Hero. Scoundrel. Rancher. Miner. Entrepreneur. Homesteader. Engineer. Convicted Murderer. Felon. Hard working. Inventive. Do-it-yourselfer. Father. Husband. Wheeler Dealer. Perhaps all of these terms could be applied to a man who was also an important figure in the development of a significant part of what is now Joshua Tree National Park. One cannot drive through the park without seeing the legacy of William (Bill) F. Keys. Keys View with its panoramic view of the Coachella Valley is named for him. The Barker Dam was built by Keys to provide water for his cattle. Keys Ranch (aka Desert Queen Ranch), the Wall Street Mill, and Desert Queen Mine were all owned by Bill Keys.
Keys arrived in the area in 1910, working as a caretaker at the Desert Queen Mine and ranch. When the owner died, Keys acquired the mine and ranch in lieu of back wages owed. Over the following years he increased his land holdings along with other mines and mills. While Keys did some mining himself, he made far more money by processing ore for other miners.
In 1918 Bill Keys married Frances Mae Lawton of Los Angeles. At Keys Ranch, they raised a family, operated a pretty much self-sufficient ranch, operated their mines and ore-processing mills, and generally made a life together.
Frances initially home-schooled her children. In 1932 they hired a school teacher and eventually other area homesteaders sent their children to the schoolhouse that was built on the ranch. The school operated until 1942.
In 1943 Keys shot and killed his neighbor, Worth Bagley, after an on-going dispute. He turned himself in to the sheriff and was ultimately convicted of manslaughter. He did 5 years in San Quentin before being paroled in 1948. Family friend, lawyer Earle Stanley Garner (Perry Mason author) took on Bill’s case, arguing that the shooting had been in self-defense and ultimately won Keys a full pardon in 1956.
Frances Keys died in 1963. Following her death, Keys sold the ranch and mine to the government and it became part of Joshua Tree National Park. Bill Keys continued to live at and look after the ranch until his death in June 1969 at the age of 89.
The story of Bill Keys is inextricably linked to the history of Joshua Tree National Park. Ultimately it is the story of survival in the harsh environment of the Mohave Desert.
Keys Ranch is closed to public access however one can visit the site either on a guided tour operated by the Park Service or by participating in special photography visits arranged through the Park (accompanied by park staff or volunteers). I have been extremely fortunate to have visited this amazing place 3 times in recent months as part of different groups of photographers.
The ranch is a treasure trove for a photographer with various buildings, old rusting cars, machinery, and a “junk” yard full of spare parts all in a beautiful setting.