The Wonders of Willow Creek, Part 3: The Chinaman

This is Part 3 of a 5-part series of posts entitled, The Wonders of Willow Creek. To read the previous post, CLICK THIS LINK. To read the next post in this series, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

The Chinaman

In 1844, Kit Carson and John Fremont passed through here and spent the night, while on an exploratory expedition for the U.S. government. They watered and grazed their horses at Willow Creek, and Fremont noted in his journal that this was the best grazing since entering the Mojave Desert. It’s presumed he learned this from his horses, and did not sample the grass himself.

Looking upstream from Willow Creek, toward Willow Spring.

By 1848, this route became known as the Mormon Road, and provided respite and water to settlers and soldiers, passing through the arid Mojave. And by 1849, the gold rush had created such a demand for mules and horses in California, that the Los Chaguanosos had to give up their trade, and leave the trail to more honest travelers.

In the late-1840s, the Donner Party had become famous for freezing to death and eating their own in the high Sierras of California. And so to avoid that fate, dozens of parties of 49’ers, bound for the gold fields during the winter months, skirted the Sierras to the south and traveled the Mormon Road through Willow Spring.

The verdant, riparian valley watered by Willow Creek. The palm trees at the left are some of the date palms found at the China Ranch Date Farm.

These 49’ers were feverish for gold, which was not abundant in this land to the east of Death Valley. So they kept traveling and apparently did not pay much attention to all the white stuff, veining the nearby hills. But eventually, somebody noticed.

Miners infiltrated the land beginning sometime around the 1870s. They pilfered the white veins, and poked many holes, finding minerals such as borax, talc, gypsum, and sodium nitrate. Mule trains transported these substances to civilized places where they were appreciated and held value. Then, around 1907, the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad constructed a line that put the mule trains out of business.

The old railroad bed of the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad. The T&T operated from 1907 to 1940. During World War II, it’s equipment, rails, and most of the ties were scavenged by the U.S. Government, for the war effort.

Sometime in the 1890’s, a Chinese man named Ah Foo, who had worked many years in the borax mines of Death Valley, came to Willow Spring. Here he established a ranch and planted fruits and vegetables. He sold the food he raised to local mining camps, and his spread became known to his customers as the Chinaman’s Ranch.

Then in 1900, a dastardly fellow by the name of Morrison, drifted onto the scene. Nobody’s quite sure what happened, but one story claims he bought the ranch from Ah Foo for $100 in gold coins. But according to another story, Morrison ran the Chinese man off at gunpoint, stealing the ranch by deforce, and claiming it as his own.

Regardless, the locals continued to call it the Chinaman’s Ranch. Apparently, the name had stuck for good, and in fact even today it’s called the China Ranch Date Farm.

The Amargosa River is joined by Willow Creek about a mile south of the China Ranch Date Farm. Pictured is the Amargosa River, at bottom, and a wash that leads to a slot canyon carved into the rhyolite rock hill in the distance.

Morrison sold out after a few years, and the Chinese ranch began to change hands like a hot potato tossing contest. It went through many different owners, who pursued many different enterprises. Some raised sheep, some cattle, some hogs. Some grew figs, and some grew alfalfa. But the most significant crop started with a newlywed couple named Modine.

Vonola Modine was the daughter of Ralph and Celestia Fairbanks, who were Death Valley area pioneers, and who had founded the town of Shoshone, about nine miles north of Tecopa. She was also the sister of Stella Fairbanks. Stella married a man named Charles Brown, who eventually became an influential state senator.

Vonola’s marriage was to a man named Alexander. Soon after their marriage, they ambitiously acquired the Chinaman’s Ranch. It had been abandoned and neglected, so they had to work hard to make it operational and productive again. Alex worked in a local mine, to raise funds he needed for the ranch. It seems they were a young couple with big dreams.

One day, Vonola read a magazine article about a new kind of crop growing in California’s Coachella Valley, called dates. She’d never seen a date, nor even a date palm, but she was curious, so she sent away for some seeds. She planted these seeds in two long rows that she envisioned would line a driveway for a house that she and her husband might someday build.


27 replies »

  1. Here’s an interesting fact that I just made up, in a date orchard the trees are arranged in plots of 365 trees each, and these plots are called calendars. Every fourth plot has an extra tree for some reason.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Love the 2nd picture with the mountains in the background. So this is how date trees started? I don’t care too much for the dates that grow on trees. I prefer the other kind, which Brad and me need to do, being that I was away last week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, this isn’t how date trees started. Date trees evolved over millions of years. But this is how they were introduced to the China Ranch.

      I understand about dating Brad. When a couple has been apart for a little while, it’s important to have some reconnecting time. But please avoid the temptation of asking Brad to take you to an expensive restaurant, even though you’re such high maintenance. Please be considerate of poor Brad.


  3. I realize that California’s fairly progressive, but I’m not sure it’s legal to date trees in this state.

    Maybe off-topic, but I remember when I was in college in Southern California that there were all these new housing tracts being community landscaped with big date trees, apparently transplanted from abandoned date farms… orchards?

    Liked by 3 people

    • I dated a tall woman once. Perhaps that would count as dating a tree.

      They could have been transplanted from date farms. A lot of the date farms in the Coachella Valley have been sold to developers, who’ve built expensive houses, condos, and country clubs in their stead.

      Liked by 2 people

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