May 9, 2005

Deserted towns await reshaping by new hands

Las Vegas Review-Journal

The deserted town of Amboy, Calif., waits for traffic along its stretch of historic Route 66. The new owner of the town wants to restore it and reopen many of its businesses. Photo by WARREN BATES/REVIEW-JOURNAL

One of them started as a 19th-century whistle-stop on the almost-finished transcontinental railroad. The other is even older but didn't bloom until Route 66 went from dirt to pavement in the 1920s.

Now the towns of Palisade, Nev., and Amboy, Calif., could find fresh life in the hands of new owners.

The 160-acre Palisade township site was sold at auction for $168,750 on April 26. Then, last week, Southern California restaurant owner Albert Okura closed a $425,000 deal to buy Amboy.

"It's just the way it was 40 years ago. It has not changed," said Okura, 53. "And it's in the middle of nowhere. It's like time stood still in Amboy."

The historic town lies 150 miles southwest of Las Vegas, in a stretch of Mojave Desert that Nat King Cole and others have dismissed with barely a pause between "Kingman" and "Barstow" in the song "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66."

The remains of Palisade can be found along the Humboldt River at the northeastern edge of Eureka County, a 400-mile drive north of Las Vegas.

Besides new owners, the two deserted towns have something else in common: Both managed to cling to life long after the world moved on without them.

For Palisade, the boom and bust came about 55 years apart, and the town's slow death lasted almost as long.

The town was born in 1868, as the Central Pacific Railroad -- later known as the Southern Pacific Railroad -- pushed east toward its historic meeting with the westbound Union Pacific on May 10, 1869, near Promontory, Utah.

"What really hurt Palisade was the railroad decided to put the division point in Carlin, about 10 miles to the north and east," Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha said.

The division point served as the railroad's maintenance yard for the area and the spot where locomotives were added to eastbound trains to pull them over the Pequop Mountains.

As a result, Palisade never grew larger than a few hundred people, but it did get its own post office in 1870. "That was something," Rocha said.

Three years later, it became part of newly formed Eureka County.

"Major mining around Eureka was really starting to take off," Rocha said. "What gave Palisade some life was the construction of the Eureka & Palisade Railroad."

But by the late 1930s, the mines had been tapped out and the railroads were struggling against new competition brought by the burgeoning highway system.

"As Eureka goes, so goes Palisade," Rocha explained. "Once that railroad went under, once the rails were torn up, that pretty much signaled the start of a long decline for Palisade."

The town's only real brush with infamy -- and lasting fame -- came late on the night of Nov. 7, 1932.

President Herbert Hoover had just delivered the final radio address of his doomed re-election campaign during a stop in Elko, and the presidential train was headed west toward Palo Alto, Calif., so that Hoover could vote in his hometown the next day.

But as "Railroad One" neared Palisade, it was forced to make an unscheduled stop when railroad personnel surprised two men who appeared to be trying to sabotage a railroad bridge up ahead.

Varying accounts of the thwarted assassination attempt appeared in newspapers the next day.

Rocha said the "Reno Evening Gazette" quoted one railroad official who claimed the bridge had been rigged with 22 sticks of dynamite. Another official told the paper that nothing was found "but an old stick of powder."

Within 20 years, Palisade was all but done. The government closed the post office in 1961, and "it was a virtual ghost town" by 1970.

Amboy's decline was much more sudden, though the town itself outdates Palisade by half a century.

Founded by miners in 1815, Amboy did not truly boom until Route 66 did in the 1920s. The town's heyday as a desert oasis for highway travelers lasted 40 years.

Then in 1972, brand new Interstate 40 opened 15 miles to the north, and Amboy found itself on the road to nowhere.

Despite the decline, Okura said he was thrilled to buy the town last week from 88-year-old Bessie Burris, who spent more than 20 years in Amboy before moving to nearby Wonder Valley.

Apparently, Burris was pretty pleased, too.

Bonnie Barnes said her grandmother got several higher offers, but what sold Burris on Okura was his enthusiasm.

"He wanted it real bad, but now he's not quite sure what to do with it. You could tell that," Barnes said. "But that's OK. If there's passion, there's good. This was the right way to go to preserve the town."

After all, Okura knows a little something about historic preservation.

In 1998, he paid $135,000 to buy the site of the first McDonald's restaurant. Now the old building in San Bernardino, Calif., houses an office for his chain of 30 Juan Pollo restaurants and a museum filled with McDonald's memorabilia.

A museum is also a possibility for Amboy, which Okura has promised would not be the sort of place where tourists would be gouged.

But Okura's motives are not entirely selfless. He said he hopes to use some of the "good will" he gets from buying Amboy to expand his restaurant chain eastward, along the old Route 66 corridor.

One place he will not be putting a new Juan Pollo outlet, though, is Amboy itself. "Never, ever, ever," he said. "I want to keep that the way it is, and restore it."

To Okura, that means the eventual reopening of the town's most widely photographed structure, Roy's cafe.

In all, Okura's $425,000 bought him 10 buildings on 934 acres, including the cafe, a gas station, a motel, a post office, a school, a church and an airstrip. It was a pretty good deal for him, considering he offered to buy Amboy from another owner just two years ago for $1.2 million.

Okura said that offer eventually was rejected, as was the high bid of $900,000 when the town was offered for sale on e-Bay in 2003.

Two years later, the bank foreclosed and ownership of the town reverted to Burris. By then, Barnes said, the place had been picked clean and was badly neglected.

"I hope the people who live out in the area don't expect miracles," Okura said. "I'm not the miracle man."

The future of Palisade is even less certain.

Out of a crop of several hundred potential bidders, the townsite was purchased by an unidentified buyer who asked to be known only as "the Ghost from the East Coast."

Greg Martin, owner of the San Francisco auction house that conducted the sale, said he knows the new owner but does not know what the man has planned for the property.

"He doesn't know himself, but he likes the idea (of owning it)," Martin said. "You can buy 150 or 160 acres somewhere, but that's all it is.

"To me, (Palisade) is the equivalent of buying a valuable antique."