At the start of the 20th century, there were many comparisons between our desert area and the deserts of the Middle East.
This was made even more evident with the import of date palms and the beginnings of a date industry. A large-scale development plan even sought to build our own version of the walled city of Biskra, but that did not materialize.
The ancient city of Biskra is located approximately 250 miles southeast of Algiers in Algeria. Situated on the edge of the Saharan desert, Biskra, by the 20th century, had become an oasis of art and culture in the desert, with many calling it the “Saharan Nice”, comparing it to the city of France.
In our desert region, if we look along the hills that make up the northeast side of the Coachella Valley, we can see a chain of palm oases. In these hills, several kilometers north of Indio, one of the largest of these oases was nicknamed Biskra Palms. Here in the late 1920s, Charles H. Jonas, a Southern California real estate developer, envisioned an oasis similar to the Algerian oasis of the same name in Riverside County.
Biskra was to start as a $ 500,000 hotel built using the architecture of the Sahara Desert region. Soon, a walled city was envisioned in which visitors could stroll among the shops and restaurants offering “Oriental and North African goods” as Jonah’s brochures stated.
Once the walled city was completed, the plots of land surrounding the oasis would be subdivided into winter land and houses for wealthy shoppers, all in an architecture similar to that of the hotel and shopping center. If desired, a person can then say that their address is in Biskra, in the Saharan oasis of southern California.
By the end of 1928, construction had started on a road leading to Biskra, several trails through the area, rock faces and even leveled building blocks. Much of this work was done by Joe Toutain, Banning’s longtime agent.
Advertising for Biskra has gone to extremes. Many tourist trips have been organized to transport potential investors to the site. “Arab” style tents were set up for people to see. In this period of reverence for Rudolf Valentino as “Sheik”, many people came to see the planned community. Investors even paid the price of sending their main architect, Mark C. Daniels, on a trip to Algeria to study Saharan architecture.
However, the people who come to see a staged model are not investors. The hype around Biskra was draining investor coffers and construction was lagging behind. By the end of 1929, the stock market had collapsed and much of the money that was left was gone. Over the next few months, the tents exploded, the few workers on the project left, and investors tried to salvage what little assets they still had, not to mention those that could be used for speculation. Biskra’s development suddenly stopped and was never resumed.
Today the Biskra Palms oasis is still there and makes for a great hike. Part of the road is still visible, but that’s about all that remains of hope for our own walled city of Biskra.
If you have an idea for a future Back in the Day article on a local historic character, place or event, contact Steve Lech and Kim Jarrell Johnson at [email protected]