After my wise old grandmother adopted me in December 1965, I had daily access to a television and got addicted to Lucille Ball. I watched anything and everything in which she made an appearance, beginning with “I Love Lucy.”
In 1957, “I Love Lucy” morphed into Season 1 of “The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show.” The second episode, “The Celebrity Next Door,” originally broadcast on December 3, 1957, left an impression with an impressionable teenager, not because of anything specific about the show but because of one of the guest stars, Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968), the celebrity. The name was so unusual that it stuck with me for many years….
….even unto the present.
Earlier this year when I was out touring Old Highway 80, I came upon Bankhead Springs. Bankhead. Couldn’t be any connection.
“Au contraire, bison breath,” someone more famous than me used to say.
Bankhead Springs was named for John Hollis Bankhead (1842-1920). While serving as a U.S. Senator from Alabama (1907-1920), John Bankhead was instrumental in advocating for the development of highways, specifically a cross-country highway. Eventually, the Bankhead Highway connected Washington DC to San Diego, with the western section eventually becoming U.S. Highway 80.
Wanna guess who his granddaughter was? Yep. Tallulah Bankhead.
Bankhead Springs currently is “a drive-through ghost town,” as are many of the towns along Highway 80 which were bypassed when Interstate 8 was built in the early 1960s.
In the early 20th Century, Bankhead Springs and nearby Jacumba were hot spots for Hollywood celebrities and the idle rich because of their natural hot springs. Although local legend says that Tallulah was involved in the town’s development, there is no evidence of that. There also are rumors that prostitutes out of Bankhead Springs pandered to the lonely construction workers building Interstate 8. Those rumors also appear unfounded and might have more to do with Tallulah’s well-known status as a libertine.
The Bankhead Springs Hotel, built around 1920, provided glamorous accommodations, and for a little extra money, one could get a rental cabin. The hotel is still standing, serving as a roadside store.
The Bankhead Springs Hotel apparently has an interesting history, although I was unable to confirm its history from any source other than an online blog similar to mine. Apparently the hotel closed for a decade, with the story being that the owner simply disappeared one day and was never heard from again. Police found room doors open, beds made, kitchen and dining area clean and set for the next meal, and no sign of robbery or violence. There was a bank fund to pay the property tax so the hotel doors were locked and the hotel left undisturbed. When the property tax fund ran out, the county seized the property for back taxes.
Many of the rental cabins still stand, too, although just barely. I don’t think anyone will be renting any of them any time soon.