Thanks to an impromptu Valentine’s Day trip to the desert, I’m now fascinated with ghost towns — specifically the boom and bust towns that are scattered throughout California. Whether the towns were mining spots that had big populations looking to strike it rich, or working class areas that boomed during war time, the towns are out there, and, oddly, they still have a lot to intrigue travelers.
One of my favorite spots on the trip was to a place called Kelso (about 35 miles south of Baker). It’s not technically deserted, though far fewer than the 75 residents who were reported in the 1975 census still live there. Most residents appear to be connected to the National Park Service, as the area is part of the Mojave National Preserve.
Kelso hit its boom days during World War II when troops, tanks and trucks were shipped through the town via the railroad. In order to service those needs, the town attracted helper crews and mechanics. Iron ore from a nearby mine was also in need, and shipped via freight from the Kelso Depot. As a result, more temporary housing was built in Kelso by Union Pacific Railroad and Kaiser Steel.
When the technology changed, and fewer crews were needed for servicing, and the war ended, the Kelso Depot, and the town built to support it, slowly faded away.
Why did I love Kelso? There are two reasons in my mind to add Kelso to your travel plans: Kelso Depot and the Kelso Dunes.
In 1924, the Kelso Clubhouse and Restaurant opened to service the needs of those traveling by train. it was designed with a conductor’s room, telegraph office, crewmen’s boarding rooms, a baggage room and a restaurant. Today, visitors can still look into these areas and get a sense of what train travel was like in the 20s and 40s, as the Depot has been restored and is maintained as a museum. Not only is there a lot of information about the rise of Kelso, but it also provides
visitors with a great deal of information about the railroads of the early 20th century.
The museum is staffed by a terrific team who happily supplies information about the history of the Depot, of Kelso, and travel information about the attractions in the reserve. The museum is free, but there is a donation box to help supplement the costs of keeping the museum running.
Thanks to the very helpful people at Kelso Depot, we wandered off in the direction of the Kelso Dunes. According to the National Park Service, “Kelso Dunes were created over the course of 25,000 years by winds carrying sand grains from the dried Soda Lake and Mojave River Sink.” It’s an impressive thing to witness. We could hear a booming sound as we stood facing the dunes (and that’s about all you can hear as there is near silence otherwise). We assumed it was a plane we could barely see overhead, but, in fact, it was the sound that the sand made as it slid down the slopes.