“O, sunset land! O, sunset land!
As on thy highest mount I stand,
I look away across the plain,
And wonder will it ever rain.”
Thus did J.P. Baumgartner, editorializing in the Riverside Daily Press in 1899, paraphrase a familiar gospel hymn.
Southern California was suffering through a three-year drought. Only three storage reservoirs existed in the Southland, and two of them — Big Bear Lake and the “Sweet Water Dam” near San Diego — were essentially dry. Lake Hemet alone still held a season’s water supply.
That same year, one hot August afternoon, Drs. Walter Lindley and F.T. Bicknell rode into Strawberry Valley, decided it would be an ideal setting for tuberculosis patients and hatched the plan that created the Idyllwild Sanatorium. And so Idyllwild was born — a child of drought.
A similar three-year dry spell during 1923-1925 tempered Idyllwild’s first building boom. A still more severe period lasted from 1948 to 1964, during which 10 winters were abnormally dry and only one saw precipitation significantly above average.
The situation became so dire after three consecutive dry winters that Idyllwild Water District in 1961 imposed rationing on residents, pulled the plug on the county and state campgrounds and threatened to cease supplying summer camps.
Established organizations like Idyllwild Pines and Camp Emerson, along with the county campground, quickly drilled their own wells, while the state park imported 2,500-gallon tanks of water to supply campers. With rationing succeeding, IWD relented, allowing summer camps to keep operating. But the Seventh-day Adventists had already thrown in the towel, putting their J.M.V. Pathfinder Camp on the market and moving permanently to Pine Springs Ranch in Apple Canyon.
The 1959-1961 drought also ushered in a massive bark-beetle infestation. This led to years of road building and salvage logging, much like what we saw after the Milleniuim Drought of 2002.
During the early days, Southern Californians were at a loss to know what to do or even to expect. Newspapers were so full of baseless prognostications, the Hemet News took to casting a jaundiced eye toward all forecasts. In March 1899 it editorialized: “There seems to be a large number of the optimistic press throughout Southern California, publishing from week to week ‘enouraging records’ to show the probability of a copious rainfall yet to arrive. Taken together, they would have the records indicate that rain generally follows one condition of the weather or the other, sometimes based from the ‘oldest inhabitant’s’ observations, which makes it certain we shall have rain — if not this season, some other.”
And a week later this report: “Several flocks of geese have been observed flying northward during the last few days, and ‘a prominent real estate agent’ says this is one of the signs which never fails when it occurs late in the season after a dry spell. This hope will be clutched with the drowning grasp for straws.”
At least today we can know there’s an 85-percent chance of El Niño’s return by October, which “typically” brings a wet winter. But we still can only wait and see.