Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Depot Information Center
Built in 1924 by the Union Pacific Railroad, the Kelso Depot has been transformed into Mojave National Preserve’s principal information center, with museum exhibits, historically furnished rooms, a theater, and bookstore. Click here for a video.
The town of Kelso was founded in 1906 when the railroad was completed across the Mojave Desert. The town was named for a warehouse worker, John H. Kelso. He and two others wrote their names on pieces of paper and put them into a hat. Kelso's name was drawn.
The town quickly grew after the Union Pacific Railroad realized more than just a simple small-framed building was needed to provide water for the steam locomotives. A full station was needed that would allow crews to be changed and provide extra engines so that the trains could make it up the steep Cima grade. The steam locomotives took on water before starting the grueling climb from Kelso to the top of Cima Summit, an elevation gain of 2,000 feet in just 18 miles.
The Union Pacific Railroad built Kelso Depot in 1924. The elegant, two-story building had two small rooms upstairs and a central bath for railroad employees, a telegraph office and a waiting room for passengers.
The town boomed in the 1940s when nearly 2,000 people lived in and around Kelso. The Kaiser Steel Mill opened the Vulcan Mine in 1942 to provide iron needed for World War II. The mine was located nine miles south of Kelso, and trains were rolling through carrying more than 2,500 tons of ore a day to the mill in Fontana, California.
Kaiser closed the Vulcan Mine after the war because the ore contained too much sulfur. Diesel locomotives replaced the steam engines and Kelso Depot was no longer needed to water the steam locomotives. By the 1950s, the once thriving town of Kelso was declining.
In the 1970s, the Depot again became a gathering place. Groups like the Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society and the Sierra Club often took trips to Kelso. The reliable water that had been drawing a card for the railroad now drew outdoor enthusiasts. Visitors enjoyed relaxing by the tracks as trains chugged their way past. Some came just to watch the many birds drawn by the water.
Subsidizing Kelso Depot was not economical for the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1985 the depot was closed and plans made to demolish it. Local citizens, managers of East Mojave National Scenic Area, as well as Congressman Jerry Lewis, spoke out strongly against moving the structure, much less tearing it down.
In June of 1985, Congressman Lewis articulated what Kelso Depot had become when he wrote to Union Pacific's Chair of the Board, "This history of our country, and its western expansion, is linked with the history of your railroad... I am sure you share my belief that the beauty of that area is enhanced and enriched by such historical edifices and sites as the Kelso train depot."
Indeed, the depot at Kelso has become a symbol of the West and much more than just a watering hole for the railroad. Visit Mojave National Preserve and the Kelso Depot to see a bit of the history that made the West what it is today. In 1992 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) purchased the depot and an adjacent lot for one dollar. With support from local citizens, the BLM was able to start the structure's stabilization by adding Plexiglas coverings over windows and removing hazardous asbestos from the structure's interior. With the 1994 passage of the California Desert Protection Act, the responsibility of continuing to save this structure was passed to the National Park Service.
The depot is 35 miles south of Baker, California.
From I-15, exit at Kelbaker Road and drive south 35 miles to Kelso.
From I-40, exit at Kelbaker Road and drive north 22 miles to Kelso.
The Kelso Depot is open every day except Christmas from 9am to 5pm. There is an art gallery and a bookstore.
Restrooms and water are available at Kelso Depot. Drinks and limited snacks are available at Cima, 19 miles northeast of Kelso on Kelso-Cima Road.
Phone: 760 252-6108
Gasoline is available on I-15 at Baker and at the Cima Road exit, and on I-40 at Ludlow and Fenner.
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