- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

KELSO, Calif. — In the middle of the Mojave Desert, the red tile roof, brick plazas and elegant stone arches of a palatial California mission-style building appear like a mirage beside three towering palm trees in the shimmering sand.

This is the Kelso Depot, an abandoned Union Pacific Railroad station, 125 miles west of Las Vegas. Although freight trains still run on the tracks out front, the grand station — built in 1923 — has not been used in 20 years. The 2,000 people who once lived in Kelso, where iron ore was mined during World War II, have dwindled to about a dozen.

But Kelso Depot will soon become alive again. The National Park Service is converting the two-story building into the main information center for the Mojave National Preserve, where the Sonoran, Mojave and Great Basin deserts converge. With 1.6 million acres, the preserve is the third-largest unit of the National Park Service outside of Alaska; nearly half of it designated as wilderness.

“The variation in landscapes and plants and animals is incredible,” says James Woolsey, chief of interpretation for the Mojave Preserve. “You go from salt flats that fry at 120 degrees in the summer to mountains that are forested with pinyon pine and juniper and on the very top white fir trees.”

When the visitors center opens in the fall, it will have 10 rooms of exhibits, a reading room where you can learn about the desert, and historically furnished rooms.

The original station had a telegraph office, a waiting room for passengers and a place for railroad workers to sleep. Later a restaurant known as the Beanery opened in the building; its ceiling fans, long counters and swiveling stools remain in good condition. Plans call for the Beanery to reopen in mid-2006 with a simple menu based on what was served in the original restaurant.

Besides educating visitors about the park, the Kelso Depot, halfway between Interstates 15 and 40, will serve as a welcome oasis for travelers. The nearest town, Baker, is 35 miles away.

Several of the park’s attractions are a short drive from the station. A volcanic area with 32 cinder cones — large conical hills formed by lava flows thousands of years ago — is on Kelbaker Road, between Baker and Kelso. The Kelso Dunes, golden mounds of sand that rise 700 feet high, are about 10 miles away. The world’s largest Joshua tree forest, at Cima Dome, is 20 miles away.

The depot’s twin station in Caliente, Nev., about five hours away, has been turned into a town hall and library. Union Pacific originally planned to tear Kelso Depot down, but area residents and Rep. Jerry Lewis, California Republican, successfully fought to preserve the building. When the Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994, the depot was a natural for a visitors center. “It really is stunning,” Mr. Woolsey says, “located in the middle of nowhere, in beautiful desert country.”

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