Twenty years ago, my wife Christine and I discovered some favorite getaways in California’s Mojave Desert, including historic Route 66. Yes, the Mother Road is still there, now called the National Trails Highway on many maps.
One day we decided to cross the mountains north of Amboy and check out a place called Kelso Dunes. As we descended into a yawning, desert valley, the dunes rose majestically to our left. In the distance up ahead, we could see what appeared to be a cluster of trees and a building. What’s that, I asked Christine?
Just as we realized the highway would take us there, we noticed a railroad splitting the desert floor. That had to be the Union Pacific, I surmised, the mainline between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Then the building could be a station. But again, a station way out here? Gradually, the trees immediately in front of the structure took on the shape of palms. Surely those had been planted, and the mystery grew.
We still recall fondly how we solved the mystery, first crossing the tracks and circling the building. Although fenced off and with its windows boarded, its elegance came shining through.
Such beauty undoubtedly had a story. Soon we had located a large sign erected by the Bureau of Land Management offering a brief, descriptive history. The text concluded that the building, indeed a railroad station, was slated to be restored. Yeah, right, I thought to myself as we drove away. As if that will ever happen.
A Depot Restored
The point is that it did happen, if not under the auspices of BLM. The key was passage of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. Including large expanses of BLM wilderness, it established the Mojave National Preserve surrounding Kelso. At that point, the depot passed into the hands of the National Park Service, certainly no stranger to restorations.
As critical, the timing was especially favorable. Gordon Chappell, a railroad specialist, served as senior historian in the Park Service's Western Regional Office. In undertaking a thorough study of the depot, the Park Service already had skilled staff on hand.
Two architects, four engineers and an archeologist rounded out the planning team. In an exhaustive, 500-page structural report, they endorsed the restoration of Kelso Depot, noting its years of service as “an oasis for railroaders in the Mojave.”
When restored, the depot could become a visitor center and Park Service offices for the sprawling Mojave National Preserve. Similarly, the original lunch counter, or Lunch Room, could prepare light meals and snacks. And perhaps one day, when the country restored more passenger trains, Kelso Depot could serve again as an actual station (Okay, that is me talking more than the report). Still, many in the Park Service have always agreed. Meanwhile, in the absence of rail passenger service, there were many freight trains for the public to enjoy.
Enduring Railroad History
The point remains that the history of this splendid building could just as easily have ended with its demise. Part of the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad (by the 1920s a major subsidiary of the Union Pacific), Kelso Depot began in the days of coal and steam.
From its mainline across northern Utah, Union Pacific wanted a link to California. Growing Los Angeles and its neighboring communities beckoned. Certainly, this was no time for railroads to be building cautiously, allowing their competitors to pick up routes and business.
That said, the topography of the route proved challenging. Southwest of Las Vegas, on entering California, loomed an imposing grade called Cima Hill. Even steeper for eastbound trains, the grade began at Kelso Dunes. There, the extra locomotives and crews needed to mount the 2,100-foot grade were the direct inspiration for Kelso Depot. Initially planned as a dormitory, Kelso was to house and feed the railroad workers needed to conquer Cima Hill.
However, when opened in 1924, the depot further served as a desert showpiece. In part, that is explained by what Kelso is today—the heart of a national park. Still competitively seeking passengers, the Union Pacific had just agreed to develop Zion, Bryce, and Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah, along with the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
A Union Pacific subsidiary, the Utah Parks Company, would run the lodges in all four areas. A just completed spur track running east of the mainline shortened the distance by connecting with the town of Cedar City. From Cedar City, as the new parks' gateway, visitors would circle among the lodges by motor stage.
Tending To Passengers
In short, all park traffic originating in California would be passing through Kelso on its way to Cedar City. Whether at Cedar City—or at Kelso—an ordinary depot just would not do. Visitor comfort mattered, since most pleasure travel was higher-end. Generally, working class Americans could not afford such trips. Kelso Depot should comfort and inspire, complementing the promise—and the cost—of visiting the West by rail.
Of immediate relevance, not all trains carried a dining car. For those Kelso would be a meal stop. On the Santa Fe Railway, just to the south, Harvey Houses had long provided a similar service. Done in the mission revival style, Kelso Depot ensured that passengers would be impressed, and hopefully, on returning home, speak as favorably about the Union Pacific.
After dining cars had been added to all trains, Kelso was still a major stop for water and fuel. Passengers no less welcomed the opportunity to stretch their legs on the generous brick and concrete platform. By the 1930s, it all meant a major railroad complex. A nearby iron mine added workers and families to the growing community of two thousand.
Just as suddenly, with the end of World War II, Kelso was in decline. Dropping demand for iron ore first forced closure of the mine.
Dramatic changes on the railroad followed. The adoption of diesel locomotives, actually begun in the 1930s, reduced the need for extra power. Normally, a set of diesel engines could make the grade without assistance, and need not stop at Kelso to refuel.
Helper locomotives, Kelso’s mainstay, no longer shuttled trains up the hill and back. Gone was the need for maintaining those locomotives and setting out the extra crews.
Vanishing From The Landscape
Inevitably, Kelso’s shops were closed and their remaining workers transferred, until, by the 1970s, the community itself had all but vanished. In 1971, the elimination of rail passenger service (nationally transferred to Amtrak) might have been seen as the final blow, were it not for the fact that Kelso itself had long since stopped serving passengers.
At least in the eyes of Union Pacific, the depot had become an albatross. After mothballing the building in 1985, the railroad talked seriously of tearing it down. Building aficionados and environmentalists were opposed. Kelso Depot was irreplaceable, they argued. Besides, any park would be proud to have it. And indeed, a new national park and restoration of the depot as a visitor center was exactly what environmentalists had in mind.
Such were the plans finalized by Gordon Chappell and his colleagues in their 1998 report. Despite the inevitable setbacks and delays, the restoration and funding were approved.
On March 25, 2006, more than 7,000 visitors and dignitaries gathered at Kelso Depot for the unveiling and rededication ceremonies. Important sponsors included the National Parks Conservation Association, which had invited me to speak. In truth, the oohs and aahs said it all. People much preferred strolling the grounds over listening to speeches. It was a day for photographs, family and friends.
By now, if every reader within a radius of 250 miles is not planning a visit to Kelso Depot, I probably have not done my job. In that case, interpretive rangers at the front desk are ready to assist you further. However, your first reaction on entering the building should interpret itself. Wow!
To be sure, give yourself time to explore the depot, a meaningful summary of which is impossible here. Just don’t miss the bookstore and The Beanery. The bookstore has everything you need on the history and natural history of the Mojave Desert, and of course, all relevant books on railroad history. It is one of the finest bookstores in any park. For lunch, the historic lunch counter (Beanery) serves homemade sandwiches, oversize hot dogs, soups, salads, drinks and desserts. My favorite is the tuna sandwich and Christine likes the hot dogs.
And if still you are not impressed, just wait until a big freight train comes rumbling through.
Again, that train rattling the windows is the Union Pacific—the nation’s first transcontinental railroad—still going strong after 144 years (1869-2013).
The only thing missing today is that original partnership between Union Pacific and the national parks. Sad to say, that faded in the 1960s. On May 1, 1971, Union Pacific conceded the last of its long-distance passenger business to Amtrak, which, except for a brief return in the 1990s, immediately dropped the route.
It was of course the automobile and the airplane that finished off the passenger train. The few still operated in the West by Amtrak are but a shadow of that earlier elegance. The reminder here is what the Park Service saved from the clutches of our indifference. With Kelso Depot gone, the heartbreak would not have ended just with the loss of our passenger trains.
Losing Kelso Depot would have been a terrible loss. Like our wondrous natural history, our cultural history reminds us of who we are. We need both. At Mojave National Preserve you will find both. Nor will you be sorry that you did.
For additional information, including directions to the Kelso Depot, head over to the preserve's website.
An environmental historian, Alfred Runte lives in Seattle, where he writes about the national parks and protected lands. His most recent books are National Parks: The American Experience (Taylor Trade Publishing), now in its fourth edition, and the fifth edition of his Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks (Roberts Rinehart)