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Stealing Lancaster

It would have been difficult to look out across the future site of Lancaster during the early 1880s and believe that such an expansive, and seemingly isolated, tract of land would someday be home to hundreds of thousands of permanent residents all going about their daily lives. Unless, that is, you happened to be Mr. Moses Langley Wicks. In 1884, Mr. Wicks purchased 60 sections of surveyed land from the Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR). He then used a six-hundred and forty-acre parcel inside of an area known as Section 15 to lay out the main townsite of what would become Lancaster, right alongside the newly completed SPRR rail line; here, the railroad had been operating timetabled water stop listed as “Lancaster” since early in the year 1880. This relationship and proximity to the railroad was necessary for the sustainability and development of early Lancaster, however the business relationship between Moses Langley Wicks and the Southern Pacific Railroad, as well as the land sale which was the result of this relationship, would be mired in legal battles that would only be resolved a full century later by the highest legislative body in the nation.


Early artists depiction of an aerial view of the Antelope Valley


The legality of the sale was in question from the very start. In February of 1884 Wicks began to subdivide the Section 15 township into a grid-pattern of streets which spurred off of the existing Southern Pacific Railroad line, alongside modern-day Sierra Highway and Lancaster Boulevard. Wicks then invested heavily in the development and advertisement of the growing Lancaster township by running advertisements as far away as Europe to entice settlers to come and live in the California desert, some even reaching the city of London. Unfortunately for Moses Langley Wicks and the residents of Lancaster who had purchased their land from him, sometime between 1885 and 1890 the California Legislature became aware that Moses Wicks had been selling land from his 1884 land patent, though the land in question being sold had not been released in ownership to the SPRR until January 9, 1885, nearly a full year after Wicks had sold the first Lancaster lots within Section 15.


Mr. Moses Langley Wicks


An arduous legal battle ensued against Wicks and the SPRR. Challenges to the sale and transfer of the land took years to wind through various levels of the court until nearly a full ten years after the zoning of the lots, when the case was put on the docket of the California 9th District Circuit Committee. By July 19, 1894 the Federal Circuit Court declared that the original 1884 and 1887 land patents between Wicks and the Southern Pacific Railroad were null and void; it was stated that the SPRR did not have the legal right to cede the land to Mr. Wicks at the time at which the purchases had transpired, citing illegitimate sale of the railroads Right of Way.


Original Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, 1890, “Lancaster” is visible on the front signage.


Wicks, however, was not going down without a fight. Using the profits he had accumulated from selling a majority of the townsite to Mr. James P. Ward in 1888, Mr. Wicks contacted the U.S. Department of the Interior and requested sale of the area of Section 15 once again. This time around, he used an eighty year old act of congress to justify his purchase. Pursuant to the Act of April 24, 1820, Moses Langley Wicks requested the sale of land previously zoned and surveyed by the federal government, including the townsite of Lancaster in Section 15, by “Cash Patent Entry”; as a result, Mr. Wicks was subsequently granted Cash Patent Entry No. 5565 by the U.S. Department of the Interior on June 15, 1900. Six years after the courts had declared the land illegally owned by him, and after three documented purchases of the same land, it seemed that the legal issue over the ownership and use of the land had finally been settled. Over decades, the disputes and long court battles faded from memory and were forgotten about.


View of Sierra Highway in Lancaster, mid 1950s


Nearly eight decades later, residents of the Lancaster area participated in a public election and on November 22, 1977, Lancaster became officially incorporated as an independent City within Los Angeles County. Suddenly, a new issue appeared on the agenda for the 95th Session of Congress, 1977-1978 – the subject of the ownership of land rights to an area known to the U.S. Department of the Interior as Section 15 T.7N., R.12W., now known as the City of Lancaster.


After having several hearings on the issue, in 1978 the 95th congress decided that to confirm the 1900 transaction between the U.S. Department of the Interior and Moses Langley Wicks would not inflict any budgetary burden or inflationary impact on the national economy; therefore, their conclusion was to finally approve the federal transaction from the previous century. This action finally guaranteed land rights to property owners across the Antelope Valley who had, for ninety years prior, unwittingly been developing on questionably owned land.


Sources:

Lancaster Museum of Art and History Permanent Collections

Bai “Tom” Tang & Terri Jacquemain. Historic Building Survey: Lancaster Downtown Specific Plan. CRM TECH: Colton. CA. 2008

Bai “Tom” Tang & Bruce Love. History and Archaeology at old downtown Lancaster: The Lancaster Sheriffs Station Project. Monitoring, Testing, and Mitigation. Bruce Love: Riverside, CA. 1995


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