On my way to a new place, I can’t help but anticipate what it will be like. I was certainly wrong about Kelso. Sand dunes were nearby and the one-time-train-station was alive with tourists who occupied every picnic table and every parking space in early afternoon. This was a surprise because the Kelso Depot sits in the lower-middle of the Mojave Desert!
During World War II this station was surrounded by a companies town of 2,000. Some of them worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. Some worked in the Vulcan Mine. Some were across the street in the Kelso jail. This depot in the desert got its start when a wealthy Senator and mine owner began construction of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. His plan was to rival the Union Pacific to the north and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe to the south. As it crossed the Mojave Desert while connecting Salt Lake City to LA, this station was needed basically as a place for helper engines. To the east of Kelso was a more-than-2,000 feet ascent. The Spanish Mission Revival building seen today operated from 1925 until 1985. When the Vulcan closed in 1948, the local economy collapsed although the lunch counter, which was intended to rival Harvey dining spots, hung on into the 1960s. Surviving probable demolition, the Kelso Station is now the very impressive visitor center for the Mojave National Preserve.
Its first floor has a help desk, an introductory film, a horseshoe lunch counter heaped with trinkets and travel stuff but has no pie slices on display. Upstairs are many rooms with information about local ranching, railroad history, and animals like the vulnerable, protected desert tortoise. This is that rare place where roads have tortoise crossing signs. One of my favorite displays was full of historic travel posters like the one below. Some displays are decidedly offbeat, like a tribute to ZZYZK, a Mojave mineral spring, health resort, and radio preaching center until 1974. Downstairs was a temporary art show and a cool diorama of the town of Kelso at its height. This all amounts to a truly unexpected marvel.
South of Death Valley, the Mojave looks barren, and I don’t recommend visiting it in August. But the reality of the place is that it has been inhabited for more than 12,000 years, has a great variety of flora, and a number of really fine attractions, which I’ll blog about soon. The Chemehuevi people live here. They now run a casino. Their name means those who play with fish.