Menacing critters guard historic landmark

July 30, 2001|By KELLY GRANT, Staff Writer

JACUMBA — An isolated stone tower.

Menacing-looking creatures standing guard outside.

Are these the ingredients for a horror novel or is it just one way of looking at one of Imperial County's most interesting and often passed-up features?

Despite offering a fantastic overlook of the Imperial Valley and Jacumba Mountains, the Desert View Tower is often overlooked itself by motorists concentrating on the twisting, steep highway.

Off Interstate 8 at the In-Ko-Pah exit, the Desert View Tower and adjoining carved stone animals offer those who stop a link to the area's history.


The site, a registered California Historical Landmark, was constructed by Bert Vaughn to be a monument to the pioneers who turned the Imperial Valley into viable farmland and the workers who forged a road through the mountains to connect the Valley to the coast.

Vaughn began the tower's construction in 1922, using hand-mixed concrete. Six years and tons of rock and concrete later, Vaughn's tower stood 60 feet high.

The site's other drawing point is a stone zoo carved into the boulders south of the tower. Scattered through the wind- and water-eroded tunnels, caverns and boulders are about 37 animals carved right into the stone by an engineer named W.T. Ratcliffe in the 1930s. Real lizards and squirrels scuttle over stone alligators and unrecognizable creatures along the path through the natural playground.

In the 1940s, Vaughn gave the tower to his son, who turned it over to a British World War II aviator named Dennis Newman.

Newman added a lower ring to wrap the tower's base and, in 1950, opened the facility as a museum to showcase his WW II memorabilia and growing collection of historical Southwestern pieces.

The museum's displays and panoramic views were available then for a small fee, as they are still today.

Jane Knapp, the current owner and operator, took over in 1977 and has kept the tower functioning as a museum. The structure offers three floors of Western and Native American historical items.

The uppermost fourth floor, though empty of artifacts, showcases the most spectacular of the tower's displays: a 360-degree view including the Imperial Valley and Jacumba Mountains.

Knapp, who lives in a house on the property, said she likes the simplicity of living far from the rat race that has become her former home San Diego.

"You know, life is getting very crowded," she said.

Don't be fooled by the area's isolated location. Knapp has plenty of visitors wanting to explore the tower and rock carvings every day.

"We had a tour bus this morning from England," Knapp said as two more visitors entered the tower's first-floor souvenir and jewelry shop.

Though Knapp describes it as a "great tower," she's been trying to sell it for a couple years. Though no one has purchased it yet, the tower and its surrounding land have been in escrow a couple of times, Knapp said.

Prospective buyers have had a variety of plans for the site, Knapp said.

One man wanted to put in a water slide. A church group said it was drawn to the location because the site is in line with Jerusalem. What Knapp describes as a medieval theatrical group thought the tower made an excellent backdrop for strolling players.

"I can't imagine there's that much call for wandering medieval players," Knapp said.

When asked what she would like to see happen to the tower, Knapp replied: "I think it needs to be developed."

Adding a restaurant facility would satisfy the many visitors that want hot food with their visit, Knapp said.

The possibility of turning the tower into a private residence for the first time in its existence is another option Knapp wouldn't mind seeing.

For the time being, the tower and adjacent stone carvings and caves are open to the public daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $1.

Staff Writer Kelly Grant can be reached at 337-3441.

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