The monthly meetings organized by Mohave County Economic Development and Tourism are always fascinating. Aside from opportunities for networking, to learn about regional tourism developments and to build cooperative partnerships the meetings also foster a greater awareness about area history.
Yesterday’s meeting in Needles, California included a tour of the historic El Garces complex and the Needles museum. Our knowledgable guide shared the history of the building and Needles, and he also provided some personal history. His family’s association with Needles began with his grandmother, a Harvey Girl at the El Garces.
Named for Father Francisco Garces, a Franciscan missionary that explored the area with the DeAnza expedition in the 1770s, the El Garces opened in 1908. Indicative of its size, a walk around the circumference of the building on the upper mezzanine was more than one mile.
Aside from stylish lobby and dining room, there were sixty four rooms for guests and the Harvey Girl staff. The searing summer heat was tempered with an innovative system that was linked to the nearby ice plant that produced 300 pound blocks for the cooling of produce being shipped by rail.
Aside from the railroad, the hotel and restaurant served travelers on the National Old Trails Road and the first alignment of Route 66. These roads passed in front of the El Garces as they circled the plaza.
During WWII the El Garces and Needles boomed. The hotel and depot complex was a stop for troop trains. It was also used by the command of the Desert Training Center, the largest military training area in the history of military maneuvers. During this period General Patton was a frequent guest.
The hotel closed in 1949. But as Needles was an important center for Santa Fe Railroad operations, the building was used until 1988. A section at the east end of the complex was razed to create a parking lot for railroad employees. After years of abandonment and vandalism it was slated for demolition. A last minute reprieve came with formation of Friends of the El Garces, and acquisition of the property and Santa Fe Park by the City of Needles.
Aside from some original tile flooring, the building is largely just a shell with new windows and doors. There is an excellent conference room, and rooms available to rent for events. Increasingly it is booked for weeks at a time. In February the Route Info Fair will take place at the El Garces.
The El Garces figures prominently in the history and development of Needles. Now it is figuring prominently in the city’s future.
This meeting was the kick off for the second phase of my annual fact finding tour. Phase one was the trip east to the Miles of Possibility Conference, and meetings with tourism officials in various Route 66 communities. It will continue with a trip to the Los Angeles area.
Cooperative partnerships are key to community development and revitalization. They are also instrumental in the transformation of a region or community into a destination. I am eagerly looking forward to the meeting series in 2023, to moving projects toward fruition, and to seeing this region transformed into a destination.