The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California

Cul de Sac

Sleeve Front
Cul de Sac, Idaho, 1998

"The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California" b/w "Hagstrom"
Earworm. Made in England. Distributed by Cargo.

The standard 94 pound Monolith Portland Cement Company bag
Sleeve Back
Monolith, California doesn't appear on most contemporary maps. It lies in the hilly southwestern part of California, some 50 miles east of Bakersfield. The nearest city, Tehachapi (famous for its women's prison), is about four miles away.

The story of Monolith Portland Cement begins around the turn of the century when the Los Angeles Board of Public Works set out to supplement its water supply from beyond the Los Angeles basin. By 1906 the City had secured a deed to water from the Owens Valley on the eastern side of the Sierras and begun development of a facility to convey the water to L.A. The construction of a cement plant at Monolith, California was one of the first aspects of the project undertajken by the City. Why Monolith? In addition to its plentiful supply of limestone and clay (needed to make the high-grade cement to be used to construct the aqueducts to carry the water), Monolith was also situated near the geographic center of the proposed transmission site.

The plant was finished in 1908 and operated continuously until 1914, when the L.A. water project was completed and the mill shut down. In 1920 the property was leased to a partnership called the U.S. Potash Company. In june 1921 it was renamed the Monolith Portland Cement Company.

For the next half-century Monolith Portland Cement met the demands of a booming Los Angeles and the rapidly swelling contours of southern California. The architecture of the region still bears traces of the company's goods. Many of the Spanish style homes and businesses in Beverly Hills and Hollywood (built in the '20s) utilised Monolith stucco; the L.A. County Hospital -- a monument to the city -- was constructed from Monolith cements.

In 1941, at the onset of WW II, the U.S. government laid claim to Monolith Portland Cement's raw materials and built the enormous U.S. Naval Ammunition Dump in Hawthorne, Nevada. From 1942 till the end of the war much of the company's output went into construction of a naval base on Guam Island. In the '50s and '60s, Monolith Portland Cement expanded and modernized its facilities, fulfilling southern California's ever-growing highway, utility and building needs.

Early in its history the owners of the company had erected a small tract of modest homes for its employees, and a general store-cum-post office to serve the tiny community. But in 1972, as a way to reduce their maintenance costs, Portland Cement shut down the town and razed the houses.
In the early '80s, the Calavaris Cement Company purchased the property and replaced the original factory (exhausted and worn out by this time) with the ultra modern facility that operates in its place today.

In its 51 years Monolith Portland Cement produced more than 110 million barrels of cement -- enough to build a two-lane highway around the world.

And the drama of its once-glimpsed glory inspired American Primitive guitarist, John Fahey, to compose a song in its honour.

Fahey's guitar instrumental named for the factory first appeared on his 1967 album, Days Have Gone By. From Elijah P. Lovejoys liner notes for that album: "Composed by Fahey in late 1962 or early 1963 after driving from Albuquerque to Berkeley. Fahey was impressed by the contrast between this enormous edifice, the smoke which poured from it and the surrounding green hillsides. Upon arriving in Berkeley he took a bath, had Pat over for dinner and composed it in her presence later in the evening."

Monolith 1920s
Monolith Portland Cement in 1923
In September 1974, midway through a 30-day tour of America via Greyhound bus, I was jostled from a half-sleep as the bus began lurching its way through a narrow, hilly pass. I saw rise up before me the Monolith, California city-limits sign and -- soon after -- the industrial landscape that was the Portland Cement factory. It lay abandoned amidst rock and debris, long, low to the ground, chalky in appearance and built right into the mountainside, which seemed to press down upon it. It was late in the day, but amidst the lengthening shadows the rise and fall of the surrounding peaks let in bursts of shattering sunlight.
The chimera of recollection is a wily creature. I remember graffiti-covered walls carved into the hills leading up into the town. I remember the dust that billowed across the road, diffusing the fading sunlight into scattered, wheat-coloured rays. There's just one jarring footnote to this anecdote, dispelling its roseate little glow: it wasn't the Portland Cement factory I saw that day.

Aside from the city limits sign (the only detail of which I am certain), all the rest of my memories of the landscape are utterly at odds with Monolith's terrain. As photographs reveal, at no time in its history has the Monolith Portland Cement Company resembled the desolate aerie I saw. Another thing : four years before I made my trip, Greyhound had altered their route. At the time of my journey they followed a newly-opened freeway. It was faster and bypassed Monolith by a good half mile.

So where was I that hazy afternoon in the late summer of 1974?

No one can say for certain. But some old-timers allow as to how it might have been the Orco Grande Cement Factory at Victorville.

-- Glenn Jones, Cambridge, MA; August, 1998
Monolith, 1960s
Monolith Portland Cement in the mid 60's around when Fahey would have seen it.