Life in Towns of the Mohave Desert
Normally when I write about a place, it is because I’m giving tourist information. This article is about the small desert community consisting of Bullhead City, Arizona, Laughlin, Nevada, and Needles, California. While my article doesn’t cast a good light on these towns, this piece of desert isn’t necessarily a bad place to live; the weather is warm (or surface-of-the-sun hot). Seasonal affective disorder is non-existent here. The cost of living is low. The Colorado River is great. This area has some of the most beautiful mountain scenery anywhere. For those rock hounds, there is no telling what you could turn up here.
It's possible that I’m not impartial because I expect a lot out of places and because I remember this place when it was new, fresh, and full of opportunity.
Bullhead City, Arizona
I can still remember my mother describing Mohave Valley back in 1991. She said, “It’s a green belt with the Colorado River running through it; it’s just beautiful.” At that time, the power plant in Laughlin provided over 200 good-paying jobs to the tri-city area. Baby Boomers looking for more reasonable housing flooded the valley, having sold $500,000 homes in California to be closer to the river and the casinos during their retirement years.
Everything was new in Bullhead City, and the Riverview shopping center held the Walmart, JC Penny’s, Payless Shoe Source, Albertsons, and a Payless Drug store, along with other small businesses. It was the busiest center in town. Hancock Road was one of the busiest streets in town. The Ace Hardware, Smiths grocery store, furniture store, movie theater, and our nicest local laundry mat were a draw for locals.
Holiday Shores (the peninsula of Bullhead City) consisted of newer double-wide mobile homes mostly used as vacation homes or rentals. They had landscaped yards and were in good repair. The area known as Riviera (also on the peninsula) was filled with 1950s and 60s single-wide mobiles, used as weekend homes, rentals, and year-round residences.
It was during the early '90s that newer neighborhoods began to sprout up between Bullhead City and Needles, California. The Bullhead parkway was built; yes, I remember life here before the parkway. The housing market was booming. Houses on the river were fetching million-dollar price tags. Today million-dollar properties in this community are rare. The few river properties that can be found are sporting dated décor from their ’90s heyday.
Along Highway 95 and Hancock, strip malls and buildings have boarded-up windows from sitting vacant too long. In Riviera, the same mobile homes that were here 25 years ago sit in various states of disrepair on lots that were once prime real estate at one time. Signs of a town struggling to recover economically are everywhere as Kmart and JCPenny announced they were closing as well.
The greatest buildings in Bullhead City are the government buildings. Somewhere in my head, I wish they had created those buildings to look like an old downtown area. I’ve always been somewhat disturbed by the lack of an old downtown feel in Bullhead City. All the original Hardyville buildings burned down long before the name was changed to Bullhead City.
The cemetery is the last reminder of Hardyville. Gone are the two-story saloons and the row houses. Maybe if they can move a bridge over from England to Lake Havasu, we can create a downtown from other places. In many ways, Bullhead City is like the game The Simms, the town keeps trying to figure out where to put the funds to improve the area, yet we never seem to get it right. Time doesn’t care that people and businesses have gone.
All that said, this area has great parks everywhere. I remember when Rotary Park was nothing more than a dirt field next to the river. Today that park has a stadium, playground equipment, soccer fields, and a skate park. The improvements to Bullhead Community park have been tremendous, and they seem to be using that area for events more than before.
Many people, including myself, have grumbled about the lack of quality in this community. It’s difficult to maintain greatness with so few resources.
Considering the lack of commerce, one would think that business space rental would be lower in the area. Bullhead commercial property rentals rival areas like Lake Tahoe in price per square foot, which explains all the empty buildings. At the same time, the number of title loan/payday loan places and pawn shops in this area seems to have doubled in the last ten years. Maybe the lack of what we would consider quality has to be achieved through grants to help small businesses, or maybe simply working together to clean things up would be useful.
I accidentally turned down a street in Riviera the other day; I saw a row of tiny mobile homes, the yards lined with junk and trash to an alarming degree. It was sad to see how bad things have gotten in this once-thriving community. Some of the dilapidations simply has to do with the fact that the desert heat destroys things.
In many areas of town, half-planned neighborhoods stand with fewer than ten houses. Lack of zoning has caused sporadic housing to develop in areas where mobile homes used to be. Time has not been kind to the towns that grew up from the construction of Davis Dam.
The Laughlin side hasn’t fared well since the recession crash. Laughlin's Casinos seem to constantly change hands in an effort to pawn them off on the next owner. A victim of competition from the increasing number of Native American casinos, Laughlin is only defined by its hospitality and the river. During its peak, the casinos were busy; money was everywhere. Huge events like the River Run kept visitors coming back. Not anymore.
I was at the Colorado Belle this week, and the entire second floor is closed. Not closed for renovation, just closed. That floor used to house three restaurants, an arcade, and shops. During Gator Days, huge snakes were displayed in tanks on the second floor. That was a long time ago. Today the second floor looks like a deserted cruise ship in between boarding.
In the 1990s, the Laughlin the Outlet Mall was welcomed as locals enjoyed stores such as Mikasa, Oshkosh, the music store, Quicksilver, and the Jungle Store (this was my kid’s favorite). It was a great time. All the mall store spaces were filled. Today the mall is far from full. One of the original mall stores, the Souvenir Shop, has now announced that it too will close.
The mall resembles a ghost town. As I walked through, only a few of the original stores remained, and half the mall is empty. I’m reminded of an article I read about a man who photographs dead malls; I wonder if he came here. The dated mall decor and high rent have driven businesses away, leaving not much of a shopping experience.
On March 11, 2011 the stack of Mohave Generating Station came crashing down. Pollution from the coal plant was filtering into the Grand Canyon causing a polluted view. Rather than update the coal plant it was closed and dismantled. For a while during its destruction, the work crews provided a source of revenue to the area, it was short-lived. Today the fence stands as a reminder of what was once there, jobs.
The 2008 crash also took its toll on the valley as people let their vacation homes go back to the bank. Whole strip malls closed in the wake of the crash, most of which still are not full.
Even odder are the projects that were never completed, projects like Emerald River Casino/Resort. Originally planned as a four-building complex, the project was plagued with financial problems and halted after only two of the four towers were erected. These two cement and steel structures are a symbol of what could have been. As of today, the buildings continue to decay. The associated golf course that lined Casino Drive closed in 2005, leaving dead grass and dried-out trees.
The actual town of Laughlin has decent homes and neighborhoods. The park and library are well kept, all the roads have sidewalks. The area is clean for a desert community and doesn't have the overall dilapidated look that is present across the river. Still, this area doesn't seem to have the commerce it should for the amount of people who live in Laughlin.
In all honesty, Needles, California, hasn't seen a good day since route 66 was overtaken by Highway 40. Needles used to have the route 66 feel with A&W style drive-ins, but even in the early 90s, stores couldn't survive in Needles. Today it has a run-down, neglected feel, abandoned by its nostalgic past.
One would think that any town next to Colorado would be able to sustain some measure of tourism—but Needles, with its temporary slumlord housing, has the overall feel of a Stephen King horror town without the creative characters.
The best thing Needles has going for it is the Train Depot where Bess Houdini (wife of Harry Houdini) died). Sure enough, I read an article saying the Train Depot was slated for demolition. Yet, this week I see it has newer windows, which gives me hope that the area might rally again.
At one point, my father said, "Needles, California isn't dying; it's being murdered." He meant that the city council itself was making commerce difficult.
Out of these three towns, Needles has the best opportunity to gain its heritage back. Many of the old row homes are still standing in Needles. Many of the once historic buildings are still in good enough shape to bring them back as tourist attractions. The river is underutilized in Needles creating a great opportunity for tourism.
Hope for the Future
This community does have a heart, one created by the soccer moms and dads, the government officials, business owners, construction companies, and congregations of churchgoers. A heart created by the people who still hold the door open for others and who will still turn in a ten-dollar bill they found on the floor. No matter what, the Colorado River is still here, a river that keeps this area alive.
Maybe one day, we will figure out how to bring this place back: fill the stores, create jobs, and bring back the quality that was once the norm.
© 2017 MD Jackson MSIOP
MD Jackson MSIOP (author) from Western United States on October 14, 2020:
Needles is a mess. When you drive through there is reminds me a lot of the Salton City/thermal area. Lots of trash, abandoned stuff. Someone has been burning down the older homes so there are more vacant lots popping up. That town doesn't even have a grocery store anymore. The people have to drive to Ft Mohave on the Arizona side. If I get a chance I will go through there soon and get another article up that details whats happening there.
Finn from Barstow on April 26, 2020:
I wonder what would have become of the Emerald Development center.
You paint a pretty sad picture of some small towns. I am thinking of relocating away from Bakersfield eventually and some remote place in the southern California desert.
glad i came across this piece.
still wonder what needles is like though.
MD Jackson MSIOP (author) from Western United States on January 21, 2020:
I agree. It can only go so far due to geographical constraints, however, even that would be a lot more people.
Sjrose99 on January 04, 2020:
I visited Mohave Valley two years ago. My sister and husband spend every winter there. I'm getting ready to visit again this year and will stay a few months. If you love the outdoors, it's a great place. Lets hope too much population doesnt change the area. Coming from Treasure Valley, Idaho, which can't build houses and apartments fast enough to keep up--farm land gone forever--let this area remain recognizable. Some growth is good but there's a line.
MD Jackson MSIOP (author) from Western United States on June 11, 2019:
Thank you for your comment Diane. I'm sure there wasn't much here in 1958.
Diane Kelley Corbett on June 07, 2019:
My mom Lil Kelley moved us to bullhead in 1958 to help my grandparents manage the cafe at kartherines landing. I have watched the area grow for 60 years . I had a wonderful childhood growing up in a small community. I just moved away 2 years ago @ i have been back several times to visit family @ after being there a few days i can't wait to leave. Its grown to much @ just is not the same. Makes me very sad. To many people now that have moved there becuz it was less expensive then possible ca. @ they have ruined our community.
Alternative Prime from > California on December 06, 2017:
NICE Article Michelle ~ I was just in this INCREDIBLY Beautiful Area a few months ago & we're headed back that way this weekend ~ Bullhead, Laughlin, Kingman, Golden Valley, all scenic locales with unmatched rolling mountain inspiration ~
The FUTURE of this "SUNSHINE Abundant" place is still Gaming & of course "Renewable ENERGY", an EXPLOSIVE Industry of Wind & Solar which is beginning to CREATE HIGH Paying Jobs in the Region ~
The SOOTHING, Relaxing Therapeutic ARID Weather which is ONLY found here, is worth the trip alone ~