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​Lost LA Field Notes: Ghost Towns

Watch Lost LA's episode on Ghost Towns

Sorry to disappoint fans of the paranormal, but the only ghosts in this episode of Lost LA are the dreams of the past: visions of wealth, of new cities, of new ways of living that failed. We explore three ruins as the physical remnants of broken dreams. There’s the old mining town of Bodie, the failed utopian commune of Llano del Rio, and the abandoned health resort at Zzyzx Mineral Springs. With the help of Christopher Hawthorne, L.A.’s first chief design officer and former architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, we ask what California’s ghost towns might tell us about the state’s more successful settlements.

Taking the Zzyzx Rd Exit

How many times had I passed that green Caltrans sign — “Zzyzx Rd” — on Interstate 15 before I finally decided to turn off and investigate? For me and our production team, discovering the story behind that curious name might have been this season’s biggest highlight.

Looking back at the Boulevard of Dreams in Zzyzx | Katie Noonan
Looking back at the Boulevard of Dreams in Zzyzx | Katie Noonan

At the end of the road, multiple layers of history bake under the desert sun, preserved by the arid conditions. In fact, there are entire chapters in Zzyzx’s history we simply couldn’t fit into the episode — its origins as a precious source of water for the Mojave Desert’s indigenous people, its stint as a frontier Army encampment named Camp Soda Springs, and its time as an active salt mining site. We were most interested in the 30-year-period from 1944 to 1974, when a radio evangelist named Curtis Howe Springer transformed the place into a health resort known as Zzyzx Mineral Springs.

Springer is a polarizing figure. Some view him as a charming desert eccentric in the mold of Death Valley Scotty. And though he died more than three decades ago, he still has many friends in the area who remember him fondly and continue to protect his legacy. (In fact, we had trouble finding people to speak on camera about him.) But it’s hard to ignore the dark stories about the man whom the American Medical Association called the “King of Quacks.” Springer gave false hope to terminal cancer patients, fleeced old women of their life savings, and declined to pay the homeless men he recruited to build and staff his health resort.

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Eventually, the bogus medical claims Springer made about his alternative health products — Antediluvian Tea, Mo-Hair, and the Hollywood Pep Cocktail — on his syndicated radio show caught up to him. In 1969-70, California’s Bureau of Food and Drugs charged him with multiple counts of false or misleading radio advertising, and in 1974 the federal government evicted him from his mining claim. That action allowed the place to find new life ten years later as the California State University’s Desert Studies Center, which is what you’ll find today at the end of Zzyzx Road.

The intersection of Castle Way and Blvd. of Dreams | Katie Noonan
The intersection of Castle Way and Blvd. of Dreams | Katie Noonan

Essential Reading

  • Some of the details above about Curtis Howe Springer come from C. E. Campbell’s 2017 book “Zzyzx and the Last Shaman of the Desert: Disillusion, Danger, and Evangelism.” In the late-1960s, the author went undercover to visit Zzyzx and investigate Springer. This book lays bare the shocking facts about the modern-age snake oil medicine man.
  • Dydia DeLyser’s article “Authenticity on the Ground: Engaging the Past in a California Ghost Town” from the Annals of the Association of American Geographers explains how Bodie’s state of “arrested decay” keeps the ghost town relevant long after the last miners moved on.
  • For an introduction to Job Harriman and his Llano del Rio project, turn to “Bread & Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles” by Paul Greenstein, Nigey Lennon, and Lionel Rolfe. Aldous Huxley’s lyrical 1953 essay “Ozymandias, the Utopia That Failed” is also required reading.

The Archive

Before we shot this episode, we knew we needed an archival source that would show Bodie as an ordinary, thriving town, offering a visual counterpoint to its present-day state of arrested decay. We found it at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, where there’s a photo album (not available for online viewing, unfortunately) dating from the 1890s that documents daily life in Bodie — before the ghosts moved in.

A look through the Zzyzx archive at the Desert Studies Center | Katie Noonan
A look through the Zzyzx archive at the Desert Studies Center | Katie Noonan

Top Image: In discussion with Zzyzx caretaker and biologist Jason Wallace | Katie Noonan

 

 

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