May 26, 2006

Kelso Depot back on track

Memories revived by restoration


Theo Packard.

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. -- Trains don't stop much at the Kelso Depot these days, but Theo Packard remembers when they did.

Packard lived in Kelso from about 1917 to 1935. Until the Great Depression cost him the job, he briefly worked as a cashier at the depot's lunch counter a few years after it opened in 1924.

Back then, Kelso was a bustling little railroad town, where trains would stop to take on water and let their passengers off to eat and stretch their legs.

Packard, now 95 and living in Studio City, Calif., said the tracks in front of the depot also were busy with "helper" locomotives that were used to get trains up the steep grade between Kelso and Cima, 18 miles and a 2,100-foot elevation gain to the east.

Though he didn't work the rails, Packard got to know that stretch of track pretty well.

"In the early days, you used to be able to ride along on the helper engines," he said.

Packard was among more than 600 people who traveled to Kelso on Saturday to celebrate the building's grand reopening, not as a depot but as the central visitors center for the 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve.

The National Park Service spent three years and $5.1 million restoring the three-story, Spanish Mission Revival-style structure, which cost $88,000 when it was first built.

George Lowell and his wife, Lisa, came from Apache Junction, Ariz., to see how the renovation turned out.

It wasn't Lowell's first time at the depot, but it might as well have been. The last time he saw the building, he was 4.

"I've just got pictures to look at and the stories my sister tells. She's the historian of the family," he said. "This is my first time back since 1949, and believe me, it's a thrill."

Lowell brought along an antique wax stamp that was used to seal envelopes in Kelso's post office during the 1920s and '30s. He gave the stamp to the Park Service along with some old family photographs from Kelso.

Lowell said his father worked as a mechanic for the nearby Vulcan Mine. His grandfather, Charles Frank Lowell, drove one of the "helper" engines.

Packard remembers Lowell's grandfather well. "He rescued me one time," he said. It happened early one morning when Packard was driving to Kelso from Las Vegas and fell asleep at the wheel of his 1932 Ford coupe. The car drifted off the road and crashed, so Packard used his headlights to signal a passing "helper" engine.

Charles Lowell stopped to pick him up and take him the rest of the way to Kelso, where he showed up at his mother's door with blood all over his face. "She nearly fainted when she saw me," Packard said.

Though the depot began to fade with the advent of the diesel locomotive and the decline of mining in the area after World War II, the tracks remain busy today.

Bob Bryson, who works out of the Park Service office in Barstow, Calif., said that if there isn't a freight train rumbling past the depot when you get there, just wait for 15 minutes or so.

"This is Union Pacific's main route from Las Vegas and Salt Lake City down to Los Angeles," he said.

The first train Katherine Shotwell remembers seeing at the Kelso Depot is the one she was on when she arrived there with her family in 1944.

"I stepped off of that train and onto that platform, and someone had to come out and unlock the depot" because it was late, said the 70-year-old Shotwell, who drove down from her home in Las Vegas for Saturday's event.

She vividly recalled the day when a huge locomotive nicknamed "Big Boy" broke loose from a siding and derailed in front of the depot.

"Its boiler broke and flooded the street," she said. "But the real show was watching the cranes lift it up and put it back on the tracks. That was my 9-year-old memory."

Like Lowell and others, Shotwell brought along an envelope full of keepsakes from her days in Kelso. Mixed in with some old photographs was her war bond booklet, which showed her address as "Trailer #17, Kelso, CA."

Shotwell also showed off her report card from the 1944-45 school year. It describes the then-Katherine Dell as a "good conscientious pupil" and gives her high marks in everything but being "neat and orderly."

"I haven't changed a whole heck of a lot," she said.

The Kelso Depot closed in August 1964, though the restaurant continued to operate until July 1985. Union Pacific donated the building and sold the land to the Bureau of Land Management in 1992. The Park Service took over the property when the national preserve was established in 1994.

The depot first reopened to the public in late October, and it has drawn pretty good crowds ever since, said park ranger Linda Slater.

"You think you're out in the middle of nowhere, and then you've got all these people," she said. "It's cranking all day long out here."

The visitor center is now open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m daily.

Slater said it probably will take another year for the Park Service to reopen the depot's lunch counter and find someone to operate it. In the meantime, she said, visitors are welcome to bring along a lunch and eat it at the counter.

Packard is just glad the counter is still there. He said he used to wonder if the old building ever would be brought back to life.

"I certainly wished for it," he said.

Now it looks just like it did when it was first built, he said, right down to the color of the paint on the walls. "It's unbelievable."