Tower in the desert

Brooke Binkowski

Fri March 27, 2015 11:45am

East from San Diego and into the boulder-studded terrain of the In-Ko-Pah Mountains, a lone tower looms to the north of Interstate 8 over the dusty desert. This is the appropriately-named Desert View Tower, the product of a real estate developer, an unemployed engineer and World War II.
Burt Vaughn, a developer and onetime owner of Jacumba Hot Springs, built the tower in 1923 specifically to be a roadside attraction in Southern California’s burgeoning car culture. His plan worked. Nearly a hundred years later, the tower is still an attraction, has made it into the National Register of Historic Places, and functions as a waystation for travelers going through the winding mountain roads and into the Imperial Valley.
Vaughn not only wanted to create an attraction, he also wanted to commemorate the paths of the pioneers who, before travel by car or rail was possible, would take months struggling across the southwestern United States’ arid deserts. The Desert View Tower is nearly 3,000 feet high and, on a clear day, you can see for miles from its rooftop (coin-operated telescopes are part of the attraction).
Turn away from the valley views and pastel desert floor, however, and human and animal faces pout and leer from the gigantic granite rocks that make up so much of the scenery. These sculptures are the handiwork of W.T. Ratcliffe, an engineer who was out of work during the Great Depression and spent his time carving and painting shapes that he saw in the natural forms of the stones, reportedly for a dollar and a jug of wine a day. The tower and adjacent Boulder Park, as it is now called, became California Registered Landmark No. 939 in 1981.
In the 1940s, the property wasn’t used as a roadside attraction. Instead it became a lookout tower as it rests — like Interstate 8 in that region — right along the U.S.-Mexico border. The fear at the time was that the Nazis would try to enter the United States via Mexico. In 1947, a World War II vet came to Jacumba, saw the property and bought it. The new owner, Dennis Newman, opened it to the public as a World War II museum in 1950.
Today, the tower is open to the public and is an appealingly odd combination of rest stop, gift shop, art gallery and meditation space, with friendly owners and regulars, curious dogs, and a seemingly endless stream of children climbing the boulders and examining the sculptures, which are only slightly faded with time.
It’s also taking on new life as a concert hall. On May 2, the Desert View Tower will be the site of the second annual In-Ko-Pah classic desert concert and campout featuring musicians from Southern California and Arizona.
For more information, email org@inkopah.org.