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The Early Days of the Antelope Valley

The Antelope Valley's early history is unlike that of other regions of California. Its vast expanses of terrain were home to Native Americans and were later traversed by countless early explorers. Although the valley had no mission settlements, it served as a crossroads for Franciscan padres and explorers, as well as migrating Indian tribes, famous American pathfinders and pioneers.

Even in the new millennium, this expansive region is a veritable frontier for those seeking new lifestyles. Without modern-day conveniences like electricity and air conditioning, the desert region of the Antelope Valley was less hospitable than other areas of Southern California; the natives tended to live in or near the more mountainous areas surrounding the valley floor. Today, hundreds of thousands of people make their homes throughout the Antelope Valley, a region of bustling suburbs and ever-expanding centers of employment, including an industry that has made the most significant contribution to the valley in recent history: aerospace.

Archeologists say that the Antelope Valley was once part of a vast coastal plain, and during movements of the earth's crust thousands of years ago the area – 40 miles by 60 miles – was dropped or depressed about a hundred feet below the surface of the ground creating the surrounding mountains and foothills. First known inhabitants of the Antelope Valley were Shoshonean-speaking Indians known as the Kitanamuks, who primarily lived in the Tehachapi Mountains and wandered into the arid valley lowlands in cooler seasons of the year. They traveled in small bands hunting small game and gathering nuts.

The largest Indian campsites that archaeologists have found are concentrated near springs in the foothills of the Littlerock area to the south, in the Lovejoy Springs area to the east and in the Willow Springs area to the north. Isolated by California's rugged terrain, the inhabitants enjoyed a comparatively peaceful life, living in crude shelters constructed of willow poles and grass. It is known that the coastal Chumash and southern desert Yokuts established trade with eastern Mojaves and Chemehevis throughout the valley.

The Spanish Explorers

In 1772 Capt. Pedro Fages, a Spanish soldier in pursuit of deserting sailors, crossed the southern part of the Antelope Valley into Leona Valley. No records show whether he found any of the deserters, but his diary records that the soldiers saw Indians lurking in trees that they thought were date palms. The trees actually were Joshua trees, which grow in only two areas of the world: Israel and the California desert.

The opening of California to overland travel through the desert was due to Cap. Juan Bautista de Anza and Father Francisco Garces, a most remarkable Spanish padre. They led a colonizing expedition that included 136 settlers across the Mojave Desert from Mexico to Monterey in 1773. Later in 1776, while exploring the valley, Garces with several Indian guides from the San Gabriel Mission recorded viewing the vast expanse of what was the El Tejon Rancheria (the Badger Ranch) of the Cuabajoy Indians.

Explorers and Settlers

After the Shoshone Indians left the valley, immigrants from Spain and Mexico established large cattle ranches there. In the late 1880s the ranches were broken up into smaller homesteads by farmers from Nebraska and European countries such as Germany and France.

In the 1800s, before the railroads came, Tehachapi's first settlers were farmers who owned large tracts of land. The soil, composed of decomposed granite and vegetable silt, made farming more productive. The first settlers chose the Elizabeth Lake region and the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains for their homes.

Famed mountain man Jededia Strong Smith was the first American to explore the Antelope Valley. His expedition to find a non-existent river from Salt Lake to the ocean crossed the valley in 1827 when he was reportedly awed by the flat desert and its many contradictions. The valley that he described held everything from alkali flats to tule grass marshes to broad fertile fields covered with wildflowers.

Smith and Joseph Walker, credited with developing the north-south transportation route along the east side of the Sierras, passed through the Ridgecrest area between 1825 and 1835. Later, the first Euro-Americans arrived in the Indian Wells Valley in 1849 when Manley and Jay Hawker discovered water there.

Kit Carson and Gen. John C. Fremont came through the valley in 1834, staying long enough to establish what is known as Fort Tejon Road. Wildlife was so plentiful that three geese were killed with one rifle shot at Elizabeth Lake. Grass and desert growth was luxuriant, and pools of water stood on the Valley floor. Serrano Indians originally inhabited the Wrightwood area. Later, settlers established a cattle ranch. The ranch evolved into an apple-producing business, then into the resort that it is today.

In the winter of 1849-50 a group of pioneers seeking the gold fields took the Old Spanish Trail that went around the south end of the Sierras. The pioneers lost their way and traveled across the harsh Mojave Desert plateau until they found a way through a pass near Palmdale. They were finally rescued by cowboys from Rancho San Fernando.

The Valley Gets its Name

In 1860, Dr. Darwin French's party discovered silver in the Coso Mountains, in the northern China Lake complex. Soon, additional silver discoveries were made in the Slate Ranges. Not long after that, the nearby mountains teemed with miners.

By 1873, mining discoveries in the Panamints, northeast of China Lake, prompted the creation of a mining center near Copper City. The roads built by that area's silver miners facilitated the growth of the borax mining industry.

Ranching soon replaced mining as Ridgecrest's major industry. That was the main source of income in the community until the beginning of World War II. In 1943 the Naval Ordinance Test Station (NOTS) was established at its first headquarters at InyoKern Airport. After the establishment of NOTS, Ridgecrest became a boomtown.

Railroad Growth

The building of a railroad sparked the most growth in the Antelope Valley. About 1867, Southern Pacific established a route through the valley, with a stop-off in Lancaster. Trade with the outside world could now occur, and settlers started trickling into the area. At first, they set up homesteads close to the rail center, then later moved farther into outlying areas. In 1874 the Western Hotel, the oldest building in the valley, was built. It is now a historical museum in Lancaster. By 1898 Lancaster and the valley were so prosperous that more settlers and land seekers moved into the eastern area with the intention of raising grain and fruit.

Palmdale was not always known its present name. Originally, in 1886, a group of German and Swiss settlers from Nebraska and Illinois named it "Palmenthal." The old town was situated near what is now 27th Street East and Avenue R-8. Those early pioneers chose that location because it was near the Southern Pacific railroad. In 1899 they moved closer to the tracks and resettled in an area that is now Eighth Street East and Highway 138.

Besides the establishment of the railroad, mining played a major role in the history of the valley. Gold was first discovered in 1876 in Acton, but it was the discovery of gold at the Tropico Hill in Rosamond by Ezra Hamilton and Charles Graves, the valley's first African-American postmaster, that started serious mining. Miners working the Rosamond gold mines used to sail across Muroc Dry Lake, going to and from work on a V-shaped wagon rigged with sails.

In 1898 borax was found in the surrounding mountains. The gold-mining boom lasted until the beginning of World War II. At that time, gold ore deposits ran out and prices fell. However, borax mining continues to this day at the world's largest borax mine in Boron.

Palmdale's main industry in the 1880s was farming. Between 1905 and 1913, the Los Angeles-Inyo Aqueduct was built. By 1921, the opening of Sierra Highway meant improved travel to and from Los Angeles, and a greater flow of commerce into the Antelope Valley.

In the late 1920s and early '30s, when the Great Depression came, farming and business in general suffered. With the beginning of World War II, jobs and prosperity returned to the Antelope Valley.

Schools Arrive

The settlers valued education. They built Palmdale's one-room schoolhouse in 1888, and it survives today, having been moved to McAdam Park on 30th Street East.

Antelope Valley High School opened in 1912 in Lancaster, and Antelope Valley College opened in 1929.

Birth of Aerospace Valley

In the 1930s the airplane came to the Antelope Valley. The Air Force started testing operations at Muroc Dry Lake, now known as Edwards Air Force Base, which was territory once explored by Spanish colonists and settled by pioneer homesteaders. The military base began as a stark and remote bombing range in 1933 and went on to become a major bomber-training base in World War II. The Air Force Flight Test Center originated during the darkest days of the war, and has since achieved more major milestones in flight than anywhere else in the world.

It was at Muroc Army Air Base that America's first jet-powered aircraft flew. It was chosen for the maiden flight of the XP-59A Airacomet because of its remoteness, clear and uncrowded skies, and incalculable measure of safety afforded by the vast expanse of Rogers Dry Lake which could (and would, again and again) serve as an emergency landing field should any in-flight problems occur. In the years since, these natural advantages have been augmented by the installation of sophisticated range tracking and communications equipment, as well as the development of a corps of technical and emergency response personnel who are trained to deal with any kind of contingency. All of these resources, when combined, continue to make Edwards the optimum location for the first flights of high-performance and experimental aircraft.

On Oct. 14, 1947, Capt. Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager, flying the Bell X-1, became the first person to successfully fly an aircraft faster than the speed of sound. This event has been called the greatest achievement since the first successful flight of the original Wright Brothers' airplane. Edwards has continued as the country's premier flight-testing facility, hosting everything from the space shuttle to today's unmanned, remotely operated aerial drones – and just about everything else in between.

During World War II many people arrived to work at Muroc Air Field and the Marine Auxiliary Training Base in Mojave (now called Mojave Airport). Some of those defense workers stayed on in the valley and raised families. Many of their children became the current labor pool for the Antelope Valley's thriving aviation/aerospace industry. They built the airplanes and spacecraft that made the AV famous, and their children carry on the tradition by building the aircraft and spacecraft of the future.

Soaring into the Future

Continuing in the valley's rich aerospace tradition, the Antelope Valley-Mojave Spaceport, to be precise, was the site of the first launch by a private company into space in June 2004. Later in the year, the manned SpaceShipOne rocket plane was launched and landed safely here twice in late 2004, winning a $10-million prize for private space flight. The craft fulfilled the requirements for winning the Ansari X Prize by going beyond the 100-kilometer (62.5-mile) mark, the internationally recognized boundary of outer space. The spacecraft was developed by legendary aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites. The company continues to develop cutting-edge flying machines and is working on technology that will eventually open low earth orbit to the masses.

Historians, aerospace buffs and anyone curious about the valley's rich aerospace history can get an up-close look at some of the machines that propelled this legacy at the Palmdale Plant 42 Heritage Airpark, located at 2001 E. Ave. P in Palmdale. In fact, one of the most recent additions to this aerospace museum is the "Triumph," an all-composite, pressurized eight-seat corporate aircraft designed by Rutan. The plane had its first flight in 1988, and it has flown at altitudes above 41,000 feet at speeds up to Mach 0.69.


Most of the country's biggest aerospace companies, such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, have had or continue to have a strong presence here. The famed Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, known the world over for its futuristic and top-secret aircraft is based here. The space shuttle fleet arrives here regularly for overhauls and major maintenance. The powerful Saturn V rocket motors that propelled Apollo spacecraft to the moon and back were tested here. The B-1 bomber was built here, and the list could go on and on.

The Antelope Valley really came into its own with completion of the Antelope Valley Freeway (State Route 14) in the mid-1960s. This multi-lane freeway provided fast and convenient access to and from the Los Angeles area and led to the Antelope Valley's most significant period of growth and development.

Today, the Antelope Valley is a major suburban area and home to a rich and diverse base of industry, most notably some of the nation's biggest aerospace companies. It continues to be one of the fastest-growing areas of Southern California, and all signs point to continued growth and prosperity in the future.

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