El Centro

The history of El Centro begins with the completion of the Imperial & Gulf Railroad (part of the Southern Pacific) between Imperial Junction and Imperial in 1903. While railroad construction progressed southward toward Calexico, W.F. Holt, the founder of Holtville (Holton), announced construction of another new line to connect his town to the SP south of Imperial. The Holton Interurban Line, as it was known, went into service on September 15, 1904. At the junction with SP (briefly known as Cabarker, after landowner C.A. Barker), a secondhand box car was parked to serve as a makeshift waiting room and depot. On the side of the box car, someone painted the words "El Centro," and the name stuck.

Hotel Barbara Worth
1937

In 1905, the El Centro Townsite Company was formed under W.T. Bill, an associate of Holt's. That year the townsite was platted, and at the insistance of Holt electric, gas, and ice plants were built to serve Imperial Valley. A business district full of fine, permanent buildings was erected; many of these had arcades over the sidewalk to provide shade from the relentless desert sun. On August 7, 1907, Imperial County was created and El Centro was selected as the county seat, and April 16, 1908 the City of El Centro was incorporated. By 1910, the city's population exceeded 1500.

Through the 1910s, El Centro continued to grow and thrive. A new extension of the Holton Interurban began construction to the west toward Seeley in 1911, ultimately making a connection with (and becoming part of) the San Diego & Arizona Railway Company in 1919. The city already boasted fine schools, churches, and hotels, and in 1913, construction began on the city's finest new hotel: Hotel Barbara Worth. In 1914, the Dixie Overland Highway linking San Diego to the East Coast was routed through town. A sewer system was installed in 1916 (which extended to Imperial), and a new filtration plant completed in 1918. A booming industrial district east of the railroad line was home to electrical and ice plants, cotton gins, a cottonseed oil mill, and the largest and most modern creamery west of the Missouri River. By 1920, the city's population was approaching 6000.

With the creation of the United States Highway System in 1926, El Centro quickly became an even more important shipping center as it sat at the only major crossroads in the Imperial Valley; Highway 80 replaced the earlier Dixie Overland Highway running east-west through town, and newly created Highway 99 ran north-south, giving El Centro highway connections to Los Angeles and Mexico. It was along these highways where those displaced by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s arrived in Imperial Valley, and El Centro's population effectively doubled by 1940. A 6.9 magnitude earthquake shook El Centro that year, but nevertheless the city persisted and rebuilt. It received another boost in 1942 with the completion of the All-American Canal, and in 1943 it even gained a Marine Corps Air Station (Naval Air Facility El Centro after 1946).

In the subsequent decades, El Centro continued to grow and thrive as an agricultural and commercial center. Now the largest city in the Imperial Valley with a population well over 40,000, its position along Interstate 8 makes it a popular stopping point for travelers between San Diego and Arizona. Most business today is conducted at the southern end of town near the interstate, and a large shopping mall completed in recent years has driven business away from El Centro's extensive downtown. Many of the early, attractive buildings are vacant or have been lost to disaster, but a stroll along old Main Street still makes it easy to imagine more prosperous times.

I Visited El Centro
4.9.2018 & 2.24.2020

See Also
ImperialEucalyptus School

Bibliography