November 10, 2005

Welcome back, Kelso

Restored depot proves popular

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

KELSO - With renovation work barely complete, the 81-year-old Kelso Depot already is drawing throngs of visitors from around the world who want to step back in time.

The stately depot, surrounded by a mosaic of mountains, serves as the main visitors center and museum for the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve 60 miles east of Barstow.

It is attracting as many as 300 visitors on Sundays and about 100 on weekdays. And since 1998, the total number of visitors to the park has soared from 315,000 annually to 615,000.

"The building has been restored virtually as it was when the Union Pacific Railroad closed it in 1985," said James Woolsey, the preserve's chief of resource interpretation.

The exterior of the structure gleams in a sandy decor with turquoise trim as it once was. Inside walls are pale yellow with dark stained woodwork.

Kelso is on Kelbaker Road about 35 miles southeast of Baker. It can be reached from both Interstate 40 and Interstate 15.

International travelers like Keith and Christine Mitchell of Brighton, England, interrupted their trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to visit the preserve Thursday. They were happy they did.

"The desert is fantastic," said Keith, port supervisor with a British ferry service. "There's nothing like this back home except for the white Seven Sisters cliffs at Veachy Head."

As the couple entered the depot, Christine exclaimed, "This is really unique. It brings back a touch of the Old West."

Unique it is, indeed.

Interpretative exhibits on the first floor highlight the region's natural features, such as the Kelso dunes and Joshua Tree forest, and displays of wildlife like the desert tortoise. Native wildflowers and models of park creatures like the sidewinder rattlesnake and kangaroo rat are exhibited.

Visitors can press a button to hear a booming and moaning sound that radiates from the 700-foot-high dunes as thousands of grains of sand rub together.

Also on display is a vintage ticket and telegraph office, with the photocopy of a 1905 train register and hoops to allow depot crews to exchange messages with passing trains.

"We tried to keep the character of the structure, with much of the original building intact and lovingly restored," Woolsey said.

He and Park Ranger Linda Slater searched far afield for authentic artifacts, century-old photographs and original furnishings.

"We talked to desert oldtimers and went to eBay, other railroad museums and the Union Pacific," Woolsey said.

A painting of a buffalo that once hung on the wall over the Beanery, the depot's U-shaped lunch counter was found and brought back to Kelso.

The $5 million renovation project, funded by Congress, began in 2002 after three years of planning and research, Slater said.

"We got a lot of cooperation from many people - oldtimers, ranchers, railroaders, miners and Indian tribes - in putting the exhibits together," she said. "We're all proud of our achievement. It took a lot of dedicated effort."

Larry Whalon, the preserve's acting superintendent, said Kelso Depot provides a close look at the history and lifestyle of the region between 1920 and 1980.

"What makes this building special is its authenticity," he said. "It's important to tell about Mojave National Preserve and its people. The exhibits here do that, and that's why they are so relevant."

The stories of homesteaders and ranchers are told in the recorded voices of people like Cima Postmaster Irene Ausmus, store owner Theo Packard and rancher Tim Overson.

And the voice of Curtis Howe Springer, a radio evangelist who praised healing salts mined at Zzyzx, tells visitors about the heyday of the resort off I-15 near Baker.

Widespread response to Springer's radio broadcasts from Zzyzx between 1944 and 1974 turned Baker into California's busiest post office.

The depot housed up to 40 railroad workers from 1924 to 1985, Woolsey said. For recreation, they played billiards and card games in the basement.

Marine Staff Sgt. Joe Ramirez paused Thursday to scan the volumes in the depot's bookstore.

"I'm a history buff, and I enjoy stopping here while driving to the base at Twentynine Palms," he said. "I'm pleased that the Park Service has restored this landmark for posterity."

Within a year, visitors to Kelso Depot can expect to munch on peanut-butter cookies and apple pies like those featured a half-century ago at the Beanery.

Said Slater, "We're doing our best to bring back the depot's rich past for everyone to share and enjoy."