Administrative History
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Railroads transformed the United States throughout the nineteenth century, prompting development of industry throughout the country and providing conduits for development along their lines. The Mojave desert was in the path for one of the earliest potential locations for the transcontinental railroad, the so-called "35th Parallel Route" or southern route explored by Lieutenant A.W. Whipple in 1854. If chosen for the transcontinental railroad, the 35th Parallel Route would have placed the railroad through the South and given an economic boost to the slave-owning states of pre-Civil War America. Ultimately, the decision of which of three routes to choose for a railroad to the Pacific was shelved because of sectional politics, but within half a century the eastern Mojave desert was crossed by two transcontinental railroads as well as a regional line.

Desert geography and competition between railroad companies dictated placement of the first railroad south of the cross-desert Mojave Road. In most parts of the United States, railroads generally followed existing routes of travel, since they were usually the paths of least geographical resistance, and A.W. Whipple followed the Mojave Road in his 1854 explorations. In the desert, the steepness of the terrain was of less concern to early travelers than the availability of water. As a consequence, the Mojave Road, like the Indian trails it overlaid, traveled through mountain ranges rather than around them. This feature made the track of the Mojave Road unsuitable for railroad use and created another pattern of transportation across the eastern desert. A more moderately graded route was located in 1868 by General William J. Palmer, working for the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division. [40] That railroad was never built, but the Southern Pacific constructed a line through the desert in 1882-83, from Mojave to Needles, largely along Palmer's route. This road was built to forestall competition from the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (A&P), which was controlled by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, more casually known as the Santa Fe. The A&P reached the eastern bank of the Colorado River in May 1883, and the lines were connected three months later, but the Southern Pacific's control of the track through the Mojave precluded its usefulness to the A&P. In 1884, after the Santa Fe threatened to build a line parallel to the Southern Pacific's route in order to allow traffic to pass, the latter railroad sold its desert trackage to the A&P. Although the Santa Fe held control of the A&P since before its construction through the Mojave, the A&P name was used along the line until 1897. Today the line, run by the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, forms much of the park's southern boundary. [41]

In addition to the trans-desert route of the Santa Fe, entrepreneurs constructed shorter railroads to directly service settlements in the eastern Mojave. In 1893, the Nevada Southern Railway was constructed north from Goffs to Manvel, later known as Barnwell, to tap into the mining districts of Southeastern California and Southern Nevada. It promptly went bankrupt, and was reorganized in 1895 as the California Eastern Railway. Six years later, the line was extended into the Ivanpah Valley, and in 1902 was taken over by the Santa Fe Railway. Four years later, the Barnwell and Searchlight Railway was built from Barnwell to the mines at Searchlight, Nevada. After 1918, the Santa Fe abandoned part of its line in the Ivanpah Valley and only ran trains past Barnwell as demand warranted. Several substantial washouts, combined with the unprofitability of the lines, caused the Santa Fe to abandon all of its lines north of Goffs in 1923. [42] Lanfair/Ivanpah Road parallels the former Nevada Southern Railway grade as it proceeds northward from Goffs, then runs directly upon it for part of the distance through the New York Mountains. Sometimes the railroad grade can be seen from Ivanpah/Lanfair Road, washed out in several places. The grade of the line to Searchlight composes much of the road that leads out of the park to the east, toward the Walking Box Ranch.

A second transcontinental railroad crossed the eastern Mojave shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century, and runs through the middle of Mojave National Preserve today. In 1905, Senator William A. Clark of Montana, a mining magnate, built the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad from Salt Lake City southward across Utah, through southern Nevada, and across the Mojave desert to its Pacific Ocean terminus outside of Los Angeles. The Union Pacific Railroad (UP) owned half of Clark's line, an agreement reached in settlement of a building race between the two to complete the original road. In 1921, the Union Pacific took full control of the line, and it built the Kelso Depot in 1924. Clark's railroad was responsible for many of the townsites in the heart of the Preserve, including Kelso, Cima, and Nipton. The UP line met the Santa Fe branch at Leastalk, later known as South Ivanpah and simply Ivanpah. The railroad, though not as busy as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe route to the south, remains today a major transcontinental route. [43]

The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, known colloquially as the "T&T," was built by Francis Marion "Borax" Smith in 1906-1907 to tap his borax mines near Death Valley and the silver and gold mines of central Nevada. The line never did reach the coast or Tonopah, stopping just short of Beatty, Nevada, but served as the "neighborhood railroad" for much of the desert, and passed along the western boundary of the Preserve. [44] The line was consistently unprofitable, and after ceasing operation in 1940, the rails were taken up for scrap metal during World War II. The Tonopah & Tidewater crossed the Union Pacific at Crucero, at the extreme western tip of the Preserve; the railroad berm is still in place in some areas, but the park boundary is just to the east, excluding that resource from the park, except where it crosses the northwest portion of Soda Lake between Soda Station and Baker. Soda Lake was a siding on the Tonopah & Tidewater prior to its development as Zzyzx. [45]

Railroads provided people with a means to live in the desert. Most of the human activity in historic times in the eastern Mojave was related to the railroad, either as a means of transportation of Mojave goods to distant markets, as a means of bringing distant goods to Mojave customers, or as a source of local employment, working for the railroads themselves. Most of the existing communities near or inside the Preserve are legacies of the railroad. Goffs, Fenner, Essex, Needles, and Barstow were all started by the Atlantic & Pacific, later the Santa Fe, while Las Vegas, Nipton, Cima, and Kelso were founded by the Union Pacific. Of nearby communities, only Baker, which was merely a siding on the Tonopah & Tidewater, grew to importance solely during the later highway era. The more than century-long importance of railroading in the development of the east Mojave was reflected in the California Desert Protection Act's explicit reference to the "railroading history of the Old West." [46]


Much of the land in private hands throughout the West was originally owned by the federal government, and was distributed to private owners through one of several mechanisms designed to promote the development of an American yeomanry. The most famous of federal land laws was the Homestead Act, which gave homesteaders the right to stake a claim to a portion of the federal domain that could be theirs for several years of hard work plus a small filing fee. Though the Mojave desert was not nearly as suitable for homesteading as more temperate locations, a series of wet years beginning after the turn of the twentieth century convinced hundreds of homesteader families to move to the area. Though more than half of all homesteaders failed to gain title to the lands they claimed, many others met at least a degree of short-term success. When the Mojave National Preserve was created in late 1994, more than 85,000 acres (exclusive of the Catellus railroad grant lands) within the Preserve remained in private hands. Most of that, some 70,000 acres, was in Lanfair Valley, largely a relic of less than two decades of homesteading activity. [47]

Most of the eastern Mojave was opened to homesteading in 1910. That year, inspired by the gospel of dryfarming techniques, and sensitive to the potential increase in value of property with good access to transportation, Ernest Lanfair, a merchant from Searchlight, claimed a portion of the valley that would later bear his name. His homestead and several others became the heart of a community along the railroad, also named for him. Migration to the area rose sharply in 1912 as word spread of Lanfair's bumper crops and free land. Settlers, referred to derisively by cattlemen as "nesters," established a post office, a general store, and a school. Farther north, a settlement at Ledge had similar amenities. A 1914 Fourth of July community barbecue, hosted by Lanfair, counted some 400 participants. Future residents would rent a boxcar from the Santa Fe Railway, known as an "immigrant car," load all of their possessions, and then meet the car several days later on a siding in Lanfair Valley. Newly arrived migrants staked and recorded their claims, and worked to clear and plant a portion of the land to meet government requirements. Later homesteaders often bought the improvements and claims of former residents who moved before receiving title to the land. That way, the process of gaining title would begin anew, but at least the new arrivals did not have to worry about construction of a place to live. [48]

Nearby, a group of African-Americans attempted to start a homesteading colony for blacks, called Dunbar. Success would "bring freedom to the colored race," in the words of one local newspaper. An attempt to establish an orphanage for black children met with only limited success, and closed within a year. Dunbar had its own post office, but as it was located only 200 yards from the Lanfair facility, the two were merged in 1914. Black homesteaders were not only concentrated at Dunbar, but were scattered throughout the area. One historian emphasized that "black families were among the most persistent and successful of Lanfair Valley homesteaders," citing as proof the seventeen families that carried the process through to receive a patent on their land. Former residents of the area remember a state of racial harmony, with integrated schools, but white settlers excluded blacks from many social functions. In Lanfair Valley, blacks and whites could plow together, but they could not play together. [49]

The homesteaders experienced constant conflict with the Rock Springs Land & Cattle Company. The company considered Lanfair Valley to be some of the best part of its range, and resented the "intrusion" of settlement. The company denied water to the settlers, forcing them to use the few public springs or dig expensive wells. Cattle trampled carefully nurtured crops, sometimes allegedly after the cowboys cut the nesters' fences. In return, the farmers would occasionally help themselves to beef. The cattle company brought in hired thugs, and rumors swirled claiming some homesteaders' cabins burned to ashes under mysterious circumstances.

The Rock Springs Land & Cattle Company was a formidable opponent, but the arid environment proved the undoing of the homesteaders. The rush began during years of unusually heavy rainfall, enabling the success of the experiment. Even during the wet years, farming in Lanfair Valley was a dicey economic proposition, and many homesteading families supplemented their farming incomes with wage work in local mines, in Needles or other railroad communities, and on local ranches. Conditions soon worsened, and the homesteaders found that there simply was not enough moisture to grow crops without irrigation. This fact, combined with the crash in agricultural prices after the resolution of World War I, caused many of the homesteaders to leave. When the Santa Fe abandoned its railroad line through the area in 1923, many left, but others waited a little longer, to achieve ownership of their land so that they could sell it and have something to show for their work. The Rock Springs Company and the OX Cattle outfit purchased many of these homesteads. A few homesteaders stayed into the 1930s, but the farming experiment in the Mojave was essentially over. [50]

The homesteading experience failed largely because of environmental and economic factors, but it left a legacy of land in private ownership inside park boundaries. Additionally, evidence of the activities of the homesteaders can still be seen. Required by law to clear and plant a certain portion of their land, the erstwhile farmers pulled up Joshua trees and creosote and turned over the earth. The large vegetation has not grown back, and the square, open fields are conspicuous in the midst of the dense Lanfair Valley Joshua tree forest.

Modern Roads and Rights of Way

Roads and rights of way cross much of the land of the Mojave National Preserve, evidence of the desert's peripheral role in the development of the modern American transportation infrastructure. Highways, pipelines, and high-voltage power wires alike were designed and intended primarily to transport goods and information through the desert, rather than to points within the area, which enhanced urban development on both sides of the Preserve while leaving the present-day park open to extractive, resource-based activity. Much of the early recorded history of the Mojave Desert is associated with the network of trans-desert trails used by the Mohave and other Native Americans, which later became formalized by the U.S. Army as a wagon road. Railroads, both local and transcontinental, left an important transportation legacy in the eastern Mojave as well. The most important modern roads, Interstates 15 and 40, form much of the boundaries of the park, and trace their roots to the early decades of the twentieth century. Telephone lines, power transmission lines, and pipelines for petroleum and natural gas all snake across the eastern Mojave, as emphasis of the desert's traditional role as a "nowhere" between "somewheres."

Illustration 5 - Former U.S. Highway 66 passes through Essex, California, just south of Mojave National Preserve. (Photo by Eric Nystrom, 2001.)

Present-day Interstate 40 roughly follows the route of U.S. Highway 66, John Steinbeck's famous "mother road." [51] The route developed initially as cross-desert motorists drove as close as possible to the Santa Fe Railway tracks, because the presence of settlements along the line made it easier to obtain supplies and help if necessary. The alignment became known as the National Old Trails Road, as it was progressively graded and developed. The Automobile Club of Southern California placed signs along its route from Los Angeles to Kansas City in 1914 and produced maps of the road to promote its use. The route was designated U.S. Highway 66 in 1926, and paving through the desert was completed by state agencies, assisted by federal funds, by 1931. The road was realigned several times; the initial route through Fenner and Goffs was bypassed in 1931 by a shorter route with a steeper grade. [52] The federal government passed legislation in 1956 that called for the construction of a system of limited access, high speed, multiple lane interstate highways. Construction of Interstate 40 came late in the history of the highway system, beginning in the late 1960s and completed through the desert in 1973. I-40 did not exactly parallel U.S. 66 for much of its length in the Mojave, and the older highway retained its designation until 1985. Since then, it has been known as the National Trails Highway, and sees moderate use as an access road. Nostalgia for Route 66 has increased as the convenience and speed of the interstates has become a fixed part of American culture, and desert towns near the Preserve like Needles, Goffs, Essex, Amboy, and Barstow count Route 66-related tourism as a significant economic strategy. [53]

Early roads from Los Angeles to Las Vegas did not follow the Union Pacific through the desert because of the hazards of heavy sand and unpredictable water levels in the Afton Canyon area. Instead, the road, graded by the state in 1922, skipped to the north, roughly following the Old Spanish Trail, a wagon road contemporary of the Mojave Road. In 1925, the county realigned the route through Baker. Paved in 1932, the name of the road was changed; originally known as the Arrowhead Trail, the highway was designated U.S. 91. Traffic to and from Las Vegas was substantial after World War II, because of the development of Las Vegas as a resort destination. Constructed very close to the alignment of U.S. 91, Interstate 15 was finished through the area by 1964. Almost all of the small service stations supported by U.S. 91 were destroyed by I-15; those that exist today were built after the freeway was completed through the area. [54]

Just as the Mojave is home to roads and railroads that transport goods and people across the desert, the Preserve also has extensive rights of way for other means of transportation - electric utility lines, pipelines for oil and gas, and communication lines. Reportedly, the first transcontinental telephone line, constructed in 1915, once crossed the area that is now the Preserve. In 1964, at the height of the Cold War, AT&T constructed a transcontinental telephone line entirely underground. This cable was designed to be immune to a nuclear attack. The cable itself was buried at least 4 feet deep, and repeating equipment, located every four miles, was housed in a deep concrete vault below a tin shack. These little sheds, located along the access road, were a readily identifiable feature in the desert for many years. The underlying cable was upgraded in the early 1980s to newer technology. [55]

power lines
Illustration 6 - High-tension power wires and associated infrastructure mark one of Mojave National Preserve's most important utility corridors. (Photo by Eric Nystrom, 2002.)

Many major electric transmission lines cross the Preserve, and several more are located just outside park boundaries. The first transmission lines to Hoover Dam, designed to bring electricity to the construction site, pass along the northern boundary of the Clark Mountain area, along with several other power lines and buried fiber optic cables. Two 220 kV lines from Hoover Dam, plus a 500 kV line from the Eldorado power plant in Nevada, cross the Ivanpah Valley in the middle of the Preserve. Southern California Edison began construction on the Hoover Dam line in 1936, and helped by a construction contractor with a portable camp for workers, finished the job in 1939. A second line to the dam was completed in 1942 along the same route. The towers included anti-nesting guards to keep birds away. The line to the Eldorado plant was completed in 1971. A similar 500 kV line, originating at Southern California Edison's Mohave plant near Laughlin and known as the Mohave-Lugo line, crosses the southern portion of the Preserve. [56]

Petroleum pipelines also traverse the Preserve. Southern California Gas Company constructed a 34-inch high-pressure pipeline in 1964, to carry natural gas from its sources in Oklahoma and Texas to Los Angeles. The pipeline is four to six feet underground, and is co-located west of Essex Road with Southern California Edison's Mohave-Lugo electric line. Just inside the northern boundary of the Preserve, from the western boundary near Soda Springs to the Halloran Springs area, CALNEV Pipe Line Company maintains two high-pressure pipelines that carry ninety-nine percent of all petroleum products to Las Vegas. Use of the smaller, eight-inch line began in 1961. As its 14-inch replacement entered service in 1973, the older line was shut down, but reactivated ten years later due to high demand. Almost three million gallons of petroleum products move through the lines each day. The twin petroleum pipelines, buried three feet deep, contain electronically controlled shutoff valves every fifteen miles, which take three minutes to close. [57]

The development of nationwide transportation infrastructure since the construction of the railroads left a legacy in the eastern Mojave. Routes for automobiles and trucks, first in the guise of U.S. highways and later as high-speed interstate freeways, played an important role in the development of the desert and surrounding urban areas and provide important routes of transcontinental travel. Massive electric transmission lines from Hoover Dam and modern coal-fired power plants were built across the Mojave in the late 1930s and early 1940s and again in the early 1970s. Beginning in the early 1960s, two separate pipelines began to carry fossil fuels across the desert, to Las Vegas and to Los Angeles, and a Cold War-era underground communication cable also commenced service. All of these highlighted that the Mojave desert was a place to transport things through, not to, and reinforced the status of the desert as an unwanted place.

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Last Updated: 05-Apr-2004