March 21, 2006

Kelso Depot building renovation and tour

Backward Glance

by Steve Smith
Desert Dispatch

Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part story.

One of the first projects I worked on as a volunteer at the Mojave River Valley Museum was a picture search for the displays at Kelso. James Woolsey came to the museum and talked about what they were looking for. He also showed me the plans. I must admit the plans didn't mean much to me at the time, but now that I can go to Kelso Depot, I have a sense of pride at my small contribution and I now can see what those plans were leading to.

Work on restoring the depot started in 1999. The first stages of the restoration was to gut the building. As is often the case, lead-based paints were used in the building and had to be cleaned out. During the clean up it was discovered where the building needed extra construction work. They also uncovered a few surprises. In the walls was discovered time cards from kitchen employees, old batteries and small wires that powered a doorbell system that ran to the upstairs sleeping rooms.

Once the tearing apart was done, they had to rebuild. The plan was to do the best job possible to bring the depot back to its original state. Most of the original wood trim and doors were salvaged. The great old staircase was stripped of enamel paint revealing the beautiful wood underneath. Everything was carefully researched and made to look as original as possible. The one addition to the building is the elevator, which allows visitors access to all three floors of the building.

One good example of the meticulous work is the red awnings over the second-story windows. These awnings were on the building when it was first built. A few years after that the awnings were removed. So now when you look at the exterior of the depot you are getting a close as possible view of the building as it was when it was built.

The first sight as you come in the front door is the Beanery counter. It is restored to how it looked originally, only smaller. All of the wood has been stained, and even the pie case has been brought back. The only thing missing is someone to serve you. The National Park Service is looking for vendors to run the counter. From what I have heard of the number of visitors that have come to the depot recently it should be a good business opportunity.

The old front counter is also in the room and is manned by staff. This is the place to ask questions and find out what is going on in the preserve. Behind the counter is the room that introduces you to the desert with sounds of the desert playing in the background. These are very realistic. During my visit I went outside to take some pictures and heard what I thought was the recording but in looking around I saw the bird singing.

What I liked about the depot (heck, it should be called a museum) is that all the senses are taken care of. There are soundbased displays on the booming of the Kelso Dunes and recordings of Curtis Howe Springer, the evangelist who sold mineral cures and ran the health resort at Zzyzx. There are also displays that let you try lifting a railroad tie and using a tool to move a rail road wheel and kids can actually climb a saddle in the ranching section. Smellwise you can enjoy the fresh air outside the depot or the diesel fumes of the passing trains.

The Mojave Preserve is a big place and is full of interesting history and the depot represents everything there. At the depot you will find rooms dedicated to ranching, the railroad, Route 66, the people who lived at Kelso and samples of what the sleeping rooms looked like in Kelso's heyday and many more interesting displays. One of my favorite places in the building is the reading room upstairs. This is a small library with all sorts of information regarding the preserve and maps, old and new. If you are planning a trip into the preserve this is a good place to see what is out there and to learn about the great resources in our backyard. Of course after you go around in the desert, you can sit in the comfortable chairs and nap like I did at the end of a long day.