Needles – Gateway To California

Needles, California Custom Postcard. by Kathy Alexander.

Needles, California Custom Postcard. by Kathy Alexander.

Long before Needles, California, was founded, this valley was home to the Mojave Indians for thousands of years, many of whom still live in the area today called the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe. The area, rife with petroglyphs, pictographs, old trails, and stonework, bears witness to the ancient Native Americans living here long before the white man entered the area.

When the railroad pushed westward at the Colorado River in 1883, the town was founded and called “The Needles,” after the sharp peaks at the southerly end of the valley. In the beginning, most people traveled to Needles by rail, and a wooden depot was built to accommodate the steam engines and the many travelers.

El Garces Harvey Hotel, Needles, California by Kathy Alexander

El Garces Harvey Hotel, Needles, California by Kathy Alexander.

When the original depot was destroyed by fire, it was replaced by the El Garces Harvey House and Train Depot, completed in 1908. The building was named “El Garces” in honor of Father Francisco Garces, a missionary who visited the area in 1776.

The El Garces was part of the Fred Harvey chain of hotel restaurants that extended along the Santa Fe Railroad to provide meals and lodging. Considered the “Crown Jewel” of the entire Harvey chain, the El Garces is remembered for the real linen and silver, distinctive china, and fresh flowers provided for its guests daily. Food was of the highest quality, serving lunch and dinner. The lunchroom had two horseshoe-shaped counters that could accommodate many people. Community members also utilized the facilities for elegant private dinners, banquets, and special occasions.

Harvey Girls in Winslow, Arizona, 1910

Harvey Girls, 1910

The waitresses, who soon earned the moniker of Harvey Girls, were cultured young ladies, some from foreign lands. They received special training in neatness, courtesy, and excellent service. Though they were required to sign a contract not to marry for one year, many eventually married railroad men once their contracts were satisfied. Harvey girls and management lived upstairs.

Legend has it that railroaders in the early 20th century would clamber atop the rail cars during late afternoon stops at the El Garces, hoping they could spot some of the Harvey Girls relaxing in their nightgowns outside their dormitory.

Drought refugee arriving in California

Drought refugee arriving in California, by Dorothea Lange, 1936.

As automobiles became more popular, travelers stopped at the El Garces as they made their way down the Old Trails Highway, later renamed Route 66 when the highway connected Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California. When the Mother Road was completed, thousands of Dust Bowl escapees and tourists journeyed to California, and Needles sprouted all types of services, motels, and cafes, many of which can still be seen today.

Needles, California Historic Theater by Kathy Alexander

Needles, California Historic Theater by Kathy Alexander.

In 1929, the Needles Historic Theatre was built by the Masonic Lodge at the cost of some $120,000. Housed on the main floor was the theatre that opened to much fanfare in March 1930. The “modern” theatre entertained the public with first-run movies and traveling performances on its stage. For 63 years, it continued to operate until a fire in 1992. Since then, it has stood vacant, but restoration efforts are underway to renovate the old theatre to its former glory.

By the 1940s, the American public was discontinuing their use of the railway in favor of the automobile, and in the fall of 1949, the Harvey House in the El Garces closed. The building was then partitioned and used as Santa Fe Railway offices.

In the 1950s, dams were built along the Colorado River, which ended a long history of flooding in the region and made the land around Needles suitable for agriculture. This, as well as new recreation opportunities for boating and fishing, boosted the Needles’ economy.

Colorado River at Needles, California by Kathy Alexander.

Colorado River at Needles, California by Kathy Alexander.

When I-40 threatened to bypass Needles, local citizens worked hard to keep the freeway from missing the town and condemning it to a slow death. Their efforts prevailed, which contributed greatly to the town’s promising future.

In 1988, the Santa Fe Railroad moved its offices out of the El Garces to another facility, and the building was closed. Sitting abandoned, the historic building was threatened with destruction until the Friends of El Garces was formed in 1993. Through their efforts, the City of Needles was petitioned to purchase the station in 1999. Tours can now be taken through this historic building on the 2nd Saturday of each month from October through May. Recent plans for the El Garces are to redevelop the building into an upscale hotel and restaurant, much like the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona. As of this writing, the La Posada is the only historic Fred Harvey Hotel that continues to cater to weary and hungry travelers today.

Route 66 in Needles, California by Kathy Alexander.

Route 66 in Needles, California by Kathy Alexander.

The City of Needles originally planned to make the El Garces the second Harvey Hotel to be redeveloped for its original purpose. However, today, it appears to be utilized as an event site, with leasing available for businesses or retail.

Though extremely hot in the summer, with temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees, Needles beckons snowbirds to its mild winters. Visitors to Needles enjoy water skiing, boating, fishing, and nearby attractions, including the Mojave National Preserve, Mystic Maze, and Topock Gorge.

The old Palms Motel in Needles, California is now apartments, by Carol Highsmith.

The old Palms Motel in Needles, California, is now apartments by Carol Highsmith.

For those traveling the Mother Road, approximately ten miles of Route 66 is located in Needles, where several vintage icons can still be seen today, including the Route 66 Motel, the Palm Motel, and the former El Garces Fred Harvey Hotel/Santa Fe Depot, the Historic Needles Theatre, and several other old motels.

Enjoy the beautiful desert surroundings and the scenic Colorado River before continuing your journey along the Mother Road. A word of caution – you have more than one hundred fifty miles of barren desert ahead with no service stops if you take original Route 66 and only a few stops if you take I-40, where you will pay outrageous prices at the gas pumps. Fill up your tank in Needles – better yet, fill it up in Arizona before crossing to California to save a few bucks for a much-needed ice cream sundae after crossing the long-hot Mojave Desert.

Old section of Route 66 in Needles, California by Kathy Alexander.

The old section of Route 66 in Needles, California, by Kathy Alexander.

An old alignment of Route 66 presents itself just after passing through. At the Moabi Road Exit, the old 1947-1966 winds past a campground, under a railroad bridge, to dead-end at the Colorado River. After making this short detour, return to the Moabi Road exit and join I-40 westbound to continue your trip along Route 66.

Route 66 then veers away from I-40 to the north. Take the US-95 exit off I-40 a few miles outside of Needles. The road continues for about six miles before turning westward on Goffs Road to pass through the old towns of Goffs and Fenner.


© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.

Also See: 

California Route 66

El Garces Harvey House Hotel & Depot

Needles Historic Theatre

Route 66 Photo Galleries