March 14, 2006

Remodeled Kelso Depot has rich desert history

Backward Glance

by Steve Smith
Desert Dispatch [Barstow, CA]

Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.

In desert history and in fiction much centers around oases. Recently I got a chance to visit an oasis that had undergone a rejuvenation and on March 25 will have its grand opening, Kelso Depot.

The town of Kelso got its start when the Union Pacific Railroad came through in 1904. How the town got its name is one of my favorite stories. Three railroad workers decided to draw one of their names out of a hat to decide the name of the town. One of the gentlemen had recently left the area but the other two threw his name in for him. Wouldn't you know it the guy that left, John H. Kelso, won.

The town was founded because of the water needed for steam engines. The nearby steep grade at Cima Summit (which rises in elevation 2,000 feet in 18 miles) was also a reason for the town's founding. Helper engines would tie onto passing trains and help them over the grade. The helper crews lived at the depot or at other houses in town so when they got a train over the hill they would turn around and head back to Kelso.

The first depot at Kelso was built in 1905 when the Los Angeles to Salt Lake line was established. One of the influence on building the depot was the Santa Fe's Harvey Houses. Harvey Houses were so profitable and popular with passengers that the Union Pacific wanted to copy the success. They built a separate building for a lunch counter. When a new station was built, the old depot was moved and used for a number of purposes.

The present station was built in 1923. It was planned as an "all-in-one facility." The station had rooms for workers, telegraph office, Beanery lunch counter, downstairs hall and billiard room. The station also served the people of the small town as a meeting hall.

The Depot also provided amusement for the children of the town. The dump in back of the depot attracted wild burros. The town's children would lay out a noose and capture the burros by a hoof. Many a time the children would get drug for a bit and suffer rope burns. They sometimes tamed the burros and kept them as pets.

The lunch counter not only served the workers but also served passengers traveling on trains with no dining cars. One item on the menu, stew, lent itself to a humorous story at the beginning of the station. The new lunch counter requested a stew pot from the head office. What arrived was a thunder mug, a pot used as a urinal before flush toilets. Despite the many odd looks visitor's gave it, the thunder mug did serve as a passable stew pot.

On average the town had a population of around two hun- dred. During World War II the town had its biggest boom. Kaiser Steel started the Vulcan Iron Mine nine miles south of Kelso. They shipped its ore to the steel mills in Fontana. From 1942 to 1948 it was estimated that 2,500 tons of ore passed through Kelso daily. At its peak the town housed 2,000 workers.

The population of Kelso took hits from different sources after World War II. Kaiser Steel shut down the mine because of high sulfur content in the ore and the railroad started using more powerful diesel locomotives so the helper engines weren't needed and the water wasn't as important. By the 1950s Kelso was becoming a ghost town.

The depot continued to be open during the seventies when it became a gathering spot for desert visitors and locals. One visitor, James Woolsey, once had an ice cream cone there. He doesn't remember it but his father told him about it. James went on to work on the depot restoration and the displays in it. The nearby water was a particular draw for birds and their watchers.

In 1985 the railroad decided that it was not feasible to run the station any more so they closed the depot entirely. The railroad company had planned to demolish it but through efforts of local people and the Bureau of Land Management it was spared the wrecking ball.

In 1992 the Bureau of Land Management purchased the depot and the property around it for one dollar. The depot came under the care of the National Park Service when the Desert Protection Act was signed into law and created the Mojave National Preserve in 1994. Renovation work was started 1999 and continued until last year when the Depot opened up as the Preserve's visitor center. The depot is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Grand Opening for the restored Kelso Depot will be March 25, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be tours and field trips starting at 10 a.m. The dedication ceremony will be at 2 p.m.

The depot is located 35 miles south of Baker. From I-15, exit at Kelbaker Road and drive south 35 miles to Kelso. From I-40, exit at Kelbaker Road and drive north 22 miles to Kelso.

Come back next week when I will talk a bit about the renovation of the Kelso Depot and a tour of the building.