By Luke Phillips
Silsbee. Paringa. Bradtmoore. Old Beach. Holton. Braly. These names probably don’t mean much to you, but if a few twists in history had gone differently, they would be as familiar to you as Seeley, Heber, Niland, Hotville and Brawley.
Many of the cities and towns in the Imperial Valley started off with different names than the ones they ended up with.
Right around the turn of the century, the only stopping place in the valley for travelers making their way to the coast was a small settlement on the banks of Blue Lake, later renamed Sunbeam Lake. Another rest stop was established when Imperial opened a tent hotel, but by then the settlement at Blue Lake had become a full-fledged town site. The community was named Silsbee after a San Diego cattleman who raised stock in the area.
The town site of Silsbee was going strong, having built their first school house in 1904, but flooding caused by a spill over on the Colorado River during the summers of 1905 and 1906 devastated the community and it was abandoned soon after.
In 1911 a group of developers saw the potential for a prosperous community at the old town site east of El Centro. They began rebuilding the community and dubbed it Seeley.
It is unclear where the name Seeley came from. Both Otis B. Tout and Tracey Henderson mention the renaming of the town site in their books ‘The First 30 Years’ and ‘Imperial Valley’ respectively, but neither mentions where the name came from.
W.F. Holt, a major pioneer in the Imperial Valley, wanted to name a town site in the valley after himself, and in 1903 began plans for a city to be named Holton. The city’s first post office was built shortly after and the first postmaster suggested changing the name of the city to Holtville to avoid confusion with another settlement called Holton in Los Angeles County. The city was incorporated as Holtville in 1908.
When the original town sites for the Imperial Valley were being planned, developers thought a settlement in between Imperial and Calexico would be natural. The town site of Paringa was planned several miles east of where Heber is currently situated. The name was suggested by valley pioneer George Chaffey as a homage to his home town in Australia. However, after rail road surveys of the area were completed, plans for the town were moved to the west. The U.S Postal Service dubbed the town Bradtmoore, but the town site company quickly decided to rename it Heber in honor of A.H. Heber, the president of the California Development Company.
Niland started it’s existence as a small whistle stop on the railroad line running between Los Angeles and Yuma. At the time it was known as Old Beach. When the Imperial Valley rail road tied into the line the site was renamed Imperial Junction.
In 1912 a group of men from Los Angeles formed the Imperial Valley Farm Lands Association and bought 47,000 acres of land for $35.51 per acre at the north end of the valley, including the settlement of Imperial Junction. Imperial Junction officially became a town in 1914 and was named Niland after the fertile soils of the Nile river. The company also started development on another town site which they called Calipatria, a combination of California and Patria, the Latin word for native land.
In 1902 a Los Angeles investor teamed with an Imperial Valley investor to buy 4,000 acres for a city to be named Braly, after himself. After reading a government report called Circular No. 9, which blasted soil quality in the valley, Braly decided to pull out of the project saying, “I don’t want my name connected with any big failure like the Imperial Valley is going to be. I want out.”
Local man George A. Carter heard Braly’s pleas and offered to buy out his part of the contract for $16.50 per acre. Shortly after, the Imperial Land Co. claimed that it had exclusive development rights in the area, and bought Carter out for $21 per acre, netting him a tidy profit after holding the land for only a few months.
Locals in the area had already become used to calling their community Braly, so at the suggestion of A.H. Heber, the town was renamed Brawley.
“I have a friend in Chicago named Brawley,” Heber was quoted as saying. “We’ll name it after him.”