On clear, desert nights the Desert Tower's lights hang in the western sky like stars. Perhaps it is fitting that the lighthouse-like tower, located in In-ko-pah on the western edge of Imperial County, should stand sentry 3,000 feet above the Imperial Valley. Nestled in a forest of sheltering boulders, the granite tower stands where a way station once offered solace to weary travelers.
Before cars and air conditioners, only the hardiest dared journey East of here into the torrid wilderness below, where summer temperatures of more than 100 degrees could bring quick death to the unlucky or unprepared.
It was during 1910-1920 that Bert Vaughn, originally from West Virginia, came to Jacumba. With his financial ties in both San Diego and El Centro, Vaughn was conscious of the possibilities on both sides of the mountains. Further, his years as a real estate developer pointed to the fact that the Jacumba Valley was the logical spot on the San Diego-Imperial routes for a much needed town.
In the early 1920's, Vaughn, who at the time owned the town of Jacumba, decided to build the 70-foot tower as a tribute to the days when it took a month to travel from San Diego to Yuma, AZ. He laid the first course of rocks in 1922, and sealed them in place with hand mixed cement. The base was built of solid rock, and so well anchored that the sixty years of ferocious winds and blasting by crews as they changed the highway to a freeway in the late 1960's seem not to have moved it at all. Water was often in short supply and buckets hauled to the construction area when the springs went dry. By late 1923, the base of the tower was well established and the walls began to rise. The tower was not completed until 1928.
The tower was abandoned for many years until Dennis A. Newman, a fighter pilot who flew for Britain's Royal Air Force during World War II, bought it. He restored the tower to its former granite glory, and built a shop around its base. An antique store occupies the shop and it is still open, selling old guns, swords, dolls and lamps.
Today travelers from all over the world visit the tower for its great view. Many climb the 57 steps to the hurricane deck at the top of the tower, from where the Valley and Mexico appear serene, even on blustery winter days.
Photographs grace the four-foot thick walls inside the tower, giving visitors a local history lesson. The black-and-white images of those connected with building the tower are frozen in time, including pictures of the weather-beaten workers who built the tower for a mere $3.00 a day.
Just outside the tower is Boulder Park. Here you can see huge granite snakes, lizards, and a human skull that were chiseled from boulders during the Great Depression.
To get to the tower take the In-Ko-Pah exit from Interstate 8, and travel east along the northern side of the highway for about half a mile. The tower is open from about 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day of the year. Visitors over 12 years of age pay $2.00 to see the tower's hurricane deck and Boulder Park.