Part 3 of a series on a small Mojave Desert town that witnessed American transportation history in motion.
Authors Note: Boron's involvement in military and space avaition history is extensive. My summary here does no justice to its level of involvement, and I must keep my summery concise to stay within the content and theme of my blog. For more in depth subject matter please visit the Boron Sun blog @ http://theboronsun.blogspot.com/ .
The day was October 14th, 1947 and the long slender silver shape of a B-29 took to the clear blue sky's over Rogers Dry Lake. Today though the bottom of the Boeing masterpiece would be disrupted by the shape of an odd orange missile protruding from its bomb bay. The B-29 climbed to 45,000 feet, and once level the orange missile known as the Bell X-1 suddenly dropped from the bottom of the B-29 at 1019 hours military local, igniting its four rocket engines.
The rocket plane shot past its escorting P-80 Shooting Stars sent to chase and observe it. At 1024 hours military local, 10:24 AM Pacific to the rest of us, a huge boom shook the land, rattling in some accounts shattering glass in the town of Amargo, CA now known as Boron. The orange missile, or the .50 caliber bullet with wings, known as the Bell X-1 piloted by the legendary ace Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier in straight and level flight.
Amargo then, known as Boron today was a hotbed of activity in the world of aviation even before Yeager's historic 1947 flight. Not far from the town was the ranch, turned bar and hotel of avaition legend Poncho Barnes. Poncho's "Happy Bottom Riding Club", had become a major destination in the world of early avaition. Aviation pioneers and celebrities alike would fly into the ranch’s private airstrip also known as the Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch, to mingle and drink, and swim in the ranch’s unusual swimming pools. It wouldn’t have been unusual to see Howard Hughes here rubbing elbows with the likes of Randolph Scott, Myrna Loy, and other notables of the time in those days before the war. Even after the war started the celebrities still stopped in but the bar had also become a destination for pilots in training from Muroc Army Air Base (as Edwards AFB was known at the time) or one of the many other military and private aviation schools in the Antelope Valley at the time.
The link below is a great website known as Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields that can show you the location of many lost WW II training fields, and reserve bases in the Antelope Valley.
The bar was known for its pictures of aviators that served as a memorial for many of those killed while trying to tame the sky’s, above the Antelope Valley, most of them test pilots. One of the pictures of recollection was of America’s highest scoring ace of all time Richard Bong, a P-38 pilot with 40 kills in the Pacific, killed while test piloting early versions of Lockheed’s P-80.
Eventually controversy would catch up with the club, and the “Happy Bottom” would be closed after a mysterious fire destroyed the bar in 1953. But the bar would become the stuff of legend, especially after Tom Wolfe’s 1979 novel, and 1983 film adaptation of “The Right Stuff” in which Wolfe captured Barnes personality, and the bar. Wolfe also gave notoriety to Poncho’s famous steak dinner the prize to the first man to break the sound barrier, something that dispite much of the book and films mythos actually was true and was awarded to Chuck Yeager, plus I’m sure he was bought plenty of drinks from that time on as well. Sadly though, not much remains of the bar and hotel today, and it takes special permission from Edwards AFB to access the area.
Poncho would live out the rest of life in Boron, finally passing on in 1975 from Breast Cancer. Although there are several rumors that the death had some usual and even mysterious circumstances to it, one could say Poncho even in death, was larger than life.
Today in Boron, Domingo’s Mexican Restaurant is the modern day equivalent to Poncho’s, but a little more refined and family friendly. Test pilots old and new dine here after a big flight, and shuttle Astronauts would dine here after landing at Edwards. Meaning Boron is keeping the spirit of aviation alive, even if its foremost ambassador Poncho Barnes is long gone. Once again Boron legacy’s comes to light, too bad the free steak dinner tradition isn't part of that though.
The Saxon Aerospace Museum in Boron is open to the public and is wonderfully family friendly. If you want to spend some time investigating Boron’s rich aviation history this is the place to do it. The museum gives you a great look at Muroc and Edwards operations, and unlike the museum on Edwards you don’t need to request special access to visit.
Here is their website: http://www.saxonaerospacemuseum.com/Saxon/home
There are even more stories to tell about the sky’s above Boron, like the story of the XB-35 and XB-49 grandparents of today's B-2 Spirit bomber. The XB-49 would crash under dubious circumstances on June 5, 1948 killing test pilots Major Daniel Forbes, and Captain Glen Edwards, Muroc Air Force base would have its name changed to Edwards Air Force Base in honor of Capt. Edwards, and Forbes too would have an airbase named after him in Kansas.
There are stories here about astronauts from Mercury program all the way to the ISS. Stories of X-planes such as the fastest manned aircraft ever the X-15 blazing through the sky’s above the town. Stories of Neil Armstrong piloting the “Flying Bedstand” a terrestrial simulator for the Luner Excursion Module, that Armstrong ejected from moments before it crashed. Even now the stories still come as new and fantastic aircraft race above Boron’s sky’s, like Spaceship One, the X-43, X-48, and a wide range of UAV’s.
Visiting the town, all one needs to do is look around to get the feel and sense of history this town has, especially its place in aviation and the space race. On a nearby mountain southwest of the town there is “Rocket Site” a NASA rocket test stand that you can see from Boron, and occasionally you can see rockets being tested up there. To the northeast of the town on another hill is former radar facility used to track X-planes, and other experimental aircraft in the past, it was known as Boron Air Force Station. West of town you will find Desert Lake Apartments, this structure was originally built to accommodate members of the 750th Aircraft Control Squadron, but after housing was built near the radar dome the apartment complex was sold to private owners who turned it into a motel and apartment complex.
Boron has a very unique feel to it, but as the article title indicates it’s a place of ghosts and legacies. When it comes to aviation you can still sense that 1950’s and 1960’s ideal of the future to come, the optimism of the “Space Age”, this is a ghost that lingers, sometimes hit home by both relics and active aviation sites nearby. But its legacy continues on above in its sky’s.
As we now combine Route 466, Santa Fe streamliners such as the San Francisco Chief, and this deep connection to aviation history, and compare it to California 58, BNSF's Bakersfield District operations, and the X-43 zooming above it all we see Boron’s legacy and life that still streams from it. The very fact that a small relatively obscure town could become so intricately involved in key transportation routes past, present and very possibly future is almost mind boggling, and yet it happened.
If you are a rail fan (or Foamers in rail speak) of the Santa Fe, a Route 66 aficionado, or a military aviation buff I would definitely suggest visiting Boron for a day. For those of you chasing the Santa Fe or Route 66 Boron is only 40 miles west of Barstow a town any Santa Fe rail fan, or Route 66er will be in anyway just follow California Route 58 west out of Barstow, and be sure to stop and see one of the last signed portions of Route 466 north of Barstow. If you’re a military aviation buff Boron can be found on the map near California Highway 58 directly northeast of Edwards AFB.