A Railroad Through the Desert
Kelso Depot seems like an anomaly in the middle of the desert, but for the Union Pacific, it became a thriving necessity. Since its inception in 1862, the Union Pacific (UP) wanted a foothold on the West Coast. After reaching Portland, Oregon, the UP turned its attention to the rich California markets and the ports around Los Angeles. To get there, it needed to construct a railroad line across the Mojave Desert. Kelso was crucial to reaching that goal.
LA & SL Locomotives at Kelso.
Courtesy Union Pacific Archives
The San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad
In August, 1900, Utah Senator William A. Clark, a wealthy mine owner, bought a small railway in Los Angeles. He used that to start construction on what would become the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. In 1902, the UP made a deal with Clark and purchased half the stock of the railroad before it was even completed. Construction on the line, known as the Salt Lake Route, began at the two ends near Salt Lake and Los Angeles, and spread across the Mojave Desert in between. By 1905, it had grown to nearly 235 track miles and reached Siding #16. It became "Kelso" when two warehousemen put their names into a hat along with that of a third worker, John Kelso, who had previously left the area. They drew a name out and Siding #16 was renamed "Kelso." By the end of 1905, the track stretched from the West Coast port of San Pedro to Salt Lake City, giving the UP access to markets in southern California. Later, the UP convinced Senator Clark to sell his stock in the Salt Lake Route, giving it full ownership of the line.
The original Kelso Depot was built in 1905.
Courtesy Theo Packard
A Railroad Town at Kelso
The steep two percent grade that trains had to climb from west of Kelso to Kessler Summit (later renamed Cima) meant that extra “helper engines” would need to be stationed nearby to help them up the grade. Additionally, steam locomotives of the era desperately needed water. Kelso was perfectly situated to fill both roles, since it is located near the bottom of the 2,078 foot grade, and had a reliable water source from a nearby spring in the Providence Mountains.
The first depot at Kelso opened in 1905, followed a few months later by a post office, an engine house and an “eating house” to serve both railroad employees and the passengers on trains without dining cars. The town grew over time, as more employees were needed and more of their families moved to the Mojave Desert to join them.
During World War II, Kelso's population expanded to nearly 2000.
Courtesy Union Pacific Archives
The Kelso Depot & Clubhouse
In the early 1920s, the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad began planning for new depots, restaurants and employee facilities at several towns, including Kelso. Competition with the Santa Fe Railway was tight and rail passengers had become accustomed to their famously stylish Harvey House train stations. Therefore, railroad managers chose to design the new buildings on the Salt Lake Route in the Spanish Mission Revival style. Doing so, Chairman Lovet wrote, would “add very little to the expense but a great deal to the appearance of the place. It is a dreary country and the lack of anything of this sort contrasts very conspicuously with the Santa Fe.”
Civil engineers working for the railroad in Los Angeles drew up the plans for the “Kelso Clubhouse & Restaurant,” in 1923. The building would include a conductor’s room, telegraph office, baggage room, dormitory rooms for staff, boarding rooms for railroad crewmen, a billiard room, library and locker room. Construction started in 1923 and the depot opened in 1924.
Originally, the restaurant and telegraph office each had three shifts, operating around the clock. This continued through the boom years of the 1940s, when Kaiser’s Vulcan mine caused Kelso’s population to grow to nearly 2,000. The closing of the mine coupled with diesel engines replacing steam resulted in the UP moving jobs and families out of Kelso. The depot function ended in 1962, although the restaurant and boarding rooms were still in use. The advancement of diesel technology led to fewer and fewer crew members needing to eat or stay overnight, so in 1985 the UP decided to close the Kelso Depot entirely.
Kelso Depot in 1992, before a clean-up day. Volunteers worked with the Bureau of Land Management to clean the grounds.
Couresy Bureau of Land Management
Life After Closure
Believing that the now empty building would become “a target for vandalism, unauthorized entrance, and a legal liability,” UP Division Superintendent G.R. Jenson made plans to raze the building. Local residents and others across the region heard about the proposed demolition and began to publicize the building’s plight.
They organized into the Kelso Depot Fund and set about saving the building. While they were able to stop the demolition, the costs of restoration grew too expensive for the group and they turned to local politicians and the federal government for assistance. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) already managed much of the land around Kelso as the East Mojave National Scenic Area, so it made sense for the BLM to gain ownership of the Depot. Members of Congress from the area went to work, and by 1992, the BLM had the title to the building.
With the passage of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, the East Mojave National Scenic Area become Mojave National Preserve and the Depot passed into the hands of the National Park Service. Renovation of the Kelso Depot began in 2002. The building reopened to the public as the new visitor center for Mojave National Preserve in October, 2005.