The two disaster clocks of Downtown Tehachapi
Land of Four Seasons
April 29, 2023
There are two clocks in Downtown Tehachapi that stand in mute testimony to disasters that befell the town in years past. One of these can be found in the Tehachapi Museum at 310 South Green Street. This clock, which had kept perfect time, was brought to a sudden and final stop in the early morning hours of July 21, 1952. . .
The large clock hung in the front window of the Tehachapi Radio Electric store on Green Street, about where Petra Mediterranean Café is today. In the predawn Monday morning darkness at 4:52 on that long-ago July, the peace and quiet was shattered by a thundering roar and a violent upheaval as buildings shook and crumbled. A pall of slowly rising dust enveloped the town.
The unreinforced masonry storefronts that made up most Downtown Tehachapi fell into the streets in piles of brick and plaster and broken lumber.
The Tehachapi Radio Electric store, owned by Erskine "Red" and Patricia Cox, became a disorderly mess of damaged appliances, broken glass and heaps of brick on the sidewalk in front of the store.
The clock was stopped at the exact moment of the quake - 4:52 a.m.
Stunned and disoriented residents made their way to the ravaged downtown. The quake hit at such an early hour that the streets had mostly been deserted, preventing widespread casualties, but there were still fatalities of the worst kind: children.
Four children in the Pete Quintana family from Silver City, New Mexico, as well as their mother, Blanche, were crushed and killed when walls collapsed at a house on G Street, now known as Tehachapi Boulevard.
Next door, at the Martin Furniture Store, a two-story brick building tumbled into a basement and killed three more children in the Louis Martin family. An impromptu morgue was hastily established at the old fire station, located on South Robinson where Tehachapi City Hall is today.
A total of 12 deaths were attributed to the massive quake, which registered 7.3 on the Richter scale and was felt over an area of 160,000 square miles. The quake caused an estimated $60 million in damages and completely shut down the Southern Pacific railroad through Tehachapi for a month.
One of the residents out inspecting the damage on that Monday morning was 9 and 1/2-year-old Vic Cox, whose parents owned Tehachapi Radio Electric. Vic was the paperboy for the Tehachapi News and was intimately acquainted with the downtown and had no trouble navigating the rubble-filled streets and blocked alleys.
He was also playmates with some of the poor Martin children who lost their lives in the quake. Like many local residents, some of whom thought Tehachapi was being bombed by foreign enemies, Vic didn't initially realize he was experiencing an earthquake.
"I recall all of these crashing sounds and being awakened by the noise," Vic told me more than a decade ago. "I was sleeping in a bunk bed above my sister Stephanie, and at first I was convinced it was her pushing on my mattress from below, which she sometimes did."
The 1952 Tehachapi earthquake was the most powerful in the lower 48 states since the epic 1906 San Francisco shaker, and disaster tourists flocked to the area. Vic was able to sell them copies of the Tehachapi News, which the Johnson family was able to get printed despite the ruination of their office.
"I was happy to sell the paper to tourists, at double the price," Vic remembered 58 years later. He had always been a good paper salesman. "My Mom had never liked me going into the bars in town, but I told her 'Mom that's where I sell most of my papers!" Vic recalled.
At the time of the quake, the Cox family had been in the process of selling the Tehachapi Radio Electric store, since Red Cox was also a projectionist at the BeeKay Theater and had started work for Southern California Edison at the Monolith substation.
Unfortunately, the new store owner-to-be sold off most of the appliance inventory as damaged goods, pocketed the money and didn't pay the Coxes. When the family left Tehachapi a few years later so that Red could take a job with Edison at Goleta on the Central Coast, they took the clock with them.
Despite all the damage of 1952 and some predictions of Tehachapi's demise, we all know that the town recovered from the earthquake and emerged stronger and more robust than ever.
Vic Cox, the young Tehachapi News paperboy went on to become a professional writer/editor as well as a journalism professor.
After the start of the 21st century, the Cox family, including Vic sisters' Stephanie Russell and Roxanna Talaugon, decided to donate the old clock to the Tehachapi Museum and today it occupies a prominent place in the museum building on Green Street. It is relic of a natural disaster, of that terrible summer day 70 years ago.
The other clock was at the Tehachapi Depot, and it met its fate on June 13, 2008, when the old depot from 1904, which was almost finished undergoing a lengthy remodel, burned to the ground. The window covering the face of the clock partially melted from the intense heat of the blaze.
Unlike the earthquake, no one was injured by the fire and damage was limited to the depot. The depot itself underwent a complete rebuild, faithful to the original appearance, and reconstruction was finished by November of 2009.
The damaged clock was replaced by an identical model, and the partially melted one was put on display on the side of the depot.
So functioning clocks serve to tell us the time, but even damaged clocks can still have something to say, reminding us of the dangers of earthquakes and fires. . .
Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.
Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.