When was the last time you traveled along I40 and I15 in California? Out of Los Angeles up Cajon Pass, elevation 3,777′, to Barstow, along I15 or I40 taking in all the sights of the great California Mojave Desert. When a person gets to Barstow they may think it an extremely dull drive across that desert. There is a lot of history associated with this area of our nation.
You all have seen some of the signs along the interstates, places like the Mojave River Museum, Joshua Tree National Monument, the towns of Kelso, Cima, and Vanderbilt CA. Like to talk just a little about the great scenery in this area and some of the history. A little something to think about as you are driving along or some things to see when you give up your driving jobs.
The Mojave Desert could be one of the most picturesque places in our nation. Mainly because it is surrounded by three different mountain ranges. The Tehachapi Mountains to the west, and the San Gabriel Mountains and San Bernardino Mountains to the south. The mountain perimeters are distinct mainly because they are defined by the two biggest faults in California – the San Andreas and Garlock faults. Many of the higher elevations are well above 2000′, but the desert also has the lowest place in North America, Death Valley at 280′ below sea level. The Mojave Desert consumes less than 50,000 square miles, creating the smallest desert in North America.
The Mojave Desert receives less than 13 inches of rain per year. The Mojave also contains the hottest place in North America, Death Valley, where the temperature often surpasses 120 F from late June to early August. The Mojave Desert is a desert of temperature opposites and two unique seasons. Winter months offer daytime temperatures, which periodically fall to around 25 F on the valley floor and below 0 F at the highest elevations. The highest elevation inside the Mojave is Charleston Peak at 11,918 ft. though the Badwater Basin of Death Valley is 279 ft below sea level. Appropriately, temperature and rainfall ranges significantly in all seasons.
The Mojave River Valley Museum, found in Barstow, situated at the center of the Mojave region, the museum is loaded with objects related to valley history and geology. Available is a large area devoted to the Calico Early Man Archaeological Site discoveries, including 200,000-year-old chipped stone tools. Dr. Louis Leakey, among others, believed that the Mojave may be one of the earliest sites of human habitations in the New World, and until his death in 1972 he supervised the Calico dig.
Information from other archaeological locations is on exhibit, such as the 15 million-year-old bones of a three-toed horse at the Barstowian fossil beds and the teeth of 15 million-year-old camel. There are also items from the Chemehuevi Indian society, and a gruesomely intriguing case containing the remains of an unknown “headless horseman” and the weapons that evidently belonged to him. A block from the museum is the Barstow Way Station, an information center in which tours of the Calico Early Man Site can easily be organized.
Has anyone wondered what the area northeast of Ludlow, CA is? The East Mojave National Scenic area, home to the Joshua Tree National Monument. This is the heart and soul of the desert: clear skies; fresh, clean air, and more than half-million acres of amazing landforms, vegetation, and animals. The region is the combination of two deserts – the Colorado to the east and the higher, much cooler, and moister Mojave in the western portion of the monument, in which the Joshua trees grow.
All these strange trees – with their hairy bark similar to a pelt of sturdy fur and their distorted branches having clusters of spiny dried leaves – could hardly be envisioned, but once seen, they can never be disregarded. Great muddled mounds of enormous round boulders appear at random among the trees, adding to the dreamlike characteristics of the landscape.
I know many of you have seen the signs for this area while driving along I 40, but I can assure you this is worth a look when you have a chance. If you have a day to take in all the beauty of this area is well worth the time. In the monument’s northeast entry is the Oasis Visitor Center, in which indeed there is an oasis – Twentynine Palms. From the middle, a road goes south through the Colorado Desert, where cholla cactus and scarlet-flowering ocotillo thrust their thorny limbs above patches of creosote shrubbery, the prevalent form of plant life here. The beauty of this area is not describable, you must take a look in person.
What about a couple of old ghost towns – Kelso and Cima, CA. Kelso is a ghost town, named after railroad employee John H. Kelso, whose name was put into a hat together with two other workers to determine the name of the town. The town was constructed in 1905 particularly as a railroad station along the rail line between Utah and Los Angeles, initially called “Siding 16”, because of its placement and nearby springs that supplied abundant water.
Beginning as what was a plain train depot in the 1920s, the town of Kelso flourished temporarily to as many as 2000 citizens in the 1940s, when the borax and iron mines were put into operation nearby. Gold and silver were also found in the nearby hills of what was known as the Kelso area. The community shrank once more when the mines closed after about a decade.
The depot continued operation until 1986. Left to the severe environment in the desert, the building began to decline. By the mid-1990s the railroad was on the verge of tearing down the depot. Preservationists then moved in to save it. It was recently remodeled to become the Mojave National Preserve’s visitor facility. The renovation was finalized in 2005 and the depot is now available to the public.
Cima was started circa 1900 when H.C. Gibson founded the first store. In 1905 the first post office opened in the store. Gibson refused to pump the gas for his customers and therefore may have created the first self-service station in the country. The town offered both a railroad siding and a commercial center for ranchers and miners.
A handful of people currently live in the area. In fact, like the neighboring town of Kelso to the southwest, Cima is now usually regarded as a ghost town. However, both towns still see considerable activity on the Union Pacific rail line that helped bring the towns into existence. Between Kelso and Cima sits the Cima Grade, the steepest portion of the line between the Los Angeles area and Las Vegas. The tracks jump 2,000 feet (610 m) in 20 miles (32 km). The two towns also lie inside of the Mojave National Preserve, with the accompanying tourist activity.
Around January 1891, an Indian known as Robert Black struck gold ore on the north slope of the New York Mountains, approximately 40 miles north of Goffs, California, on the Santa Fé Railway. A mining camp was quickly established near Vanderbilt Spring. The discovery of further gold-rich veins in the fall of 1892 set off a race to the region.
In January 1893, 150 people were residing at Vanderbilt camp, which included 50 tents, two stores, one saloon, three restaurants, a lodging house, a blacksmith shop, and a stable. A post office was developed in February 1893. In May, W. A. Nash was selected as the justice of the peace. Rail service to Manvel, five miles to the south, began that August.
Vanderbilt most likely achieved its peak in 1894 with a population of around four hundred. The business district included three saloons; two barbers; a Chinese restaurant and two other dining places; two meat markets; and fruit store; one lodging house; two blacksmiths; and three well-equipped general stores. William McFarlane, one of the leaders of Ivanpah, owned an interest in one of them, in which he ran the post office, and possessed a drugstore.
Throughout 1894 two ten-stamp mills were developed to serve the two primary mines in the region, the Gold Bronze, and Boomerang. At just about the same time the mills were completed, water was hit in the mines. After striking water, the characteristics of the ore transformed and being unable to recover the gold in the ore, the mills were closed. At the end of 1895 many businesses were closed and the majority of the population had departed from Vanderbilt.
Something to Think About
I know when I was driving, I was always curious about the areas we drove through. Many times you would see the signs for Joshua Tree National Monument, Kelso or Vanderbilt CA and my thoughts turned to what had happened in those towns or what is the significance of the Joshua National Monument? Now that we are retired, my wife and I plan to travel to some of these places and spend some time, read about the history and find out what took place there many years ago.
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