When settlers first arrived in the Mojave Desert, they were met with the sight of the Joshua tree. Despite the endearment many desert dwellers have for them today, initially these monocots were viewed as useless eyesores. Joseph Smeaton Chase, an English-born American author and traveler who is known for his writings on California landscapes, wrote in his 1919 book “California Desert Trails” that:
“One can scarcely find a term of ugliness that is not apt for this plant. A misshapen pirate with belt boots hands and teeth stuck full of daggers is as near as I can come to a human analogy. The wood is a harsh, rasping fibre; knife blades long hard and keen fill the place of leaves; the flower is greenish white and ill smelling; and the fruit a cluster of nubbly pods, bitter and useless. A landscape filled with Joshua trees has a nightmare effect even in broad daylight: at the witching hour it can be almost infernal.”
However, this attitude towards Joshua trees would briefly change beginning in the late 1870s. According to John Swisher, a historian from the Wrightwood Historical Society, an entrepreneur named Walker went to England to seek funds to establish a paper mill in the high desert. Walker claimed that he knew how to make a “wasteland” cactus into useful and beautiful paper. Suddenly the ugly and useless Joshua tree was a money-making prize, plentiful and untouched in the Mojave Desert.
School boys sitting in a Joshua tree in the rear schoolyard of the second Lancaster Grammar School which was built in 1890. The school was located in the vicinity of the present-day Lancaster Chamber of Commerce office, across the street from the Western Hotel (Gurba). Photo from MOAH Collections.
In 1884, Walker gained funders and the Atlantic and Pacific Fiber Company of London, England was established. The company was managed by Englishman Colonel Gay, a Mr. Payne, and Los Angeles based attorney J.A. Graves (Gist). The Joshua tree paper they made would be shipped to England for use. Americans would also gain interest in milling the paper and another mill would start in San Jose, called the Lick Paper Mill, likely around the same time, and their only paper project was Joshua tree paper (Swisher). At one-point, the Atlantic and Pacific Fiber Company of London would fund the purchasing of 5,200 acres of the Antelope Valley for milling (Gist). They were contracted to furnish the London Daily Telegraph with Joshua tree paper. Lancaster’s own famous local, George Webber, came to the United States in 1885 working for the London Daily Telegraph and was involved in the Joshua Tree paper business. Several editions of the London Journal were printed on Joshua tree paper.
George Webber, Image from MOAH Collections
The Atlantic and Pacific Fiber Company of London, England would get an old mill used for mining and convertit into a paper mill located between what was called Alpine and Ravenna in Soledad Canyon Pass (Gist). The Ravenna depot was located southwest of what is today known as Acton (between Lang and Acton). Alpine was located northeast of Acton, between the Acton and Lancaster depots (Henderson). Several photographs of this mill were taken by photographer Carleton E. Watkins, who photographed various areas of the U.S. from about 1850 to 1906. These photographs were taken when the mill was active, which according to Gist was likely the late 1870s- 1886 (Gist).
B 4309, Yucca Paper Mill At Revena, S.P.R.R.. Photograph by Chareton E. Watkins. (Gist, sourced from the "California Views from the R.W. Waterman Family Papers" Collection at U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library).
A crew of Chinese workers would be employed by the company to cut the trees into two-foot length logs and then haul them to Ravenna (Gist and Swisher). Written in London: Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce Journal article from March 21, 1879, the article mentions the promise of the Joshua tree as one of the most interesting modern paper materials and how Lancaster was a key stop in bringing the Joshua trees to the mill. The plant was “brought to the station of Lancaster and loaded on waggons at a cost of two dollars per cord. From Lancaster to Ravena, the distance is thirty miles, and the railroad charges one dollar par cord for the freight. The lands surrounding the railway are divided into sections and belong to the Government and the Company. The Government collects an annual tax of 25 per cent. per acre, and at the end of three years, by paying one dollar per acre, the ownership may be acquired. The price of the plant delivered at the station is calculated at four dollars per cord."
To process the Joshua tree, the mill would tear the logs into a mushy pulp. This process was extensive and involved burning the outer portions of the bark off before processing the fiber. The process is described in the 1879 journal:
“The yuccas are put into heaps and burned so as to strip them of the bark; this operation is performed in the desert. They are then placed on waggons and carried to the mills, where two men are set to scrape off the burned part, but as the flame has penetrated and blackened the fibre, this cannot be fully attained. The trees are sawn into strips three inches thick, and placed on a decorticator, then three wooden vats are filled, a solution of lime is added, in no fixed proportion, however, and the exhaust of the steam-engine performs the boiling for twenty-four hours. The fibres are taken out of the vats, and two rag engines, each of a capacity of 650 lbs., are filled for the washing, which is done in two or three hours.
The result is not a half-stuff which can be immediately transformed into paper, the boiling having had no effect on the fibres; the washing is not completed, and the stuff is greyish and hard to the touch. This half-stuff is spread out in the sun, and with a humidity of twenty-five per cent. is put on the wagons; it is neither pressed nor covered, and is thus brought to the mills at Lict, near Santa Clara [in northern California]. This journey costs six and a quarter dollars per ton. The stuff is here boiled again in a rotary boiler, with caustic soda, then washed and beaten, and finally made into wrapping paper upon a cylinder machine 48 inches side. The average price of labour is two and a half dollars per day; the freight of the chemicals from San Francisco to Ravena is 14 dollars per ton; and wood costs at the mill of Santa Clara five dollars per cord; and Californian coal six dollars per ton.
The daily consumption of paper in California is estimated at from 15 to 20 tons. A mill at Ravena capable of turning out five tons could hardly fail of being a complete success, but it would be necessary to have the pulp and the paper manufactured at the same place, and not, as at present, one half at Ravena and the other at Santa Clara, places 400 miles from each other.”
“Paper-Making Materials”. Journal of the Society of Arts. No. 1,374, Vol. XXVII | Friday, March 21, 1879, pp. 383-384. London: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (Gris).
As described here, the process was laborious and had high transportation costs, but was seemingly bound to work with the demand for paper. Once the pulp was processed, it was then bailed and placed on the Southern Pacific Railroad and delivered to the Los Angeles Harbor, where it was then shipped to London (Swisher). At the 1885 District Agricultural Fair which took place in Southern California there was an exhibit of Joshua tree logs and pulp brought in to help promote the promise of Joshua Tree paper (Gist). The Lick Paper Mill in San Jose would plan to have a monopoly of all the paper mills in the region and have them produce Joshua tree paper exclusively.
B 4311, Sawing the Yucca at the Revena Mill, S.P.R.R.. Photograph by Chareton E. Watkins. (Gist, sourced from the "California Views from the R.W. Waterman Family Papers" Collection at U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library).
B 4310, Loading Pulp at Revena, S.P.R.R.. Photograph by Chareton E. Watkins. (Gist, sourced from the "California Views from the R.W. Waterman Family Papers" Collection at U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library).
However, during the shipment to England, the bails would often get mildew thus ruining some of the paper product. The milling would go on for two years up until 1886. During this time, the largest Joshua tree in the Antelope Valley, reportedly at 66 feet tall, was cut down to make paper (Swisher). Meryl Adams, author of “Heritage Happenings”, writes that in 1886, a cloudburst greatly damaged the mill, and it was never repaired. Due to the great cost of manufacturing Joshua tree paper, the business ended (Gist and Swisher).
The mill’s ruins were reported to still be found by Mojave Desert explorer and writer Evalyn Slack Gist in 1952 (Gist and Swisher). She conducted extensive research on Joshua tree milling. This image was taken by her when she visited the supposed site.
Photograph by Evalyn Slack Gist, Original caption: “This is believed to be the ruins of one of the old mill buildings, designed to make paper pulp from the Joshua trees”, likely taken in early 1950s. (Gris).
Other abandoned possible Joshua tree mills have been found throughout California, with another found between Phelan and Wrightwood (Swisher). There are a few articles running up until 1894 which mention Joshua tree milling businesses starting up and then failing. One November 1894 publication mentions that a factory-made Joshua tree veneer by peeling the trunks. The veneer would be stained the color of various woods, but in the end, the veneer was too porous and would absorb a lot of the color, so this enterprise was also abandoned (Gist).
By the end of the 19th century, the Joshua tree paper enterprise had ended, and the mill workers would find other ventures. George Webber would remain in California and eventually come to own the Western Hotel in 1908, which is now a museum run by MOAH on Lancaster Blvd. Had the Joshua tree paper business succeeded, it’s likely that the Antelope Valley’s forests would be significantly less than what we have today. To learn more about Lancaster’s early history and George Webber please visit the Western Hotel Museum (Western Hotel Museum | MOAH (lancastermoah.org)). We are open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 11 AM – 4PM.
Gist, Evalyn Slack. Photograph of mill ruins and “Forgotten Mill of the Joshuas”, Vol. 15 No. 1 January 1952 SCV History. SCVHistory.com BL4294 | Ravenna | Active Joshua Tree Paper Mill, 1880s.
Gurba, Norma H. Images of America Lancaster. Arcadia Publishing, 2005.
Swisher, John M. “Joshua Trees Once Consumed by Paper Mills” from “Bits’N Pieces,” pp. 53-54, September 5, 2003, Wrightwood Roots. d09tppr (wrightwoodcalif.com)
Watkins, Chareton E. Photographs B4309-B4311. Featured in Gist’s “Forgotten Mill of the Joshuas”, Vol. 15 No. 1 January 1952 SCV History. SCVHistory.com BL4294 | Ravenna | Active Joshua Tree Paper Mill, 1880s. Originally sourced from the "California Views from the R.W. Waterman Family Papers" Collection at U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library.