Strange Geographies: A Utopian Ghost Town in the California Desert

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Llano del Rio is one of the most distinctive ghost towns in the United States. Like many Utopian communities, it lasted only a short time -- a few hopeful, productive years -- before being abandoned. Unlike most, however, it was built to last -- its granite foundations sourced from nearby mountain ranges -- and, still in the middle of nowhere even 90 years after it was inhabited, it's been allowed to linger on, a monument to the disappeared past on the edge of a vast desert.

In 1913, Job Harriman was a lawyer and failed politician looking for a project. He had failed in his bids to become the mayor of Los Angeles, the governor of California and the Vice-President of the United States (running alongside Eugene Debs, one of the best-known socialists in American history). Harriman wasn't just some delusional loser -- he was liked and respected by some, despised by corporate interests, and dubbed by writer Jack London "the best socialist speaker on the coast."

After his political bids fizzled, Harriman decided to set up a cooperative venture to prove that real socialism could work within a capitalist society, and purchased an old temperance colony site 20 miles east of the desert hamlet of Palmdale. That's Harriman in the passenger seat of the car pictured below, on the one-year anniversary of the founding of Llano del Rio.
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People who bought a certain number of shares in the venture were allowed to come to the colony to live, and from a handful of families in 1914, it grew to a relatively thriving place in just under a year, boasting some 900 residents, a Montessori-style school, a rabbit farm and productive peanut fields, a hotel and meeting hall, and other infrastructure.

This was the meeting hall in 1915:
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And these are some of its remains today. (I doubt the couch is original.)
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Before long, the colony started running into trouble. From American Utopia:

The colony prospered until it was discovered that an earthquake fault diverted much of the water the colony had counted on for its growth. Surrounding land barons refused to sell water to the colony, and Harriman and his colleagues scouted the country for another site. In 1917, 200 of the 600 original California colonists chartered a train and moved the entire colony to the former lumber town of Stables, Louisiana and changed its name to New Llano.

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So after just three short years, what had been a promising social experiment was uprooted and moved, and though it flourished for a time in Louisiana, was doomed to fail there, as well. Today we are left only with the enduring concrete and granite foundations of Llano del Rio's buildings, and a few other amenities. I found a partially filled-in well:
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The base of what I'm told was an alfalfa silo:
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The basement level of a house.
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An interesting side-note for music lovers -- I've long been a fan of the Pixies, and by extension, Frank Black. He mentions Llano founder Job Harriman in a track from his classic album Teenager of the Year -- a faux recording of LA's famed water-stealer William Mulholland ranting "The concrete of the aquaduct will last as long as the pyramid of Egypt or the Parthenon of Athens; long after Job Harriman is elected major of Los Angeles!" (Of course, he never was.)

Later, on the Frank Black and the Catholics album Dog in the Sand, there's a track called Llano del Rio, which goes

Going out to llano
Going to look for Aldous Huxley
There between the power lines
And the purple flowers of mescaline

Which leads me to another interesting factoid about Llano del Rio -- Aldous Huxley lived near the ruins for most of 1943, working on a novel. Of Harriman's failed social experiment, he wrote -- likening Job to Ozymandias -- "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
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Most everything that could have holes shot through it -- did.
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Bits of wall jut out of the ground everywhere, refusing to be swallowed up by the scrub.
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Here's Shelley's poem, the subject of which Aldous Huxley liked to Llano.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

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You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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September 8, 2009 - 4:00am
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