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Twice Dead

EAGLE MOUNTAIN, Riverside Co., CA

 

By

Gary B. Speck

 

 

EAGLE MOUNTAIN, Henry J. Kaiser’s model company town is located at the massive Eagle Mountain iron mine, tucked into a pocket on the southeastern side of Joshua Tree National Park.  It is accessible by county road R2 (Kaiser Road), a dozen miles north of Desert Center,  a slumbering road town in the heart of the desert, along I-10 midway between Indio and the Colorado River about 200 miles east of Los Angeles, California.

 

Eagle Mountain has more standing, abandoned buildings than Bodie, the nations’ #1 ghost town.  This modern mining town was born in 1948, and quickly grew to a population of nearly 4000 people.  It had wide, landscaped streets lined with over 400 single-story two, three and four bedroom homes, over 200 trailer spaces and a number of boarding houses/ dormitories.  Other civilized touches included an auditorium, park, shopping center, large swimming pool, lighted tennis courts, baseball diamond along with many civic and private organizations.  Some of the businesses included: a bank, two bars, beauty salon, bowling alley, café, eight churches, gas station, grocery store, laundry, medical/dental clinic, a post office, variety store as well as three schools (elementary, middle/junior high, and high school) serving over 1000 students. 

           

Most of this still stands!

           

Unbelievably, outside of Riverside County, CA, very few people have ever heard of, or visited this wonderful desert ghost.

           

The story of Eagle Mountain dates back to the 1880s when prospectors roamed the west in search of gold, silver, and other valuable minerals.  In the rugged mountains here they found some gold, but the mines were fairly small since the ore wasn’t rich enough to support a long-term mining camp or continued exploration.  The Iron Chief Mine, produced about $150,000 in gold, but closed in 1907 because iron nodules infested the $10/ton gold ore.  These potato-sized chunks of iron damaged the stamp mills, and were so hard some were actually used as millstones in a gold mill south of here. 

           

In 1942, the mines were purchased by the Southern Pacific Railroad Co, which ran a new assay on the ore, which showed 51-54% iron.  The S.P. owned a massive mountain of iron, with estimated reserves of 70,000,000 tons of hematite and magnetite ores.

           

Enter Henry J. Kaiser, a noted industrialist.  In the late 1930s, he was looking to build a fully integrated steel mill on the west coast to aid in his activities. In 1942 he built a mill in Fontana, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. Iron for the operation came from the Kaiser Vulcan Mine, at the southern end of the Providence Mountains, 8.5 miles southeast of the Union Pacific Railroad town of Kelso, in the heart of the Mojave Desert.  They also imported ore from the Iron Springs Mining District, near Cedar City, Utah. 

           

Kaiser soon became aware of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s idle Eagle Mountain mines and their known iron reserves.  He purchased them and development began in earnest.  In 1948 production began and a model company-mining town was constructed on the flats below what was soon to become Southern California’s largest iron mine.  A 51.3 mile-long railroad was built from the mine to the Southern Pacific Railroad along the northeast shore of the Salton Sea, just north of the county line. Ore shipments to Kaiser’s Fontana steel plant, 112 miles to the west, began in October, with five to eight 100-car trains ran to the Fontana plant weekly.

           

In January 1951 the post office opened, and Eagle Mountain boomed.  However, by the 1970s, increased air-quality/environmental awareness, as well as profitability affected the Fontana facility and the mine.  Production slowed, and the 1980 census decreased to 1890 folks.

           

In the summer of 1980, the mine shut down briefly, reopening on Sep 23.  However, only 750 workers were brought back, leaving 150 in limbo.  The 455 occupied homes/trailers were rented from the company for only $60-80 per month, which included utilities.  Eagle Mountain was an isolated, self-contained community run and protected from the outside world by the Kaiser Corporation.  Suddenly that less protected, very expensive, outside world loomed much closer.

           

On November 3, 1981, Kaiser Corporation announced that half the Fontana Steel mill and the entire Eagle Mountain Mine would be “phased out” over the next several years. Pessimism prevailed, a mood reflected in the December 20, 1981 edition of the Los Angeles Times.  Eagle Mountain: A Company Town Faces Grim Future.”  The sub-head stated it clearer: “Cannot Survive Mine Closure, Residents Fear.”  The population faded as layoffs began, followed closings of the grocery store in Oct 1982 and the post office in January 1983.  In June 1983 the last official graduating class passed through Eagle Mountain High School, followed by closing of both the mine and Fontana plant.

           

However, in 1986 new life was breathed into the moribund community in 1986, when the California Department of Corrections proposed placing a privately operated 200-300 “low-risk” inmate prison at Eagle Mountain.  Since there were still a few folks hanging on, as well as 100 children still attending school, opposition was strong, but so was support. 

           

In September 1988 it happened.  The former shopping center was converted, with inmates arrived at the Eagle Mountain Community Correctional Facility.  That was also the year a controversial proposal to turn the abandoned 1.5 mile long by half-mile wide open-pit mine into a massive sanitary landfill became the next topic of discussion.  The proposal was to ship trash by train from the metropolitan Los Angeles area via the abandoned Kaiser Railroad line.  The pros and cons went at it, and in October 1992 the Riverside County Board of Supervisors approved the project.  13 years later the first train car has yet to roll.

 

During the last six months of 2003, the State of California was embroiled in serious budget problems and one of the programs on the chopping block was privately operated “prisons.”  Eagle Mountain was one of the private prisons slated to close, and on January 1, 2004, the Riverside (CA) Press-Enterprise announced that Eagle Mountain was “A town going nowhere.”  The subhead continued the story a bit more pessimistically.  EAGLE MOUNTAIN: The once-thriving community probably has received a death sentence.”

 

EAGLE MOUNTAIN…R.I.P.

Iron Mining Town

1948 - June 1983

Incarceration Center

September 1988 – Dec 31, 2003

 

On Dec 31, 2005, I rec’d the following E-mail.

 

“Very nice article on Eagle Mountain, California. Thank you for publishing it.

 

I grew up at the old mine. We arrived there in 1953. My dad worked for Kaiser Steel Corp. for 25 years. We Eagle Mountain "Anasazi" hold precious memories of our lives there, very tightly at the center of our hearts. Eagle Mountain will always be my home!

 

You may be interested in visiting Eagle Mountain Family Trees. It's very likely the only website in which the family trees for an entire community exist! However, there's more there than the "trees," as historically interesting as they are. Poking around here and there, one will discover some interesting data about the old "camp" and its people, as well as the surrounding area.

 

After your visit, perhaps you'll post a link to "Eagle Mountain Family Trees" in your genealogy section. I hope so. Because it was created to preserve the memory and help the world to discover it.

 

Have a great day.

Larry Litteral

EMFT Webmaster/Creator”

 

Thanks Larry! (GBS)

 

July 2011 update

 

On July 15, 2011 I again visited Eagle Mountain and the rumors are true.  The site is NO longer accessible, having been fenced off in July 2007.   The old Eagle Mountain School adjacent to one of the gates is still in use and in 2010-2011 had 19 students ranging from pre-K through 8th grade.  I spoke with several folks in Desert Center and most verified that the students are mostly from Desert Center and Lake Tamarisk, a former Kaiser housing area a little over a mile north of Desert Center.  As I was taking photos I felt like I was being watched, and after shooting across the town site with my telephoto lens from the gate area I headed south along the road towards the Eagle Mountain Pumping Station along the LA Aqueduct.  Halfway there the old Eagle Mountain Railroad line crosses the road.  The railroad is no longer used, and has a pair of ancient railroad crossing signs still gracing the crossing.  It is not accessible to the general public and there is a manned gate to allow access.  I turned around before getting all the way to the pumping station as to not incur the curiosity of any guards.  When I returned to the main Kaiser Road to turn back towards Desert Center, a security pickup was sitting across the road facing in my direction.  I figure he was keeping an eye on my activity.  I turned right and headed towards Desert Center, while the truck turned opposite and headed back to the gate to Eagle Mountain.  Hmmmmm.

 

The one thing I did notice is that all the buildings still appear to remain in decent shape.  The trash dump idea is still being kicked around once in a while, the prison is shuttered and Eagle Mountain continues to bask in the unrelenting desert sunshine.

 

 

This was our GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH for January 2004.

 

Location:

·        W½ Sec 1, all Sec 2, T4S, R14E, San Bernardino Meridian

·        Latitude: 33.8575137 / 33° 51’ 27” N

·        Longitude: -115.4872075 / 115° 29’ 14” W

 

 

 

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THIS PAGE

FIRST POSTED:  January 01, 2004

LAST UPDATED: July 15, 2011

 

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