Kelso, CA Depot

By: Frank Carroll

Kelso depot. © Frank Carroll

The Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad began life in the late 1800’s as a line to connect Los Angeles, CA and Salt Lake City Utah. The line built through hundreds of miles of desert and sparse terrain.  There were many short lines in eastern California, Nevada, and southern Utah that had no real connections to the outside world. The Central Pacific (Southern Pacific) in the
northern part of Nevada, and the Santa Fe (AT&SF) in the southern part of California, and
Arizona were the major connections to other places, and railroads in the Southwest.

Senator Clark of Nevada and other investors came together and built the line known as the Los Angeles and Salt Lake RR (LA&SL). To connect their namesakes. The LA&SL traversed some of the most difficult terrain in the west. Not because of high altitudes, or difficult curves, but because of the horribly harsh, desert conditions found between those cities when you moved to the high desert railroad.  Extreme heat in the summer, freezing temperatures in the winter, and a virtual lack of water.

Along the route were several places that offered adequate quantities of good water for the water thirsty locomotives of that era.  One was Las Vegas, a second was Caliente (NV), third was Barstow (CA) and last, but still very important was Kelso (CA).  These watering points also provided for stops to change crews, maintain the engines, and act as freight collection points.

Caliente (NV), will (hopefully) be covered in another instalment of this story; as will Las Vegas
(NV), then Barstow (CA).

As a quick aside, Las Vegas would still be a small watering hole for cattle and trains if it had not been for a small engineering project:  Hoover Dam.

Steam locomotives require huge quantities of water, maintenance and, crews.  The four stops mentioned here provided those necessities on the southern part of the route to California. The Union Pacific rarely placed a diner in the passenger train consist until it reached Las Vegas, so Kelso had a small restaurant, primarily for crew accommodations, and small meals for passengers. Kelso had another important job for the railroad. It also sat at the western edge of one of the steepest and longest grades of the whole LA&SL.

Kelso lies at an elevation of 2126 feet, and the summit at Cima is 4175 feet, the rails rise a little over 2000 feet in a stretch of less than twenty miles.  This is quite a grade, a bit over 2% and, made the building of a helper facility at Kelso mandatory.

In 1905 the LA&SL completed the route between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.  The railroad built proper facilities at the locations mentioned here.

Kelso’s former depot. Courtesy NPS.

Kelso had a wood depot by 1905, and additional rail maintenance facilities around the depot. The small depot served the railroad crews, and the passengers who traveled through the area, some passengers visiting Death Valley.

In 1927 the original wood depot burned to the ground, requiring a replacement. The Union Pacific controlled the LA&SL as a subsidiary by this point, and the UP decided to improve and upgrade its facilities along the LA&SL route. There were actually three stations built in the Mission Colonial style; Milford, UT: Caliente, NV: and Kelso, CA, with the latter two surviving today.

The area around Kelso flourished with several precious metal mines operating from the early
1900’s through the beginnings of the Great Depression.  Gold, silver and copper were produced and delivered to the freight facilities in Kelso and Las Vegas.

The US, and the world, plus little Kelso also suffered through the Great Depression. Kelso did not suffer as much as many places because it was a helper maintenance facility, and a food stop for many passengers taking the trains north out of Los Angeles.

Kelso survived the depression and lived to serve the country, again, as a helper point for the growing war traffic, east and west.  The Vulcan Mine, south of the community, produced as much as 2500 tons of iron ore per day for the hungry smelters of Kaiser Industries in Fontana, CA, added to the freight traffic.  The Vulcan mine ran until 1947 when it when it was closed.

At the height of the war effort, over 2500 hundred people inhabited the small community
called Kelso. Miners, railroad workers and a few families of owners of the mercantile and store, called Packard’s, plus school teachers, and a few others lived in a town roughly 40 miles from anywhere else.  There was a school, and swimming pool for the community, your radio picked up a faint signal from radio stations in the Barstow or Las Vegas.  Otherwise, entertainment was tending your Victory Garden, reading books from the library operated by volunteers out of the Kelso Depot.

The end of World War Two brought major changes to the Kelso area.  Gold mining had already ended at the beginning of the war, now the Vulcan mine closed, moving many more inhabitants away to better places. Then with the advent of diesel motive power on the railroads, the need for helper service ended by the mid-1950’s. Then there was the demise of through passenger service to major cities in the east also made the need for Kelso and its small restaurant unnecessary.

By the mid-1960’s the community was virtually a ghost town. Only a few railroad workers remained to maintain the tracks from near    Canyon and the state line with Nevada.  Union Pacific removed all of the engine service facilities in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, leaving only the two large water towers, some of the sidings, and the depot.

By the 1980’s the railroad was ready to demolish the depot.  There were a number of people who wanted to save the depot, along with many who wanted to make the Mojave area a part of Death Valley National Park, or a park in its own right.  Because of several legal, political, and land rights involved in the Bureau of Reclamation, the Mojave National Preserve was created.

Kelso today. Courtesy NPS.

The National Park Service now ran the area known as Mojave National Preserve, not quite a national park, but just as important. The preserve includes Kelso, nearly a ghost town today, with only a few of the UP maintenance crew living in the area.

The NPS restored the depot to near new condition and now uses the facility as Park offices, a bookstore, deli, and museum. Keeping the Mission style building preserves what the National Park service represents, a preservation of the historical so we may take a short, quick step back in the past.

Next time you head along I-15 between Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, take a detour through the
Mojave National Preserve and see railroad history and a beautiful huge desert.

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