Is the Mystic Maze near Needles a sacred tribal site or gravel mining operation?

A recent discussion thread on the National Old Trails Road page on Facebook recently centered on a site I hadn’t heard of before — the Mystic Maze, aka Topock Maze, just south of Needles, California.

For the uninitiated, the Mystic Maze is a series of rows of parallel lines in the desert, just south of Interstate 40 near the Colorado River. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and it continues to be mentioned in tourism-related websites such as this one.

Here’s a satellite photo from Google Maps that clearly show the lines:

And here’s an early postcard that refers to the Mystic Maze and depicts those lines:

Here’s a video about it:

A few researchers have speculated the maze was some sort of labyrinth built by the Fort Mojave indigenous tribe about 600 years ago.

GoLakeHavusu.com writes:

The modern Mohave people believe this Maze is a part of the spiritual portal to the next life where bad souls get lost, and good souls find their portal to the afterlife. One might say the souls must complete the Maze in order to find their portal and cross over. Early experts believed the warriors returning from battle would run through the Maze, leaving any bad spirits behind.

However, Ruth Arlene Musser-Lopez of Archaeological Heritage Associates in a paper published in 2011 makes a compelling case the lines were part of gravel-mining operations for the railroad in the late 19th century, especially in building a bridge over the river.

Musser-Lopez reports there may have been “stick men” figures built in the area’s soil before the railroad line went through. But she’s more skeptical there ever was a maze there built by Native Americans six centuries ago. Nor was the site ever used for raising crops.

She instead states the evidence shows the so-called maze was created much more recently:

The lack of old perennial vegetation growth, such as large creosote, and new creosote growth in the last 100 years speak for recent disturbance. […] Another clue of the rows’ recent past is the lack of gravel deflation even on steep inclines, although loose soils do appear to have leached out between the gravels. […]
In examining the 100-plus-year-old Curtis photograph, visual evidence of greater soil volume and compaction relative to what is present today in the same location was considered. While foreground row composition detail seems to have been concealed in the 1908 Curtis image (Figure 8, top), perhaps purposefully, by darkening and cropping the foreground, a cursory or preliminary visual comparison of the same location today (Figure 8, bottom) strongly suggests that the rows were noticeably more compact and uniform 100 years ago. Further, most of the sandy soil and loam deflation likely occurred during the initial period following the scraping, prior to the photograph — between 1883 and 1908, a period that could have been as long as 25 years.

Musser-Lopez acknowledges another prehistoric site might have been there. But the evidence shows the rows themselves were of more recent origin:

First, the team of scientists selected by the Smithsonian on the Whipple expedition of 1853-1854 did not report observation of the gravel rows when studying the area for the bridge crossing.

She says the strongest evidence the rows were created for gravel mining came from an 1891 report by S.M. Rowe, titled the “Red Rock Cantilever Bridge,” in the American Society of Civil Engineers Transactions that describes how the aggregate material in the work was procured:

The broken stone was at first supplied from the debris of the Chino Quarry and from the volcanic rock found in the vicinity of the bridge, but it was found that broken volcanic rock with which the “mesas” were strewn, could be collected at less cost, and being of the same character, was substituted in the caisson work at a saving of nearly $1 per cubic yard. The process of gathering was to rake these fragments of stone into windrows and haul them by wagon to a pile where convenient to load into a car when needed. An inclined screen was erected to separate the dust from the stone while conveying it to the car. Indian labor was used very successfully for this as well as for labor about the caisson.

Musser-Lopez also notes the rows are 3 1/2 feet apart, which would have been ideal for a horse-drawn Buck scraper or Fresno scraper.

She also found magazine articles in the 1930s and 1950s that attribute the maze to railroad construction.

In short, local Native Americans were hired by the railroad to rake gravel into rows for loading onto wagons to take to the railroad cars which in part was used in the construction of the piers for the bridge.

Musser-Lopez attributes the prehistoric Mystic Maze story to Edward S. Curtis, who first detailed it in 1907 and long has been considered unreliable in his stories of Native American culture.

Fred Harvey’s Mystic Maze postcard of 1913, seen above, further cemented the legend.

The Mystic Maze soon became a part of local culture, including the Needles High School yearbook being called that in starting the 1920s.

Musser-Lopez concludes her report:

In conclusion, whether commercial or mystical, the maze has been a valuable roadside attraction for over 100 years, and the controversy over its age, origin, and function is now irrelevant to its significance, whether historic or prehistoric. Its size and striking visual presentation, the legend and mystery, real or imagined, and the debate itself, all add to the importance of this site not only in the local culture but as a national monument to American ingenuity and entrepreneurial creativity. In the words of Randall Henderson (1956:46), “It is an interesting relic of the trail-blazing days on the desert frontier, and as such deserves to be preserved.” All in all, it represents another of the great legends of American Folk and Native American history.

(Image of the Mystic Maze via a Fred Harvey postcard from 1913)

One thought on “Is the Mystic Maze near Needles a sacred tribal site or gravel mining operation?

  1. What is it about the human mind that it repeatedly goes against Occam’s Razor? “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity”, or the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

    The person who called these lines of heaped gravel a “maze” sounds as if he was a bit mazy himself. Had the lines been in a field, I’d have said they were rows of heaped earth for planting potatoes.

    Once someone or some business sees a way of making money out of something, then the sky (or the desert) is the limit. Well done, Fred Harvey.

    As for “The modern Mohave people believe this Maze is a part of the spiritual portal to the next life where bad souls get lost, and good souls find their portal to the afterlife. One might say the souls must complete the Maze in order to find their portal and cross over. Early experts believed the warriors returning from battle would run through the Maze, leaving any bad spirits behind” – please excuse my disbelief.

    With over 4,000 religions in existence today, why not add this story of “a part of the spiritual portal to the next life where bad souls get lost, and good souls find their portal to the afterlife”.

    Just how does one get to be an “expert” in lines of heaped gravel? “Early experts believed the warriors returning from battle would run through the Maze, leaving any bad spirits behind”. First of all there is no “Maze” to run through, just a lot of parallel lines of heaped gravel. Secondly, where is the proof that people lived in this area of no vegetation? All I see is a few scraggly trees in hundreds of square miles of barren rocky landscape

    It is time for Eric’s Razor: People will believe what they want to believe, especially if it makes them feel more comfortable.

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