January 18, 2004

TRIP OF THE WEEK: Goffs a forgotten town that's now drawing visitors

Las Vegas Review-Journal

Dozens of trains a day roll through old Goffs on the double tracks of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad across the Mojave Desert in California. None of them stop there these days. They no longer need the facilities of little trackside watering stops such as Goffs.

Diminished, but not forgotten, Goffs today serves other purposes. The ghost town marks a major entry point for the vast Mojave National Preserve. It lies along a well-kept portion of historic Route 66, drawing a growing number of road enthusiasts. It boasts a cultural center and museum housed in a beautifully restored mission-style schoolhouse and extensive outdoor historical displays.

Located about 30 miles from the Colorado River, Goffs occupies the top of a gradual rise in open arid country, noted when survey and mapping parties crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-1800s. Free of steep grades and mountain passes, the route proved favorable when the railroad sought routes in the 1870s. By 1883, the Southern Pacific built the line, establishing Goffs to service the trains. The railroad built a depot in 1902.

Lanfair Road, heading northward from Goffs, roughly parallels another railroad, now disappeared. From 1893 to 1927, the Nevada Southern short line railroad ran to Searchlight, then central to many active mines. Today, Lanfair Road forms part of a network of remote roads accessing the rugged landscapes of the Mojave National Preserve.

To reach Goffs, about 110 miles from Las Vegas, drive south on U.S. 95 toward Needles. Where the highway crosses the railroad tracks, watch for the well-marked junction with historic Route 66, the original paved highway across the Mojave Desert. On a recent Sunday, Goffs welcomed a road rally of PT Cruisers, just one of many groups making nostalgia runs along portions of old Route 66.

After the railroads converted to diesel locomotives, which did not require the frequent watering stops needed by steam-powered trains, towns such as Goffs began to decline. However, Goffs could still rely on the U.S. 66 traffic to generate business for its garages, filling stations, hotel and eateries. That changed when the highway was relocated a few miles south in 1931.

Today, the handsome restored one-room schoolhouse built in 1914 appears much as it did when constructed by San Bernardino County. It stands as the only reminder of the days when Goffs was home to a couple of hundred people and served a larger population scattered over a huge area. The building doubled as a community center and lending library after school for grades one through eight.

Children attended Goffs School until 1937. The building thereafter fell into private hands. Sometimes lived in, often vacant, the building gradually deteriorated. A couple acquiring it for a home in the 1980s began serious reconstruction, saving the classroom roof from caving in. Repairs continued when Mojave Desert expert and champion Dennis Casebier and his wife bought the school and surrounding acreage in 1990. Casebier brought along his extensive library of books, maps and research concentrating on the Mojave Desert and its history.

The new owners envisioned restoring the schoolhouse to its original state, using historic photos and plans. The sturdy building of wood frame covered by stucco over steel mesh had generous porches for shade, expansive windows for light into the 800 square foot classroom and a fenced acre of playground.

The Casebiers knew they couldn't do it alone. They worked to create the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association in 1993. In 2001, Goffs Schoolhouse attained listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a result of work done by a graduate class from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Now owned by the volunteer, nonprofit group, the museum opens for visitation the first weekend of each month except July, August and September. The schoolhouse museum continues to add materials to its archives and artifacts to its impressive collections. Research includes recording first person historical accounts alluding to the area. The future of the once-derelict schoolhouse now looks bright.