March 23, 2006

Depot restored

Park service renovates historic station in Mojave National Preserve

The Press-Enterprise

Items from early ranching activities in the Mojave Desert are on display at Kelso Depot southeast of Baker. Greg Vojtko / The Press-Enterprise

The National Park Service on Saturday will show off the $5.5 million renovation of the historic Kelso Depot as a museum and information center for the Mojave National Preserve.

Once a Union Pacific Railroad showpiece to rival Santa Fe's rail station and Harvey House in Needles, the two-story depot southeast of Baker houses 10 exhibit rooms filled with information about desert wildlife, plant life, American Indian artifacts and rooms restored to look as they did before the depot closed in 1985.

There is even a sound-enhanced exhibit describing the nearby Kelso Dunes, where the grains of sand are polished so smooth by nature that they make a booming sound as they cascade downward during avalanches.

As many as 400 people a day have been visiting the depot since its soft opening in November, says James Woolsey, chief of resource interpretation and outreach for the 1.6-million-acre desert preserve. He expects the flow of visitors to increase after Saturday's formal dedication and grand opening.

The depot, which had been open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. four days a week since the soft opening, has expanded to seven days a week, he said.

Saturday's event will include tours of the nearby dunes, reminiscences by former Kelso residents and performances by cowboy poets, an American Indian band and the Needles Select Choir. Among the invited guests are U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, who helped secure federal funding for the renovation.

The depot was built by the Union Pacific in 1924, when extra steam locomotives were kept in Kelso to help pull trains up a 2,000-foot grade to Cima 20 miles away. The 23 upstairs rooms in the depot were railroad crew quarters. The downstairs served as everything from a ticket office and community center to laundry and restaurant.

At its peak during World War II, more than 2,000 people lived in the desert outpost of Kelso as passenger trains passed between Las Vegas and Los Angeles and freight trains carried iron ore to the Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana. Today, the trains carry no passengers, Woolsey said. An average of one train an hour passes through on the three sets of tracks.

When the railroad closed the depot, vandals invaded.

"They broke all the windows, smashed the walls and painted graffiti everywhere," Woolsey said. "They took all the furniture, stripped out the fixtures and tore up the staircase."

They even stole the toilets.

"The railroad wanted to tear the place down, " Woolsey said. "They bulldozed all the old houses along here because they didn't want to take care of them.

"A lot of local folks got very upset when they proposed tearing this place down," he said. "It's a very stately building and an important piece of the history of the desert."

In the late 1980s, Union Pacific sold the depot building to the federal government for a nominal fee. The Bureau of Land Management boarded up the structure to prevent more damage until its future could be decided.

A big part of that decision was the passage in 1994 of the Desert Protection Act, which established the Mojave National Preserve.

"There was a lot of discussion about what to do" with the park, Woolsey said. "But the one thing everybody agreed on was what to do with the Kelso Depot. A visitor center was the obvious thing. It's a beautiful building. The paved roads (Kelbaker and Kelso Cima) come together here, so it's a perfect location."

The restoration of the building started in August 2002 and was completed in January 2004, said David Moore, a landscape architect for the National Park Service. He helped supervise the work.

"It was in such bad shape that they had to take the whole structure almost down to the frame," Moore said. "We had a specialist from our Denver service center do some research and he was able to come up with the original drawings of the building."

So much conduit had been run through the studs supporting the east wall of the building that the supports were weakened, he said.

"You could go up to the wall and push it and watch the whole wall wiggle," Moore said. "It was scary."

Restoration crews also discovered that the original contractor wrote his name at the top of the staircase and some workers had stuffed postcards in the walls.

Woolsey said the Park Service will install equipment in the kitchen and hopes to find a private vendor to reopen and run the restaurant. He said the Park Service will hire a third ranger to help staff the depot and is recruiting unpaid volunteers.

The depot sometimes gets a boost in visitors when traffic problems cause the California Highway Patrol to shut down Interstate 15 and reroute vehicles through Kelso, Woolsey said.

Synja Meyneken, 63, a tourist from the Netherlands, found her way to the depot recently. "We like nature and more or less go for nature parks," she said. "We were just driving around. We decided to travel for a year, so we bought a pickup truck and we're doing the states."

Meyneken's favorite part of the depot was the saddle mounted in one of the rooms surrounded by murals showing old-time cowboy life. She climbed into the saddle and her husband took her picture -- tipping the camera to just the right angle to show her and the saddle and the backdrop without revealing the absence of a horse.

Bob Carlisle, 59, and his wife, Rita, 60, pored over the exhibits, the maps and the d├ęcor. "The building is nice," he said. "I can't figure the depot yet. Why a train depot in the middle of the desert? I haven't figured it out yet."