Strange Geographies: A Utopian Ghost Town in the California Desert


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."

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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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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

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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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