Needles is one of the oldest cities in San Bernardino County, California, United States. It was founded in 1883 with the coming of the railroad and incorporated in October 1913. It has a population of just under five thousand.
Needles lies on the western banks of the Colorado River in the Mohave Valley subregion of the Mojave Desert. Located in the very heart of the lower Colorado River recreation area just across the bridge from Arizona and just minutes to Nevada – the “Tri-State” area – Needles is the gateway to the Golden State. The city is roughly 110 miles from the Las Vegas Strip and is the easternmost city of the Greater Los Angeles area. It is accessible via Interstate 40 and U.S. Route 95.
The Aha Macav (now federally designated as the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe), one of the traditional Colorado River Indian Tribes, are Native Americans that lived in the Mojave Valley for thousands of years prior to the European exploration of the area. In the Mohave language, their name is ‘Aha Makhav,’ which means ‘people who live along the river.’
The historic Mojave Road now goes through the Mojave National Preserve. Along with it, in 1859, Fort Mojave was built to protect new pioneer immigrants to California and other travelers from the Mohave.
The Mohave have managed the natural resources of their desert homeland for perhaps as long as 8,000 years. There is evidence to suggest that the ancestors of today’s Mojave people migrated into the mountains and valleys along the Colorado River soon after the last ice age.
The large Mohave Native American community shares the nearby Fort Mojave Indian Reservation and the town. Needles is a gateway to the Mojave National Preserve, where ancient petroglyphs, pictographs, intaglios art, and old trails and stonework sites, bear witness to those who came from an earlier time.
The History of Needles, CA
Needles was named after “The Needles,” a group of pinnacles in the Mohave Mountains on the Arizona side of the river to the south of the city. These pointed mountain peaks have wind-blown holes which can only be seen by boat from the Colorado River; they lie at the south end of the valley.
The city was founded as a result of the construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway which originally crossed the Colorado River at this point. Unfortunately, it proved to be a poor site for such a bridge, lacking firm banks and a solid bottom. The flooding and meandering of the Colorado River destroyed the bridge in 1884, 1886, and 1888. Finally, the railroad surrendered to nature and built a high cantilever bridge at a much narrower point with solid rock footings, ten miles downstream near modern Topock, completing it in May 1890.
Originally a tent town for railroad construction crews, the railroad company built a hotel, car sheds, shops, and a roundhouse. Within a month the town also boasted a Chinese washhouse, a newsstand, a restaurant, a couple of general stores, and nine or ten saloons. The town became the largest port on the river above Yuma, Arizona.
Needles was a major stop on the historic U.S. Route 66 highway from the 1920s through the 1960s. For immigrants from the Midwest Dust Bowl in the 1930s, it was the first town that marked their arrival in California. The city is lined with motels and other shops from that era.
In 1949, the US Bureau of Reclamation began a mass project to dredge a new channel for the Colorado River that would straighten out a river bend that was causing massive silt problems since the Hoover Dam was completed.
Needles is a tourism and recreation center, a tradition going back for decades. The city is the eastern gateway to the Mojave National Preserve, a scenic desert National Park. According to the town web site:
“Needles is a city with a rich and colorful history, providing a satisfying, less hurried way of life, and a supportive business climate. From the frontier of the Old West to the frontier of the 21st century, Needles commands a strategic position in the evolution of California. Come on in and see what makes us unique.”
Drug Problems in Needles
As one traveler noted, large sections of Needles are abandoned. Many big employers have opted to move over the border to Arizona, where corporate taxes and building regulations are easier on their bottom line. Similarly, travelers drive on by to reach cheaper gas across the border. Today, the city is suffering from extremely high poverty (nearly 29% of the population lives below the poverty line), crime rates well above the national average (including violent crime) and high unemployment rates. Substance abuse is rife. For those seeking solutions, help is at hand in the form of several rehabilitation centers in the area.
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