Along the interstate highways of the Southwest are hundreds of miles of billboards promoting every kind of roadside attraction. Many of them turn out to be little more than gaudy souvenir shops selling Indian moccasins and hot dogs.
The Desert View Tower, 80 miles east of San Diego on Interstate 8, also features advertisements along the highway (“bring the family,” “snacks--cold drinks”) and does have souvenirs for sale, but this tourist stop is also a landmark with a colorful past.
The solid stone tower was built in 1922 by late Jacumba resident Bert Vaughn to commemorate the pioneers, and highway and railroad builders who opened up the area. Since then, little has changed except for a garden of animal rock sculptures, which were carved in the 1930s by W.T. Ratcliffe. A small cafe, stone wall and gate house were dynamited in 1962 to make way for Interstate 8, which replaced parts of Highway 80.
The large fortress, which looms over the desert like an ominous lighthouse, is five stories high and has four-foot-thick walls. From the observation room on top of the tower, visitors get a 360-degree view of the desert through large windows. During World War II, the vantage point would have been used for spotting enemy planes approaching from the south, if, as some feared, Mexico had joined the Axis.
With the help of binoculars, which are provided with a tour ($1 for adults and 50 cents for children) of the area, sites such as the Salton Sea, Plaster City and the Pioneer trail--used by Mormon settlers and Gen. Stephen W. Kearny’s U.S. Army troops in the mid-1800s--are visible on the desert floor.
Sinister, Mysterious Terrain
The terrain around this high desert landmark, in Imperial County at the In-Ko-Pah Park Road exit, is mysterious and sinister. The massive rock tower looks at home among the harsh, granite mountains.
The area is hot in the summer, but always stays 20 to 30 degrees cooler than the lower Imperial Valley, and almost every winter it snows, said Darline Hill, the caretaker and a sales clerk at the gift shop.
The tower’s gift shop, which occupies the entire bottom floor, is an assemblage of antiques such as fine china, ceramic dolls, lamps and quilts. The store also sells a variety of bells, mugs, glasses and desert history books and cookbooks.
“The same people come a couple times a year to buy birthday and special occasion gifts,” Hill said. “We really have unique items.”
Jane Knap, the owner of the 113 - acre estate, does all her buying in San Diego and has managed to collect knickknacks from all over the world and from several eras.
‘Never Throw Anything Out’
“I never thought of it as collecting,” said the middle-age Mission Hills resident, who stays at the tower several nights a week and often commutes back and forth to San Diego twice a day. “Back East where I come from , you never throw anything out.”
Knap purchased the Desert View Tower in 1979 from Dennis Newman, who bought it in 1953 from the Vaughn family. Knap would not disclose how much she paid for it.
“I was just driving around here one day and saw it and said I could do something with it,” she said. “So I bought it. I love the high desert , and yet it’s only (80) miles away from the ocean. I love the ocean , too , but there are just too many people living there now.”
Knap said when she bought the tower it was virtually empty. Now the structure’s middle three floors are used as a museum. From San Diego dealers Knap purchased eclectic crafts and artifacts such as Navajo rugs, baskets, paintings, maps and 1872 beadwork. The small museum is included in the tour, and as visitors climb the spiral staircase , they can catch glimpses of the scenery from the diamond - shaped windows on each level.
Adjacent to the tower is a group of boulders and rock caves where whimsical animal figures lurk. A historical marker at the site describes these carvings--which resemble tortoises, lizards, iguanas, snakes, bison and dinosaurs--as some of the most interesting folk art in Southern California.
On Way to Somewhere Else
A general store and a rock shop are also on the premises. Picnic tables are in the parking lot.
Knap said many people visit the tower on their way to somewhere else.
“Sometimes we get as many as 10 tour buses at a time,” she said. “Mostly it’s Europeans, Japanese and senior citizens trying to make it to Yuma or Phoenix for dinner or trying to make it to San Diego for lunch. We provide a unique stopping place.”
Although Knap loves the area and running the tower, she said it is too much work and has recently put it up for sale for $1.95 million. However, there have been no written offers yet, she said.
“It’s a profitable venture if whoever buys it keeps it as a business,” she said. “But when I do sell it, I’m going to buy a house in the high desert to live in year-round. I just really like the terrain.”