyone!  Even you!   All you have to do is sign up for this program, which is free, including the training, and then purchase the first lot yourself for a few thousand dollars.  If you qualify, we will even loan you the money."

In the seminar that your author attended, the potential "students" were all seated in a closed-door room without windows.  The program lasted long enough to make everyone hot and tired.  When all the talking was done, you could not simply stand up and leave.  One by one, each person was required to walk through a narrow exit where sat ten people at a long table, each waiting to sign you to a binding contract stating that you would attend the school for free, then purchase a lot.  If you wanted to escape without signing, you had to say "no" to all ten people at the long table.  If you somehow made it past the first nine without purchasing, the tenth would offer to sell you the initial lot at fifty percent savings.  Almost no one made it out the door unscathed.  Your author somehow did.

Mendelsohn’s success lay in the requirement that trainees purchase land before selling to others.  In this fashion, Mendelsohn made money whether anyone else did or not.  He convinced the students that purchasing was smart, because what better way to hawk a piece of the desert than to show the next purchaser that the seller also owned property in California City? 

"It must be a good buy," the student would say to the next man in line.  "I bought a lot myself!"

If the student entered the assembly line early enough, he could sell a few lots, including his own, cash in his chips and sail away.

The key to the scheme, of course, was to sell your lot(s) for more than the purchase price.

The ploy worked only too well, spawning the most egregious pyramid real estate scheme the West has ever seen.  Almost no one planned to build a house in California City.  Almost everyone who purchased a lot intended to resell it.  Thus, the pyramid, with Nat Mendelsohn on top.

Everything worked until suddenly it didn't -- because prices don't rise forever.    

One of Mendelsohn's newspaper advertisements.

The bloom fell off California's rose sometime in the 1960's or 1970's.  The exact date depends upon what part of the state you were living in and how willing you were to admit that paradise was covered with warts.

Your author attended college in California from 1969 to 1973.  He arrived believing that everything good in life could be found in the Golden State.  He left understanding that the road to hell is paved with all sorts of intentions, both good and bad.

The few who actually built houses in California City (population 1,309 in 1970) found that the water was alkaline and unreliable; the promised amenities (golf course, for example) were not being constructed; the wind blew constantly, covering everything inside the house with a fine layer of sand, even with all the windows closed; and the summertime temperatures in a land without water or vegetation routinely exceeded 110 degrees fahrenheit.  


The eastern mouth of the canyon.


Canadian Pacific, Kansas City Southern and BNSF lead a heavy grainer in Cache Creek Canyon.

In 1969, Mendelsohn, who never lived in California City but understood that one should bail before the plan crashes, sold his company to Denver-based Great Western United for $27.4 million.  The purchaser believed that prices would continue rising and began developing similar communities in Colorado and New Mexico.    

The development in Colorado was called Colorado City, at the base of Greenhorn Mountain about halfway between Pueblo and Walsenburg.  A few houses were built, including one owned by my wife's God-parents.  The views are pleasant, but the streets are mostly empty.  Snow is heavy in winter, and one must drive 25 miles into Pueblo to purchase basic necessities.

Into this uniquely American drama stepped the person of one Ralph Nader, the consumer crusader who made his reputation trashing what your author believes was a fine automobile -- the Corvair.  Your author once owned a Corvair and loved it -- his first car.  He remembers it far more fondly that his first date.

But this is neither the time nor place to discuss the merits of a long extinct automobile.  Nader asked his gang of consumer protection attorneys, "Nader's Raiders," to investigate land sales and development throughout California. Their subsequent report included a chapter on California City.

"This is no ordinary real estate scheme.  Mendelsohn isn't trying to sell land, and the public isn't really buying the land. They're engaged in a grand illusion of creating wealth. . .  NK Mendelsohn has perfected the art of turning desert dust into gold -- but only for himself."

In 1971, the Federal Trade Commission sued Great Western and in 1972 ordered the company to stop its misleading advertising campaign.  In 1974, after the company had changed ownership in a hostile takeover by the Hunt Brothers (whose family was the inspiration for the popular 1980's TV show "Dallas"), the FTC ordered the Hunts to pay to about 14,000 misled buyers a $4 million settlement, plus $16 million for community capital improvements, along with $50,000 in legal costs for all three land development projects. 

The Hunts were additionally instructed to provide a warning in all promotional materials that potential investors should “consider the value of any of our land to be uncertain.”  The Hunts made no substantial capital improvements at any of the three locations. 

In 1977, Nat Mendelsohn died a wealthy man (heart attack) while playing golf in Texas.  The population of California Cityon the day of his death was still less than 2000.

Union Pacific rolling downgrade.

In the middle of the canyon.

Westbound oil train.

Never let it be said, however, that fate is without irony.  If Nat Mendelsohn had lived long enough, he would have watched the completion of the California City Correctional Center, built by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a for-profit prison company that launched the era of private prisons in 1983, when it opened an immigration detention center in a former motel in Houston, Texas.  In 2016, the company changed its name to CoreCivic.

The private prison industry has waxed and waned over the years and been the subject of repeated investigations, with allegations of understaffing and prisoner abuse flying like migrating geese.  CoreCivic labels itself as a REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust).  Investing in it is like investing in a company that owns and manages apartments or office buildings.  

What amazes your author is that the facility in California City was built entirely on speculation.  In other words, investors constructed a prison in the middle of the desert, hoping that the state or federal government would decide to use it.  

Amazingly, the federal government obliged and began housing federal inmates for the U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  In plain Engllish, the California City facility housed illegal immigrants. 

In 2013, however, the federal government stopped using private prison facilities.  That same year, in response to a federal order to reduce overcrowding at the state's prisons, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation leased the California City facility for $28.5 million yearly.

Beneath a Joshua Tree, a BNSF manifest climbs to Tehachapi.

Union Pacific stacks are exiting the canyon on their way to Palmdale.

California City gained another employer when in October 2004 the Hyundai-Kia Motors California Proving Ground was opened within city limits.  The site includes a 30,000 square-foot office complex for 50 staff members.

In addition, nearby Edwards Air Force Base employs almost 3,000 people, many of whom have chosen to live in California City.  Thus, in the 2020 census, the population was almost 15,000.  That is not a typo. 

But what the left hand giveth, the right hand taketh away.  In 2023, California slated the California City prison for closure.  By the end of that year, the place was vacant.  When your author drove past in February 2024, the facility was eerily quiet, like a grave yard, and California City houses were sprinkled with "For Sale" signs. 

CoreCivics has provided a statement about California City:  “We are focused on identifying partners to assist in the future as needs of the justice space continue to evolve.”

Who writes such stuff?  Is it an old man in a windowless room, like your author?

Westbound grain deep in the canyon.  This location, like many in this article, requires a strenuous hike.

Eastbound.  These mountains appear to have arisen like folds in a piece of paper pushed together from the side.

UP manifest climbing toward Tehachapi.  The canyon is such a natural exit from the mountains that the railroad's locating engineers, after all the horseshoe curves and the big helix on the west side of Tehachapi Pass, must have felt that they were dreaming when they saw it.  

At its west end, Cache Canyon opens to a wide valley where the town of Tehachapi sits in regal splendor.  If you ask someone from Los Angeles or San Francisco about the town, you will almost certainly receive a blank stare, because this small village is magnificently isolated from California's metastisization.  In addition to the town, the valley supports a cement plant originally opened for the construction of the first Los Angeles Aquaduct.  The plant is still in operation, and its limestone quarry is visible above the BNSF stacks.

UP's eastbound local from the cement plant.

BNSF westbound stacks approaching Tehachapi.

If anything can be learned from the saga of Californa City, it must be that intentions have nothing to do with results.

California City still sits in the middle of a harsh desert a long way from anywhere.  As of this writing (April 2024), it is roughly the same size as was Los Angeles at the end of the 19th century.  Who knows what awaits California City at the end of the 21st?  

Westbound BNSF pierces the darkness and fog on the way to Tehachapi.

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