November 14, 2006

Kelso jail back in old home next to depot

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

KELSO - The old jail has arrived back home after a 12-year stay in a backyard in Hinkley.

It now sits near the 82-year-old Kelso Depot, where a half-century ago it held a variety of miscreants during the heyday of the mid-Mojave rail stop.

"We're glad to get it back, as it adds to the authenticity of the historic landscape," said Linda Slater, a ranger with the Mojave National Preserve, which operates the depot as a museum and visitors' center.

The Union Pacific Railroad opened the stately depot in 1924. It was closed in 1985 and was destined for demolition until a group of citizens rallied to save it.

"The building has been renovated virtually as it was when the Union Pacific closed it," said Slater, who along with other park officials searched far afield for authentic artifacts, century-old photographs and original furnishings to restore its original character.

"We talked to desert old-timers and went to eBay, other railroad museums, and the Union Pacific," said James Woolsey, the preserve's former interpretative officer, in a recent interview. He has since taken another position with the National Park Service.

The old jail, which was used to hold unruly individuals from the mid-1940s to 1985, had disappeared.

Corona resident Richard Klepper, who lived in Kelso in the 1940s, washed dishes as a youngster at the depot's lunch counter, The Beanery. His father and several siblings worked for the Union Pacific.

"Before (the jail) was brought in, people who got into trouble were kept overnight in closed reefer cars on a siding," he said.

The family left Kelso in 1947 when the railroad switched from steam engines to diesel, and Klepper later advanced with Union Pacific, retiring in 1987 after serving as a terminal superintendent in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

In the mid-1970s, San Bernardino County sheriff's Deputy Ron Mahoney was on duty in Kelso when he first saw the jail.

"He and I picnicked near Kelso in 1984, and it was still there," said his wife, Kay Mahoney of Hinkley. "We learned that it had been moved to Barstow in 1987."

The Mahoneys later learned that the jail was behind the county health department in Barstow. "Ron spoke to a county official about buying it but was told it was not for sale," his wife said. "But the official said we could store it at our home as long as we liked."

So the 7-foot-by-10-foot structure ended up in Hinkley in 1994. "Our grandkids used it as a playhouse," Kay Mahoney said. "If that got out of hand, we would threaten to lock them them up in the jail. Of course, we never did.

"When we had visitors, it was always a conversation piece, and people wanted to buy it as an antique. But we didn't want to part with it."

Ron Mahoney died three years ago, but his wife remained as a guardian of sorts for the old jail, which stood next to a wood pile.

"I heard about plans to renovate the Kelso Depot and went there for a visit last year," she said. "I asked a ranger about the jail, and she said it was rumored to be in San Bernardino."

She said, "No, it's in my backyard."

That sparked interest at the national preserve. "James Woolsey called me and asked if I would be willing to return it to Kelso, and I said yes," Mahoney said.

"It belongs in Kelso, not in my backyard."