July 14, 2006

Under Kelso's dusty top layer is vivid history

A boarded-up post office and restored depot dot the landscape in Kelso. The town attracts as many as 400 people a day to explore the Kelso Dunes and the visitor center. Photo by Greg Vojtko / The Press-Enterprise

The Press-Enterprise

KELSO - Tim Duncan was not quick to jump nine years ago when the National Park Service asked him to leave his job as a ranger at the Manassas Battlefield in Virginia and move to the dusty and nearly deserted outpost of Kelso in the Mojave Desert.

He had visited California once on vacation, and drove the desolate stretch between Needles and Barstow.

But he took the assignment, in part because one of the Park Service's attractions has been the opportunity to work all over the country, from Alaska to Virginia, he said.

Duncan, 50, has come to love his home in Kelso, hidden against the Granite Mountains. The nearest civilization is in rural Baker, along Interstate 15, some 30 miles to the northwest.

"I enjoy the quietness, I enjoy the remoteness, I enjoy the terrain," he said. "I enjoy the railroad community and the visitor center, which has just been restored."

He was referring to Kelso's 15 other inhabitants: Union Pacific Railroad employees who maintain the track between Barstow and Las Vegas. And to the two-story rail depot officially reopened in March as a visitor center for the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve.

The visitor center, renovated at a cost of $5.5 million, has fostered something of a renaissance for a town that was founded in 1905 as a water stop for steam-driven trains, boomed as a mining town during World War II, and has been little more than a ghost town ever since.

As many as 400 people a day venture off Interstates 40 and 15 on weekends to sift through the artifacts on display here. They also explore the nearby Kelso Dunes, where weather-polished grains of sand emit an eerie, growling boom sound as they cascade during avalanches.

The only other visitors Duncan sees are the motorists who are detoured through town when traffic accidents prompt the California Highway Patrol to shut down one of the interstates.

"The traffic backs up for 50 miles," Duncan said. "It's a slow crawl, and I have to go out and make sure it keeps moving."

How Kelso Came to Be

James Woolsey, chief of resource interpretation and outreach for the preserve, likes to amuse visitors with the not-so-compelling story of how Kelso got its name.

Three railroad surveyors took turns naming the stops, he said. Only two of them were on hand at the Kelso founding and they decided to throw their names, and the name of the third guy, into a hat and choose one for the town.

The name they drew? "The guy who wasn't there," Woolsey said.

He is not certain how often John Kelso visited his namesake, or whether he ever visited it.

When the first trains started running, Kelso had a small store and a few-dozen residents, including a smattering of gold and silver miners.

Soon after, the railroad built a roundhouse to service them and parked half a dozen extra locomotives to help the engines make it up the grueling 19-mile, 2,000-foot grade to Cima.

"That's what made Kelso," said Theo Packard, 95, who moved to the town with his parents in 1920 and stayed for a quarter century.

"Sometimes, the trains were so long, they had to hitch on two or three helpers to make it," Packard said.

Kelso had about 200 residents then.

"It was just a regular, work-a-day town," he said. "Mostly, we worked."

A Busy Little Place

Packard's father opened a general store that doubled as the post office. There were no saloons.

Packard attended Kelso's one-room school, which closed in the 1970s. The building, which still stands, was home to the town's one big social event: a monthly dance where the railroad workers, ranchers and miners converged to foxtrot and waltz.

"They had a kind of a makeshift orchestra," he said. "My mother played the piano."

The school had one teacher who instructed students through the eighth grade, after which they commuted by train to Barstow or Las Vegas to attend high school.

The massive two-story depot, which would eventually house railroad workers, restaurant employees, and telegraph and baggage workers, was constructed in 1924.

Four passenger trains a day, two each in the early morning and evening, stopped in Kelso to load up with water and feed the passengers.

The telegraph operator was something of a gossip, Packard remembers, and would pass the word when celebrities were on the way. Packard ran down to the station one day to meet silent-movie cowboy Tom Mix and look at his horse in the baggage car.

Kelso's "boom" came at the start of World War II, Woolsey said, when iron ore-mines in the area supplied raw material for the Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana. The plant, in turn, turned out steel for the Liberty ships that ferried beans and bullets to Europe during the war. At one point, the town had 2,000 residents.

By war's end, Kelso was on a track to oblivion. Packard left to seek work for a rail delivery service.

'Tin Cans and String'

Today, Kelso has no general store, no restaurant, no movie theater and still no saloon.

Duncan has two freezers and drives to Las Vegas once a month for supplies. He says it's quicker than going south to Barstow and there is a wider variety of stores, which saves trips.

Only a few of the railroad workers are in town at any given time, he said. Their only entertainment, he said, is what it has always been: They get together every now and then to have dinner.

That isn't all that's stayed the same. The telephone at his ranger station has a scratchy signal and frequently cuts out, like poor cell-phone service.

"The lines, the equipment, everything, is 50 years old," Duncan said. "I guess they don't see the need for improvement. We're on tin cans and string out here."

Not exactly the way he likes it.

Video: A history of Kelso, the once flourishing railroad town in the Mojave Desert