Most people nowadays know the name Willow Springs as belonging to the world-renowned racetrack just outside of Rosamond. Despite its fame, few know the extensive history of the Willow Springs area and the small community it once boasted over one hundred years ago, well before the railroad cut through the Mojave. Now registered as California Historical Landmark #130, Willow Springs is one of the most historic watering holes in the Mojave Desert and is one of the three natural oases in the Antelope Valley. The early watering hole once played host to Native Americans, wild horses and antelope, explorers and miner 49’ers, stagecoaches, struggling desert crossers, and bandits on the run.
The year 1776 marks the first historical mention of Willow Springs, when Padre Francesco Garces stopped at the springs on his return from the San Joaquin Valley. In 1844, explorer John C. Fremont noted that he had stopped there to rest under the willows on one of his trips west. Other visitors included lost 49’ers such as the Jayhawk Party and the Bennett-Arcan Party, who stumbled into the oasis in 1850 after their grueling trip through Death Valley. Willow Springs also provided water for horse thieves escaping with their stolen goods along Horse Thief Trail; supposedly, they would ride down to San Fernando, come up through Bouquet Canyon and then gallop through Willow Springs before escaping north. They followed the adequately named Horse Thief Trail, which later became known as Walker Trail.
From 1860 on, it became a stage and freight station and general watering place used by Remi Nadeau in freighting silver from Cerro Gordo Mines. The Searles Brothers, Borax Smith and others also used the station while developing the Death Valley borax deposits and the Inyo and Kern River mining operations. In 1862, 23-year-old Nelson Ward and his wife, Adelia, settled next to the springs. The Wards built an adobe boarding house where they kept a number of horse and mule teams. Though the Wards were known to be gracious hosts, their station was cramped and guests usually slept in the bar; maintaining a hectic pace of life, the hotel was known by travelers as the “Hotel de Rush.” Also in 1862, the whole of Willow Springs passed from public domain to private ownership when Abraham Lincoln transferred it into the name of General Edward Fitzgerald Beale. Because of a battle for right of way between Beale and Southern Pacific, the railroad decidedly bypassed Willow Springs and took a more expensive and hazardous route through the mountains, resulting in the Tehachapi Loop, and then through Rosamond.
From 1864-1872, Willow Springs was used as a station on the Los Angeles-Havilah Stage Lines. After Nelson Ward’s death, the Willow Springs station was taken over by a couple named Riley, who in November of 1875 had the bad fortune to be robbed by surviving members of Tiburcio Vasquez's gang. Luckily, the traveling bandits did not harm the Rileys during the hold up. The Rileys continued operating the station until 1876, when the tracks to Los Angeles were completed through Soledad Canyon, making long-distance stagecoach travel across the Valley obsolete. Although the old station has been in ruins for more than 100 years, a small section of its adobe walls still stands.
When the stage and freighting traffic ceased, Willow Springs fell eerily quiet. It wouldn't be until 1900, when local miner Ezra “Struck-it-Rich” Hamilton and his family bought the springs and a surrounding 160 acres, that the watering hole became the center of attention once again. His goal at the time was to utilize the water from the natural spring to run the mill for his gold mine, Lida Mine, but the natural landscape and its tranquility proved too good to pass up and he began setting up a resort. In 1904, Hamilton invested over $40,000 (now the equivalent of about $1.2 million) to build 27 stone buildings including houses, a hotel, a school, a swimming pool, an auditorium, a dance hall, a post office, a trading post, and a restaurant. Hamilton also created some makeshift greenhouses to help stock the small trading post and restaurant with produce. Hamilton's resort boasted of a hotel large enough to house 30 people, equipped with fresh ice, flush toilets and electricity. Willow Springs also had the first automobile garage in the area, equipped with a gas pump, because old Ezra Hamilton was the first in the Antelope Valley to have a car.
During this time, Willow Springs became a hot spot for community gatherings; nearly everyone within a radius of 15 miles would meet there on Sunday afternoons, weather permitting. Many traveling road shows would stop and give entertaining performances in the auditorium, and churches would frequently hold their services there. Despite the success of his resort, Hamilton was determined to make Willow Springs a real town. And thus, he began building the first school. The construction was completed in 1904, and he hired a teacher who had five kids so he'd have enough children for the school to qualify. In 1905, Hamilton built a bigger school a short distance to the northeast to accommodate more children. The resort thrived until Hamilton's death in 1915. It then passed on to his children, who sold it three years later.
Between 1918-1930 there were always people living there, but it had a variety of owners until the Willow Springs Co., which carried on local mining operations, purchased it for their headquarters. In 1952, the Tehachapi earthquake destroyed some of the old buildings but the town managed to stay alive. There were always some tenants in the houses and the restaurant was always in operation, leased out to several people over the years. During the first experimental flights of the Bell X-1 at Edwards Air Force Base, many of the flight crew rented rooms at Willow Springs. Included among the residents were Chalmers "Slick" Goodlin, pilot of the X-1 before Chuck Yeager; Dick Frost, project manager of the X-1 test team, and many others. Female pilot Pancho Barnes was also a frequent visitor. In the mid-1950s, the restaurant was operated by Lawrence and Jean Duntley, son and daughter-in-law of Antelope Valley pioneer Rawley Duntley. The restaurant, which served Basque food, was constantly bustling. After the restaurant closed, Willow Springs village has again fallen quiet, spare for the sound of cars racing nearby.