The abandoned cable cars. Courtesy of Palm Springs Historical Society

In late 1876, the Southern Pacific Railroad began stopping at the Seven Palms station (near present day Interstate 10 and North Indian Canyon Drive) before continuing east and stopping in Indio, where a few pioneers began establishing an agricultural community.

In Palm Springs, the Southern Pacific train brought a few visitors, with Judge John G. McCallum becoming the first permanent non-Native American settler, arriving with his family in 1884 after taking a buckboard (a wagon pulled by a horse) from the train to the Agua Caliente hot springs.

Section 14, which contained the springs, was set aside by the government for the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. Two speculators, W.E. Van Slyke and M. Byrne, purchased the adjoining areas from the railroad; they also formed the Palm City Water Company. On March 24, 1885, McCallum bought from them a one-fifth interest in those bordering sections (13, 15, 23 and 25), a total of 320 acres, as well as a one-fifth interest in the water company.

On Nov. 5, 1885, McCallum bought 150 more acres from Byrne, for $1,800. Over the next few years, he continued to buy land from Van Slyke, Byrne and the railroad until he owned more than 6,000 acres.

After an 1885 act offered non-railroad lands to homesteaders, more and more settlers began moving to the Coachella Valley. Judge McCallum was the first to subdivide—but there would soon be others.

McCallum dreamed of developing a colony of people to relocate in the desert. He hired a surveyor, T.M. Topp, to lay out the town of Palm City. He began selling lots, and by 1886, he had deeded 11 of the one-acre lots and about 35 acres of outside tracts. His well-publicized auction on Nov. 1, 1887, brought settlers who snapped up 137 parcels in one day! Palm City, renamed “Palm Springs,” was off and running.

Several other groups tried to make a go of it in the area, including one subdivision called The Garden of Eden, promoted by B.B. Barney of Riverside. Located near the mouth of Andreas Canyon (about where the Canyon Country Club, now the Indian Canyons Golf Resort, would later be located), it was an unusual circular tract with small plots on streets named after biblical characters radiating outward from a proposed central Grand Hotel Eden. But there was a problem: The only water available to the Garden of Eden was from the Andreas Canyon, and that belonged to the Native Americans. The once-grandiose plan was deserted, and after years of litigation, the government bought out the remaining settlers and gave the land to the Indians.

At the end of McCallum’s big 1887 auction, one group of three investors bought unsold land by taking an option on about 2,000 acres and shares of unsold stock in the water company. The men (S.W. Ferguson of Oakland, H.C. Campbell of San Francisco, and L.B. Holt of Riverside) were part of McCallum’s Palm Valley Land and Water Company. The three had $100,000 invested and set out to develop a new town they called Palmdale, where Smoke Tree Ranch is today. They planned to sell 100 acres at a time, in 10- or 20-acre parcels, at $150 per acre. The price would escalate after each offering of 100 acres, from $150, to $175, to $200, to $225, with the fifth offering at $250 per acre.

The syndicate went out of their way to bring prospective settlers to Palmdale. Rather than having buckboards meet the Southern Pacific train, the enterprising developers built a 12-mile-long narrow-gauge railroad from a point near the eastern end of Garnet Hill at Seven Palms, in an almost straight line south down present-day Farrell Drive, to the Smoke Tree Ranch area (today just south of Highway 111). It was built to haul equipment and supplies in addition to passengers—and, hopefully, to haul out produce grown by the settlers.

They appointed their land-development company manager, Herbert W. Bordwell, as rail superintendent, They got a small wood-burning locomotive named Cabazon; three flat cars for baggage and freight; and two cable cars from San Francisco. They were in business.

The locomotive had a flaring smokestack and a small attached coal-and-wood tender at its rear. The cable cars were quite a sight—one flat-sided, and the other bulging outward. Their names were still displayed on them, indicating their original destinations: Market Street and Sutter Street. There was a “Y” at each end of the railroad, permitting the engine to turn around, and a roundhouse at the Palmdale end. One of the first shipments on the flat cars was reported to have been orange-tree nursery stock from Florida.

A Palm Valley brochure. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History

Alas, the trains on this special one-of-a-kind railroad, so noble in planning, ran just a few trips, from July to September 1888. That summer, water in the 19-mile irrigation ditch from the Whitewater River petered out before it got to Palmdale. The few fruit trees that survived the trip from Florida soon died—a vivid signal that perhaps the end of the ambitious project was near. The developers ran out of money and couldn’t even pay the ranch laborers. The project was abandoned. 

The little train wouldn’t continue. The locomotive sat out in the desert until 1892, when the last engineer, A.D. Spring, loaded the engine, two flat cars and most of the rails on a Southern Pacific train; they were then taken to Bakersfield. The two cable cars sat abandoned in the desert for years. Desert author J. Smeaton Chase took a photo of them resting forlornly in the desert sun in the early part of the 20th century. They were destroyed by fire, but the wheels, axles and old frames could be seen until as late as 1916. That year, flooding buried the remnants under feet of silt and sand.

The railroad ties suffered a slightly better fate. Welwood Murray, who owned the first Palm Springs hotel, gathered up many of the old ties to build his home. Another pioneer, Cornelia White, purchased the house from Murray, and it was later moved to the Village Green on South Palm Canyon Drive as part of the Palm Springs Historical Society, where it is today.

Very little evidence of the abandoned train right-of-way remains. In the lot adjacent to what is now the upscale community of Smoke Tree Ranch, there is a slight rise in the ground in a few places, and a few rotten old pilings, but it is not clear if they are from the roundhouse or not.

Sources for this article include: The McCallum Saga, by Katherine Ainsworth, Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1973; Palm Springs: First 100 Years, by Mayor Frank M, Bogert, Palm Springs Heritage Associates, 1987; Our Araby, by J. Smeaton Chase, Star News Publishing, Pasadena, 1920; and Palm Springs Past, by Elizabeth Richards, Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan, 1960.

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Greg Niemann

Greg Niemann is a Palm Springs-based author with five published books: Baja Fever (Mountain ’N’ Air), Baja Legends (Sunbelt Publications), Palm Springs Legends (Sunbelt), Big Brown: The Untold Story...