Palm Springs (back then known as Agua Caliente, meaning hot water, then Palm Valley and finally Palm Springs, incorporated as a city in 1938) was discovered by a government survey team sent out to find a railroad route to the Pacific in 1853, for what would come to be, Southern Pacific Railroad. They saw a hot springs oasis with Palm Trees, where the Spa Hotel stands today, and from that, it was the beginning of a birth of a village.
Palm Springs and The Coachella Valley
Palm Springs is located in the Coachella Valley. It was originally shown to be named by U.S. Deputy Surveyor John La Croze in 1856 as “Coahuilla Valley” on a surveying trip of desert townships. The Coachella Valley is comprised of 9 cities which include, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio and Coachella. Each city has its own unique story, and all linked together by the beauty and enchantment of Coachella Valley.
The Cahuilla Indians
Long before the survey team made that discovery trip, it was the Cahuilla Indians who inhabited the Palm Springs area for over 2000 years. They were direct descendants to the Agua Caliente tribe that are prominent in Palm Springs today. It was a bumpy ride for the Indians after Palm Springs was discovered, and as with many related stories of white settlers taking over land that had been peacefully lived on by the Indians, the Indians in this story suffered the same fate. After the railroad route was cleared as a safe passage, in 1877 the government gave Southern Pacific Railroad title to odd numbered parcels of land reaching 10 miles on either side of the tracks running through the Southern California desert, as a bonus to complete the railroad project. The even numbered parcels were given to the Agua Caliente Indians, but they were bound by the government to what they could do with their land, which at the time wasn’t much. And although the government gave the Indians some head way in realizing and benefitting from their rightful land, it took until 1959 when President Eisenhower signed the Equalization Law which allowed the tribes to profit from their land and establish the 99 year lease. And in 1987 is when it really happened for the tribes, as the Supreme Court ruled that the Indians finally would have sovereignty over their land and could do as they pleased with it, which led to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and all the Casinos that sprinkle the Coachella Valley today. And as a result, the Aqua Caliente Indians are the second wealthiest Tribe in the nation, only second to the oil rich Tribes in Oklahoma.
Where would Palm Springs be without those brave souls who threw caution to the wind in trade of discovery and adventure? Pioneers like, John G. McCallum, Wellwood Murray, Cornelia White and Nellie Coffman are owed a debt of gratitude by all who enjoy the fruits of their discovery today in Palm Springs. For without their imagination, hard work and love of this magical desert, Palm Springs could have just been a small town on the way to Arizona or L.A.
John Guthrie McCallum was the first white settler to explore the Palm Springs area and make it home for him, his wife Emily, sons Wallace, Harry and Johnny, and daughters Mae and Pearl. McCallum was a man of prominence coming from San Francisco. His professional life included being an attorney, editor, and politician, and as a founding member of the American Party, had cast one of the first electoral votes in California for Abraham Lincoln and even attended his inauguration. He came to know the Palm Springs area through his service as being an Indian Agent to the Mission Indians, which led him to meet the Cahuilla Indians who inhabited the area they called Agua Caliente, which McCallum would come to call Palm Valley. He decided that the areas dry climate would be a healing place to help his son Johnny, cure his Tuberculoses. And so in 1884, he moved his whole family to the desert, with hope and adventure in sight.
He had the now famous McCallum Adobe built, to house his family. The early years found the McCallum’s only neighbors to be the Cahuilla Indians, McCallum befriended and also employed them to build not only his Adobe, but also the first irrigation ditch in the West, which brought water from the Whitewater River to Palm Valley (Palm Springs), to irrigate the crops that McCallum had planted to fulfill his agricultural goals. Eventually, McCallum would help to establish the Palm Valley Land and Water Co. Through the years McCallum came to own hundreds of acres of prime land in Palm Valley, and although his agricultural dreams gave way to years of harsh weather and drought, it was his sense of optimism and love for the desert area that came to cement his legacy. And it was his daughter Pearl, who perpetuated that legacy, and along with her husband Austin McManus, developed key properties in Palm Springs, which included, The Oasis Hotel and The Tennis Club. Since then, the McCallum Foundation was established, and through donating millions of dollars, it has helped support many desert institutions such as College of the Desert, The Living Desert, United Way of the Desert and the Palm Springs Historical Society, plus many more. And it is all because of John Guthrie McCallum, and the love for his son Johnny.
Another prominent pioneer was Nellie Coffman. She first heard of the desert oasis in 1897, while she was in the mountain village of Idyllwild (then called Strawberry Valley), being sent there by her doctor to help cure a nasty cough. While she was resting, the woman who ran the boarding house that she was staying at, Mrs. Keene, talked about a place that she would go to in the winter to escape the cold of the mountains. Keene spoke of a place with endless sunny skies and grand mountains that seemed to rocket miles up from the earth. There were also healing hot springs to sooth body and soul. The place sounded like paradise. But it would be 9 years until Coffman would finally come to visit the place that she had fantasized about. In December of 1908 along with her son Earl, she traveled east from her home that she shared with her husband Dr. Harry Coffman and other son George Roberson ( from her previous husband who had passed away) in Santa Monica, and headed to the place that she had envisioned in her mind.
"My father (John Guthrie McCallum) was nominated to carry the electoral vote of California back to Washington when Lincoln became President.
He attended the Inaugural Ball and was present when Lincoln was assassinated."
- Pearl McCallum McManus
When she arrived, she was greeted with a sand storm, dusty roads and a pitch black night sky. The welcome wagon wasn’t really filled with glee when she got to the only game in town either, The Palm Springs Hotel, owned by Welwood Murray and his wife Elizabeth. And with the meager hospitality that was offered and the bitter desert cold, Coffman had thought she had made a mistake by traveling to the unknown desert and yearned to return home with her son to more civilized surroundings. But in the morning she woke to the light of the sun against crisp blue skies, and the unveiling of what she had dreamed of with a 3-D view of the mighty San Jacinto, standing tall and gallant to greet her. It was at that moment when she fell in love with Palm Springs.
Coffman knew she had found her destiny, and now had to convince her husband that moving to the desert was the right thing to do. So she appealed to her husband’s desire to help the sick and suggested they open a sanitarium to do just that. And in the fall of 1909, Coffman moved her family to Palm Springs and opened The Desert Inn. The property was primitive to today’s standards; it was comprised of a grouping of tents at first, but Coffman’s hospitality prevailed. And in 1914, Coffman and her husband Harry, parted ways and he moved down valley to practice medicine and later moved to San Diego County. After their marriage had ended, Coffman decided to let the sanitarium part of The Desert Inn end as well, and no longer catered to the infirmed. She would finally have the hotel she wanted and in the 1920’s, with the help of an investment by Tom O’Donnell, built up The Desert Inn making it a world class resort, catering this time to Hollywood stars, world travelers and sun seeking tourists.
Mother Coffman, as she had come to be known, reigned over The Desert Inn until her death in 1950. It was then sold to Hollywood actress Marion Davies who purchased the landmark for 2 million dollars, but she would only have it briefly, as she herself died several years later. The Desert Inn was later torn down to build the ever changing mall that tries to grow on the location. Today it is again in transformation, and hopefully will materialize into something worthy of the Desert Inn that once stood there. What would Nellie Coffman and all the other pioneers think of Palm Springs today? I think they would be enormously proud of what it has become, and what it still has potential to be. It is their paradise in the sun realized.