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Visitors to the Californa ghost town once known as Holy City would probably not spend much time exploring the place. Located in an obscure corner of wilderness about ten miles from Los Gatos in the Santa Cruz Mountains, all that remains of the town are some old buildings and several tourist shops. Anyone unfamiliar with the history of the town would be amazed to discover that it was once a thriving utopian community with its own radio station and a tourism industry. During the 1930s, billboards proudly proclaimed Holy City to be the "headquarters for the world's most perfect government" and that it "answers all questions and solves all problems."
To understand what happened to the town and why it is virtually forgotten today, you would need to know something about the town's legendary founder: William Edward Riker. Born in California in 1873, relatively little is known about Riker's early life (aside from what he provided himself, of course.) Described as a handsome Californian who was "a favorite with the ladies," the self-styled "Professor" first established himself as a palmist and a professional mind reader who toured across the country on the carnival circuit.
That is, until he was forced to flee to Canada after being charged with bigamy. Having abandoned both of his wives, Riker took advantage of his Canadian exile to found what he described as "the Perfect Christian Divine Way." This called for total celibacy (at least for his followers), abstinence from alcohol, hard-core white supremacy with total segregation of the races, and communal living. With this new mission in place, Riker returned to California in 1918 and founded a commune near San Jose. There was no word on what became of his bigamy charges but presumbly he managed to reach an understanding with his wives. Those followers who were "born again" to be part of Riker's community were expected to abide by their leader's rules for living but, more importantly, to hand over their life savings as well. That allowed Riker to buy the land where he had his commune and also ensured that his first thirty followers, mostly elderly people, had little choice but to live the "Perfect Christian Divine Way" or as long as they were under his rule.
Though his followers were expected to remain celibate, Riker obviously felt exempt from that little rule (it's good to be king). His new bride, Lillian, was quickly established as his co-leader in the commune which offended some of his early followers, who likely realized that their leader had feet of clay. One of them, Frieda Schwartz, sued to regain the money she had given Riker but she ended up losing the case. All this accomplished was to give Riker's commune more publicity than ever and draw in new followers.
As the commune grew, Riker was able to establish a restaurant, a service station for those newfangled automobiles, a dance hall, a penny arcade, and an observatory for tourists to look at the Moon through a telescope (all in Riker's name). The revenue from these various businesses, along with a side business selling mineral water, brought him an income of $100,000 a year, even at the height of the Depression. But that wasn't enough for William Riker. He also wanted to establish a major media empire as well. Not only did he launch a weekly newspaper, but Riker also set up one of California's first radio stations, KFQU, which featured a half-hour show with a Swiss yodeler. His radio license was revoked in 1931 due to various "irregularities" but that didn't keep the irrepressible Riker down for long.
By the 1930s, Holy City had grown to more than 300 inhabitants, all ruled over by "King William" and "Queen Lillian." Most of the inhabitants were either elderly followers or out-of-work drifters looking for jobs. Along with the billlboards proclaiming his message, Riker also declared himself to be the "phantom spokesman of all wise Christians - God's chosen of all people in the world." To spread his message of white supremacy and segregation even further, Riker first ran for Governor of California in 1938. As part of his platform, he called for a ban on businesses in California being owned by non-whites. In one of his political pamphlets, he wrote that:
The White Man can take care of any and all kinds of business in our own, White Man's California State Home, and no longer will the White Man tolerate your undermining and polluting tactics. Farmers, Business Men and The Workers say: Orientals get out and stay out of our business. Our new Government will see that you get a job. Your polluting, undermining system of business must eternally stop in Our California. And besides this, keep your polluting hands off our White Race Women; they also belong only to the White Race Man. This is the true law of our original White Man's Constitution, these statements explain the real and true spirit of California.
He was never more than a fringe candidate for the Progressive Party and only got 170 votes in the primary. Still, he obviously felt encouraged enough to run three more times. It was his continuing support of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi policies, even after the United States entered World War II, that really got Riker into trouble though.
After authorities learned about a series of letters of support that Riker had written to the Fuhrer, "William the Comforter" was arrested in 1943. Though he retained famed trial lawyer Marvin Belli to represent him during his trial, Riker would become incensed by the way his lawyer repeatedly referred to him as a "crackpot" in his defense. Despite being acquitted, Riker was offended enough by Belli's comments to try suing him afterward for "defamation of character." Riker lost his case and was forcd to pay court costs.
The final end for Holy City (and Riker's empire) came in the 1940s when the construction of a new highway put an end to the thriving tourist trade. Since Holy City was no longer on the main route through the Santa Cruz Mountains, businesses closed and many residents were forced to find work elsewhere. Holy City was disincorporated in 1959 and Riker lost control of his empire in 1960. Exactly what happened is still a mystery though many of the buildings that made up Holy City were destroyed in a large fire that occurred around that time.
Even with his empire gone, Riker managed to hang on to the few acres remaining to him. His white supremacy message had fallen increasingly out of favour, especially with the rise of the civil rights movement, and he had only a handful of followers. Still, those same followers were likely astonished when William Riker suddenly convered to Roman Catholicism at the age of 93. Three years later, he died at Agnew State Hospital.
According to "Father" Riker's obituary, there was only one known survivor of his original disciples still living (no word on what became of "Queen" Lucille). Still, the loss of his following didn't keep him from his dream of reestablishing his empire. Just a month or so before his death, Riker produced a crayon drawing of a multi-million dollar church that he hoped to build with the right support.
Though Riker's big dream died with him, there are still traces of Holy City left behind for the determined visitor. The former post office of Holy City is now an upscale shop selling all types of handblown glass though a neon sign reading "Holy City, California" is still prominently displayed in the window. That, and the small collection of Holy City memorabilia maintained by the shop's owner are all that remain of William Riker's utopian dream and the ""headquarters for the world's most perfect government."
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