In the Center of the Desert
DESERT CENTER, Riverside Co., CA
DESERT CENTER is a sun-blasted, decaying road town plopped in the center of the desert in the shadow of the massive Eagle Mountains to the west and the Chuckwalla Mountains to the south. The picturesque remains of this old town are slowly fading into the past despite the efforts of the town’s owner, the granddaughter of the original founder, Desert Steve Ragsdale. I visited here on July 15, 2011 and spoke with several people about the town and all seemed to be in agreement that it is barely hanging on. Even though the official 2010 census figure indicates a population of 204, that also includes the Lake Tamarisk development located about a mile and a half north of town along the Kaiser Road (CR 2). A sign directs people to it. Lake Tamarisk was originally developed as a housing area on a lake and surrounded by a golf course by the Kaiser Mine folks. It showed up the first time on a 1971 Automobile Club of Southern California (ACSC) Riverside County map that I have in my collection. It is NOT shown on the 1967 map. (I don’t have the 1968 - 1970 maps). However, today the development consists of about 50 custom homes, most of which are small. There is also a packed RV park that appears to be mostly weekender/vacation occupied. What is most telling is the occupancy rate. According to the Census Bureau, there are 85 occupied and 55 vacant housing units in the whole CDP (Census Designated Place). In the “town” proper, the vacancy rate is much higher. There are two mobile home parks in “town”. A small one is at the west end and appears to be for the employees of the Caltrans equipment yard. A well-worn one is located on the east end adjacent to several homes that also appear vacant.
Desert Center has one operating business, the Desert Center Cafe, which was doing a pretty lively trade during the time I was in town photographing the community. There is also an operating post office from which the town’s residents all obtain their mail via post office boxes. The buildings making up the “downtown core” were built in the 1921 era about the time the highway (designated as US 60 in 1926) was built. During its road town years, Desert Center had gas stations, restaurants and what appears to have been an old motel across from the strip center where the post office is located, served desert travelers. This was an important stopping place between Blythe (50 miles east) and Indio (50 miles west.) During WW II it became a bustling town with massive army training facilities located nearby. It is said that General George Patton even ate in the café. After the war ended and with the birth of the Kaiser Steel’s Iron Mine at nearby Eagle Mountain, the town was again active. Once Interstate 10 was built around 1972, the town was isolated, although it was served by an offramp from each direction and is a crossroad for traffic heading north on SH 177 towards Rice (another ghost town) and Parker, AZ.
Some of the remaining amenities include the aforementioned trailer park at the east end, some palm trees planted in fanciful patterns in the 1990s and now dying, the old Desert Center School (which closed in the 1960s), and a batch of businesses that closed about 3-4 years ago, including a hamburger stand, Texaco gas station, a small strip center with four tenant spaces and what appears to be offices in the rear, an old motel, the post office housed in the west end of the strip center, the Desert Center Market, an active Caltrans yard, a cluster of seven cabins, the main complex of buildings housing a couple old repair garages, vintage Chevron gas station, Family Café and the Desert Center Cafe. Just east of the DC Café is an old, elevated swimming pool, a caboose from the Kaiser Mine Railroad, some rusting equipment, a couple of old trucks and a saggy-roofed cabin. Only the DC Café and post office are still operating. Peeking through the windows of the old businesses reveals lots of surprises, such as an old sign for “ATOMIC GAS”, the remains of an auto parts store and empty shelves in the old market. Old signs dot the townsite.
Off to the west, along the old US Highway 60 route (Ragsdale Road) is an abandoned 1950s-1970s era gas station with foundation & slabs ruins of what appears to have been a store and possibly a cafe. There is a massive dump out back. The dump looks like it’s been picked through pretty well, but there are thousands of rusty cans, broken bottles, tires and misc. rusty car parts. The complex probably shut down when the Interstate opened in 1971, isolating it from activity. I spent a little time here photographing it. From the remains, it appears there was also a small store and café here also. The 1967 ACSC map indicates it as Ocotillo Gardens Store and shows it along US 60. On the Dec 1971 map it is still shown and named along the frontage road (old route) with the newly constructed I-10 running just south of the site. It is still shown and named on the ACSC maps until the 1981 edition. In 1982 it is NOT shown. I haven’t seen anything else online about it, so the history is FUZZY. Anyone know for sure?
This was our Ghost Town of the Month for August/September 2011
· N½ Sec 27, T5S, R15E, San Bernardino Meridian
· Latitude: 33.7125191 / 33° 42’ 45” N
· Longitude: -115.4022052 / 115° 24’ 08” W
Location – Lake Tamarisk:
· NE¼ Sec 15, NW¼ Sec 14, T5S, R15E, San Bernardino Meridian
· Latitude: 33.7389072 / 33° 44’ 20” N
· Longitude: -115.3897047 / 115° 23’ 23” W
Location – Ocotillo Gardens Store/Gas Station:
· Ctr Sec 29, T5S, R15E, San Bernardino Meridian
· Latitude: 33.7053397
· Longitude: -115.4409027
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FIRST POSTED: July 16, 2011
LAST UPDATED: October 03, 2011
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