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San Bernardino County, CA



Gary B. Speck



Sitting smack-dab in the heart of the Mojave Desert AND the 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve, Kelso is the remains of a major Union Pacific Railroad station.  The old Union Pacific Railroad Depot has been restored to its grandeur of the 1920s-early 1940s and is one of THE best ghost town buildings in the West.  Kelso is located along the Union Pacific Railroad in the center of the sideways “V” formed by Interstate (I) 15 on the north (Barstow-Las Vegas) and I-40 (Barstow-Needles and points east) on the south.  It snugs up against the Providence Mountains on the east, and to the west are the massive, Kelso Sand Dunes.  It is 34.7 miles southeast of Baker and 21.3 miles north of the Kelbaker Road Exit off I-40, which is 28 miles east of Ludlow and about 12 AIR miles north-northeast of Amboy.  It is also 18.8 miles southwest of Cima, a smaller ghost town with an active store and post office.  Cima is accessible off I-15 via either the Cima Road exit - midway between the state line and Baker - or the Nipton Road exit - just ten miles south of the state line.  It is 17.7 miles via Cima Road, and 21.7 miles via Nipton Road to Ivanpah Road to Morningstar Mine roads.  All the above roads are paved and passenger car accessible. 


Kelso’s story begins in 1905 when the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad built its line across the heart of the Mojave Desert.  Ample water was available at the base of a long upgrade so a station was established to supply water and connect helper engines.  These helper engines would be connected to eastbound trains to assist them in ascent of the 18.8-mile long grade from Kelso (elevation 2126’) to Cima (4190’), located at the summit.  The name is said to have come from John H. Kelso, one of the railroad employees who participated in a contest to name the new station.  Names were put into a hat and the winner had the station named after him.  I have not discovered how true this is, BUT the railroads usually named stations after officials OR they seemed to run their names in alphabetic strings - like the Amboy-Needles stations on the original Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (now Burlington Northern-Santa Fe) line in the Mojave to the south of the Kelso area.     


No matter how the name came about, a depot; single-story, wooden lunchroom; five-stall, concrete roundhouse and repair facilities were built and a small town developed around the facilities.  This was a railroad town, plain and simple.  In 1916, the railroad dropped the San Pedro portion of its name, becoming known as the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad, but that name change did not affect operation of the line or the stations.  On April 27, 1921 the LA&SLRR sold the line to the Union Pacific, and the little support town continued to thrive. 


In 1920, L.J. Packard opened up a small, concrete, general store, into which the post office moved.  He operated the store and post office until 1941, when he died.  His wife then leased the store out, and it continued to operate until the late 1940s.


In 1923 the two-story depot building was built.  It replaced the original lunchroom, which burned in 1922.  The Union Pacific built it in a grand style to provide direct competition to the Santa Fe Railroad and their famous Harvey House depots.  The railroads were in major competition with each other to woo riders and loyalty, so the depots were usually the first thing most potential customers saw.  Good food, good service, and good facilities kept them.  So, this modern gem was built, the fourth of six Spanish Mission Revival Style depots on the Union Pacific’s Los Angeles to Salt Lake City line.  It contained numerous facilities including a ticket counter & telegraph office, station agent office, baggage room, waiting room and a lunch room/beanery on the first floor, and a rooming house on the second floor.  Female employees of the beanery and the depot manager also lived on the first floor.  The upstairs rooms were reserved for male employees, management and special guests.  In the basement a billiard room and reading room gave employees some recreational activity other than drinking and fighting, AND to help improve morale and discipline.  It also functioned as a community center for Kelso.  The facility was also known as the Kelso Club.


The beanery was a popular spot for the locals to eat, and functioned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, keeping its 12-14 employees bustling.  Two of the trains that stopped here each day stopped to provide meals for the passengers.  One stopped in the morning for breakfast and the other disgorged 40-50 passengers in the late afternoon.  The beanery only seated a maximum of 33 people along its “U”-shaped counter, so that afternoon stop sounds like it could have been a bit hectic!   After the war ended, it was remodeled and made much smaller, seating only 12.  Even in its sunset days, the beanery was busy.  During the 1959-1964 period it averaged 97 meals a day.  Due to declining use, in 1969, the night shift was eliminated, and the café only operated from 0500-2100 (5 am-9 pm).    By 1972, it served only employees, and in 1985 it closed along with the depot.


During the World War II years, Kaiser’s Vulcan Iron Mine was active in the hills about nine miles southeast of town.  Some sources claim this activity pushed Kelso’s population upwards to the 1500-2000 range.  I personally question this number, but it seems to have grown roots.  IF any of you readers have concrete proof of that number, please let me know.  In 1938, there were 87 registered voters in the Kelso District. 


The Vulcan Mine was the Kaiser Corporation’s foray into iron mining.  The Vulcan deposits were originally discovered in 1908, and purchased by Kaiser between 1940 and 1942 to provide the necessary iron ore to process into plate steel.  Kaiser was one of the largest Liberty Ship builders during the war and as a result needed copious amounts of iron ore to feed to its brand-new (built in 1942), massive steel mill in Fontana.  From there the steel was sent to shipyards in the Bay Area, where it was assembled into 2750 rapidly built, assembly-line produced transport ships, each capable of hauling 9000 tons of goods or troops.


The Vulcan Mine was located on the west side of Foshay Pass and the Providence Mountains, 8.6 miles southeast of Kelso.  There was a small mining camp housing 65 miners located near the mine.  It appears that only about 35 mine employees and their families actually lived in Kelso.  Kaiser purchased this old mine and began operating it in December 1942.  It was shut down in July 1947, after shipping 2.6 million tons of ore; 167,970 tons alone in fiscal year 1946-47.  The ore was trucked to Kelso and then some 2500 tons a day was shipped via rail to the massive Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana.  As the iron ore was high in sulfur content, it was replaced by low-sulfur ore from Eagle Mountain. In 1947, the Eagle Mountain Railroad was completed and the entire mining and shipping operation shifted to Eagle Mountain.  With that, Kelso reverted back to a railroad town. 


When World War II ended, most of the railroads were switching to diesel-powered engines, so the need for water stops, helper engines and repair facilities diminished.  As a result, Kelso began to fade.  In 1959, the last helper engine left, and Kelso’s heyday was fading.  On August 14, 1964, the last Kelso-obtained, ticked passenger climbed on board the train at the depot, and the west half of the depot shut down.  On May 1, 1971, AMTRAK took over passenger service on the line, but its trains did not stop at Kelso.


By 1979, the depot was falling into disrepair, so the station master and his family moved out.  In 1985, it was finally closed and boarded up and the Union Pacific wanted to demolish the station building.  Public support, intervention by local Congressional representatives and a grass-roots organization called the Kelso Depot Fund, all rallied to save the depot, collecting public sympathy to save it as a valued historic relic.  It was one of the few remaining historic depots in the country.  The Union Pacific agreed, and transferred title to the Kelso Depot Fund.


In 1992, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took control of the site in 1992, and in 1994 the Mojave National Preserve was established.  The building sat vacant until around 2002 when restoration of the depot began.  It was accurately restored back to what it looked like during its glory years of 1924-1945.  Restoration was completed and the building reopened to the public on March 25, 2006.  It currently serves as a museum and visitor center, both for Kelso and for the Mojave National Preserve.  In April 2009, the beanery reopened, serving light meals to the public during the 0900-1700 (9 am-5 pm) timeframe.


Some of Kelso’s remaining buildings, structures and items of interest include the depot (see details above), the LJ Packard Store (which on many websites is misnamed the Post Office), the jail, water tower, along with numerous other unidentified buildings and small homes.   One of my favorites is a round-roofed house that looks different than most houses in ghost towns.


The jail is a two-cell metal cage that was brought to Kelso in 1944, replacing an out-of-service refrigerator car that originally served as the town’s original lock-up.  The cage jail was especially unpopular as it was not inside a building, and most folks tried to avoid having the town constable escort them into the facility!  Both being exposed to passing folks and to the unmerciful sun in the summer, or blustery cold in the winter.  Most of its occupants were miners or workers at the Kaiser mine that came into town and had a little too much to drink.  The little jail truly enforced sobriety!  Sometime after Kelso faded, the jail structure was taken to Barstow and ended up on the grounds of the Barstow Health Department.  In 1993, they desired to get rid of it, so a private couple obtained it and moved it to their property, where it remained until 2005, when it was brought back to Kelso.


One of Kelso’s claims to fame is the fact it was one of the last towns in the state to finally get television reception – in the late 1970s!


Kelso is a fascinating little ghost town to visit, and well worth the jaunt.


Population figures:

·        1970 – 75, 1980 – 75, 1990 – 30, 2000 - 30



·        NE ¼ Sec 25, T11N, R12E, San Bernardino Meridian

·        Latitude: 35.0124884 / 35° 00’ 45” N

·        Longitude: -115.6536072 / 115° 39’ 13” W


This was our Ghost Town of the Month for Sep 2009.





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FIRST POSTED:  September 03, 2009

LAST UPDATED: October 02, 2009


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