My expedition to the boondocks of East San Diego County was via Old Highway 80, which started as a wagon trail in the 1860s; morphed into a narrow, concrete 2-lane “highway” in 1917; expanded into a wider, concrete 2-lane highway in 1930-32; and then began its decline in the ’60s when Interstate 8 was built. Many of the cities along Highway 80 were tourist traps in their heyday. Now the main traffic bypasses them on Interstate 8, and the only people using Highway 80 are locals, and weird people like me out searching for history.
Out in Jacumba Hot Springs, 80 miles east of downtown San Diego, I found the Chinese Castle. Looked like this:
The Chinese Castle is located at the top of a street named Snob Hill. It is a private residence and was not accessible. My research indicates that it was built in the 1920s by Frank Battles, a “wealthy eccentric.” Some sources say that construction began in 1914 and was completed in the 1930s. The foundation of the castle sits on solid granite, creating natural granite floors inside, and has an indoor pool hacked out of the granite.
Battles lived in China for many years and brought back a “heroic size Buddha” as well as carved chests, embroided silk screens, oriental rugs, and teak bird statues. The statues were said to have previously resided in a Chinese potentate’s palace. The Buddha and bird statues can be seen in the 1937 movie “The Good Earth,” based on Pearl Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1931 novel.
The Castle was owned from 1963 to 1976 by Harry Lee, a British novelist, and his wife, Velma, “an eccentric school teacher with a history of nude photos, multiple marriages, and a penchant for wearing safety whistles in her later years.” They used the home as a vacation home and artist retreat, writing for Harry and painting for Velma.
The Castle is located in what some call the “American Sahara.” It can get excessively hot out there, so the kitchen is separated from the rest of the house, allowing one to cook without adding additional heat to the living area. Interesting.
There seem to be many ghost stories and legends attached to the Chinese Castle—illegal gambling, murder. One of the most interesting, somewhat relevant to today’s anti-immigrant administration directing the United States government, is that there is a secret tunnel running from a trap door in the kitchen floor to the Mexico border which is just a few hundred feet away, a tunnel used to bring in illicit merchandise and Chinese laborers.
Hmmm. Tunnels. Reminds me, something about a big wall……