Friday, September 27, 2019

Curiosities: Holy City

Every religion must have its Mecca, Jerusalem, or Rome, and the ambitious cult leader William Edward Riker chose an isolated hillside above Los Gatos Creek along the highway to Santa Cruz to establish his utopian center called Holy City in 1919.

An especially decorated commercial building in Holy City, c. 1930s. Not the barber pole at left and a radio speaker at right. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
William E. Riker and his fourth wife, Lucille,
c. 1940s. [Find A Grave]
Riker was a late-comer to the utopian movement and was certainly not someone many would consider a good candidate for cult leader. Born in Oakdale in 1873, Riker became a street hawker in San Francisco until he realized that he had a skill in proselytizing. He claimed several years later that a revelation in the hills above San José in 1906 had inspired his religious beliefs, at which point he took on the mantle of "The Comforter." He turned to recruiting financially-struggling, partially-educated, middle-aged midwesterners who had found their way to California as his disciples. And the scheme worked. By 1915, he had convinced a small group of his religious qualities and they moved into 674 Hayes Street in San Francisco. Three years later, he founded, alongside Irvin Fisher and Anna Schramm, Perfect Christian Divine Way, Inc., as the face of his new religious enterprise. Almost immediately, things got weird.

In one of the group's earliest scandals in 1921, a member named Frieda Schwartz was deprived of her eight children, who were taken to be raised by the cult, and her husband, who was married off to two different women. She filed a complaint to the government, which charged Riker with grand larceny, conspiracy against public morals, and child endangerment. In the end, four children were seized by the court but were later returned to their parents and all the charges were dropped. Riker was a known bigamist even before the group was founded, but discovered that blind religious devotion meant he could coerce sex from all of his female disciples. In 1920, he was found to have seven married women living at his home in San Francisco—all without their husbands.

Downtown Holy City, 1930s. [San Francisco Gate]
Wishing to leave the city and have better control over his converts, Riker gathered funds from his disciples and purchased 142 acres of land above Los Gatos Creek near Moody Gulch beginning in 1919. Despite creating a religion based on celibacy, temperance, white supremacy, and racism, he knew that these features would not sell the cult to the public, so he instead built a false front: a town that revelled in vice. The initial buildings in the town were common features of any road-side settlement of the time, including a service station, ice cream parlor, restaurant, dance hall, and some commercial businesses. Like any good town, Holy City also acquired a post office in 1927, in effect resurrecting the former office that was in the town of Patchen. He also went all out, building a tiny airport in order to draw in more people. But these didn't sell the town, they just established it.

Streetscene, Holy City, showing the service station, January 1929. [Oakland Tribune]
Riker wanted to create a tourist trap, and he succeeded in excess. His soda fountain offered alcoholic carbonated beverages—quite unusual for the time. It also featured peep show stereoscopic machines, which directly contradicted his doctrines on celibacy and separation of the sexes but certainly underlined his belief in the inherent subservience of women under men. Meanwhile, to draw in families, his community supported a small zoo and featured nine large Santa Claus statues along the road. It also had an observatory with a telescope where people could view the moon at night. However, other features of the town emphasized just how bizarre the community really was.

Large placards lining the road into Holy City, c. 1930s. [San Francisco Gate]
Riker ran a print shop from the town that, rather than publishing books, focused almost exclusively on pamphlets, brochures, propaganda newsletters, and large placards. The pamphlets and brochures unsurprisingly advertised the merits of joining the religious community while also attacking the government and other religions. But the town was known more for its placards, which were installed along the road to and through the town and extolled the merits of the Perfect Christian Divine Way. The majority of them, though, were anti-government, vehemently sexist, or blatantly white supremacist, with some even showing distasteful depictions of the vehement rhetoric. Riker also ran the second licensed radio station in California beginning in 1929, inappropriately given the letters KFQU, which became notorious for drifting from its assigned frequency, ultimately resulting in it being shut down in April 1931 for irregularities.

Downtown Holy City showing the Glenwood Highway, January 26, 1929. [San Francisco Gate]
From its inception, Holy City was built to capitalize on the state highway that passed through the middle of the town, The Santa Cruz Highway, rebranded the Glenwood Highway in 1920, was the main thoroughfare and only paved road between San José and Santa Cruz through the mountains. The small town used the road to advertise itself and attract potential disciples. But for the residents of Holy City and its surroundings, there was another option until February 1940: the railroad. Running up Los Gatos Creek about a half-mile below the town, the Southern Pacific Railroad maintained the old branch line through the mountains and had one stop that could cater to residents of the area. Aldercroft Station had been established about fifteen years earlier at the confluence of Hendrys Creek into Los Gatos Creek. While it was about two miles away from Holy City, it was the closest stop to the state highway, so transportation from the stop to the town would have been relatively easy. Two other stops, Eva and Call of the Wild, were about the same distance but were more remote, with no paved roads nearby, so they were probably not used by residents except within the immediate vicinity of the stops.

View of the observatory and the defunct radio station in Holy City, July 9, 1953. [San Francisco Gate]
Holy City never thrived as a religious community. Only around thirty people ascribed to Riker's beliefs, although another 250 people lived in the surrounding area and frequented the town regularly. His insistence on celibacy—or abortion when a member was found pregnant—ensured that the cult would only live for so long. Riker became increasingly delusional throughout the 1930s, as well, insisting that he could cure cancer, heart disease, and several other common ailments. He was often found walking Holy City with his dog, shouting at tourists and challenging them to theological arguments. He eventually entered politics in 1938, running for governor of California under the Progressive Party. He ran three more times until finally giving up after the 1950 primaries. By that point, Riker had lost all his credibility, if he ever had any, and his town and cult were dead.

More billboards lining the road, with some extolling less tolerant traits, c. 1920s.
As a white supremacist, Riker did not condemn the Nazi Party and, indeed, subscribed to some of their periodicals, which he used to reinforce his own doctrines. In 1942, soon after Germany declared war on the United States, Riker openly declared himself in favor of the Axis Powers and wrote to Hitler directly. Riker was arrested and tried for treason, but was acquitted. By this point, the railroad through the mountains had shut down and the opening of Highway 17 in 1940 had bypassed Holy City. Most of the remaining cult members moved away at this time, since the end of the Great Depression and start of the war meant that jobs were once again in abundance. Deprived of its vital source of tourist traffic and its strange cultish allure, the town declined rapidly. Hoping to restore the community, Riker sold the property to a minor Hollywood producer, Maurice Kline, in 1956, but this just led to legal battles that led to the deincorporation of Holy City in 1959 and its abandonment by the remaining Perfect Christian Divine Way board the following year. Most of what was left of Holy City burned down, possibly by the hand of Riker, or was bulldozed over the following decade. Riker converted to Catholicism in 1966 and died three years later.

Various outbuildings that still survive around Holy City, 2015. [Mobile Ranger]

The cathedral grove behind the Holy City
post office which is thought to have been
the religious center of Riker's cult.
Pboto by Michael Maloney.
[San Francisco Gate]
When developers purchased Holy City in 1968, it was mostly populated with vagabond hippies and plans to convert the town into a campground never materialised. The location fell into decay for four decades until Grubb & Ellis purchased it in 2006. But the firm went bankrupt in 2012 and struggled to make any progress with the town, lowering its price several times to no avail. It was finally purchased in 2016 by Robert and Trish Duggan on behalf of the Church of Scientology, but its fate has yet to be determined.

The only substantial structures remaining in Holy City from Riker's time are his large Victorian home, which is now a private home, and the old post office, which has served as the Holy City Art Glass shop for many years but is now closed. One other feature from Riker's era, a stone fence wrapping around a redwood cathedral grove, allegedly served as the religious center of the cult, although details are scarce. Access to the town is via the Madrone Drive (southbound) or Redwood Estates Road (northbound) exits on Highway 17. Follow either road to the west to Oneda Court, which becomes Holy City Road. The old town site is where Holy City Road meets Old Santa Cruz Highway.

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