November 5, 2005

Depot a desert diamond

Mary Manning
Las Vegas Sun

About an hour and 45 minutes southwest of Las Vegas, the two-lane Cima Road leads from Interstate 15 into Southern California's Mojave Desert.

Miles of Joshua trees, yucca plants and creosote bushes dot the landscape until the horizon gives way to what at first seems like a mirage: a two-story salmon-colored building, its Spanish-style arches rising from the desert floor.

The train tracks next to the building help explain its existence.

Union Pacific built the mission-style building as a depot in 1924. It was close to the halfway point between Barstow and Las Vegas. Nearby Cornfield Spring was a reliable source of water, crucial to coal-fired steam engines.

After years of being left to dry up and blow away, the Kelso Depot in the heart of the Mojave National Preserve once again is welcoming desert travelers.

It has been transformed from a train station into the preserve's visitor center with a museum, historically furnished rooms, a theater and a bookstore.

The depot's U-shaped counter is to start serving meals again in March when the grand opening is scheduled. The counter was popular with passengers who had been riding the rails in trains without dining cars in the early 20th century.

Beginning in March the depot will stay open seven days a week. It actually opened late last month, on a 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule, Thursdays through Sundays.

The word is starting to get out that the depot is already open. More than 200 people visited the depot on Sunday, for example.

But with the grand opening still four months away, visitors can still catch some quiet days at the depot. On those days, the silence after leaving the car in the crushed gravel parking lot is almost overwhelming. No leaves rustle, no water drips and unseen insects hum instead of buzz.

Kelso has long been known largely for a sound. Eleven miles southwest of the depot are the Kelso Sand Dunes, known for their "singing," a haunting bass tone made by the shifting sand.

"The best way to get them booming is to run down them as fast as you can," said National Park Service Ranger Linda Slater, who has been renovating the depot for four years.

A recording of the dunes "singing" can be heard at the new museum. It's one of the features that make the Kelso Depot Information Center perfect for the curious who do not want to linger in the Mojave.

As it did in its former life, the depot continues to serve as a respite for travelers. Patches of grass relieve the desert landscape at the center. Nearby are blossoms of desert wildflowers that attract birds, bees and butterflies.

Inside the depot, the walls are adorned with quotes about the desert such as: "For all the toll the desert takes of a man, it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of stars," by author Mary Austin.

The exhibits include denizens of the desert mounted under glass: the Mojave Desert tortoise, a scorpion, a sidewinder snake, a kangaroo rat.

There's a 500-year-old clay pot, probably made by a Mojave Indian; woven baskets and drawings of other desert tribes; informational displays of the area's volcanic and anthropologic history.

Statler said more exhibits are possible. The Park Service would like to eventually turn the empty basement into a Children's Discovery Center with interactive exhibits, for example.

At one time the basement held a pool table and piano for entertainment -- not only for the rail passengers and workers, but for the miners and others who lived in Kelso.

When the United States entered World War II, Kelso boomed. Miners extracted iron ore from mines in Southern Nevada and Southern California and sent it by rail to wartime factories.

"At that time, around 1,000 people lived here," Statler said. The town had a one-room school, a post office and a grocery store.

But after the war, Kelso withered and most of the buildings crumbled into dust.

The depot weathered the years, but since it was no longer needed for the ever more efficient diesel trains, it was closed in 1986, and Union Pacific made plans to demolish it.

In 1991, the federal government, responding to public pressure, stepped in to save the building. The renovation took years.

The original color scheme emerged after workers scraped layers of paint away, Statler said. A "putrid green" covered the depot's interior until white paint and shiny dark wood trim resurrected the original look.

To restore an authentic look to the station's hub -- the ticket and telegraph office near the baggage room --Statler perused eBay and found period pieces: an accounting book, baggage tickets, pencils, an early 20th century stapler and candlesticks.

An average of 60 trains a day still chug through Kelso, compared with 100 in Barstow, Park Service volunteer Vince Marino said as freight cars rumbled past and shook the depot's red-tile floor.

For most people the Mojave Desert is a place to only pass through. But it also has always been a land of dreams attracting tourists, miners, ranchers, train crews and artists.

One such person is Ken Hall, a National Park Service worker who has spent most of the last 40 years in the Mojave's dry air. Hall lives in Baker, a 70-mile round trip from his work at the depot.

Before people swarmed into the Southwest and settled up and down Interstate 15, Hall frequently brought his children to the depot to loll on the grass and watch the passing trains.

He said he stays on the job to "to take care of my desert for my grandchildren."

Hall has driven trucks for Gilbert Trucking of Las Vegas, managed the Denny's Restaurant in Baker and served in the Air Force in Yuma, Ariz., before he settled for life on a road that seems to go nowhere.

After describing the spectacular sunrises with a sigh, Hall takes a cup of coffee and walks out the backdoor, ignoring the satellite hookup feeding a fully stocked entertainment center.

"I prefer the silence," he said.

Kelso Depot

Where: Take Interstate 15 from Las Vegas to the Cima Road exit. Kelso is 35 miles south of Baker, Calif., on Kelbaker Road.

When: The center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Starting in March, it will be open seven days a week.

Cost: There is currently no entrance fee for Mojave National Preserve.

For more information: (760) 733-4040.

National Park Service Web site:

Source: National Park Service