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History - Railroads of the Mojave Desert:
Railroads around the Mojave National Preserve

The Salt Lake Route

Another railroad destined to operated through the heart of what now is Mojave National Preserve, from northeast to southwest, would operate under three different names: San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad from its completion in 1905 until 1916; Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad from 1916 to 1988; and overlapping with that second name, Union Pacific Railroad from the 1920s to the present.

The idea of a railroad connecting Salt Lake City with southern California probably went back practically to completion of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Station in May 1969, which was followed by construction of the Utah Central from Ogden on the Union Pacific to Salt Lake City, making the capitol of Utah Territory a railroad town, and the Union Pacific would soon take over the Mormon-built Utah Central.

The first concrete evidence of Union Pacific intentions consisted of the Union Pacific interests pushing construction of a subsidiary Utah Southern southwest from Salt Lake City to Milford, Utah. Union Pacific interests then played with the idea of an extension southwestward across Utah and Nevada to a connection with the Southern Pacific at Mojave, but the Union Pacific entered an era of financial difficulty and reorganization in the 1880s and 1890s, though during 1888 Union Pacific surveyors worked on a line from Milford to Barstow with the intention of reaching Los Angeles. In 1890 the Union Pacific actually built about 145 miles of grade from Milford to Pioche, but after laying a mere eight miles of track on it, construction stalled.

Then the faltering Union Pacific went into bankruptcy in the silver crash of 1893 and was not reorganized and rejuvenated under the direction of Edward Henry Harriman until 1898. Meanwhile the railroad picture became greatly complicated, more a part of Utah’s history than that of Mojave National Preserve, and while the Union Pacific was stalled, in 1900 a copper magnate from Butte, Montana, named William Andrews Clark, who was also a United States Senator, entered the competition initiating a two year contest between Clark and Harriman.

In a brilliant move, Clark bought the Los Angeles Terminal Railway, which gave him a railroad route through and base in Los Angeles, and initiated surveys for a railroad to Salt Lake. Covertly he had also bought the assets of a corporation that had never built any railroad, the Utah and California Railroad, which however had rights to a surveyed route from Salt Lake City across Utah to the Nevada state border. In one brief coup, Clark had the two ends of his Salt Lake to Los Angeles Railroad; now he had to acquire rights across Nevada and the rest of California, and build a railroad between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles using those rights.

What followed was an incredibly complex contest between Clark and Harriman involving lawyers, courts, legislatures, newspapers, competing grading crews, and every weapon either magnate could bring to bear, the result of which was a secret compromise on July 9, 1902, in which Harriman agreed to sell portions of Union Pacific-owned (technically Oregon Short Line Railroad) grade and track to Clark in exchange for 50 per cent of the stock in Clark’s San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. Thereafter, construction continued eastward from Los Angeles and westward from Utah, to a joining of the rails at an empty piece of Nevada desert roughly 27 miles west of Las Vegas on the afternoon of January 30, 1905.

As was typical of railroads at the beginning of the 20th Century, the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad established side tracks or passing tracks often accompanied by a section house and bunk house for the maintenance crews known as section gangs about every ten or fifteen miles along the railroad, some of these with water tanks to provide locomotives with boiler water, occasionally a wye track, and so forth. The railroad established a number of these across what now is Mojave National Preserve, the most important being a “helper station” at a place called Kelso, which would be a base for “helper” locomotives which would be coupled on the front of eastbound trains to “help” them climb the grade to the summit at Cima, after which the helper locomotives would be uncoupled, turned on the wye track at Cima, and run back “light” or without train to Kelso to await their next helper assignment. As a helper station, Kelso required an engine house and eventually its replacement with a larger roundhouse, and crews of mechanics and others to help keeping the railroad running, as well as a restaurant or eating house and some accommodations for train crews staying overnight between runs. Thus Kelso, in the middle of the Mojave Desert at a location where the railroad had acquired springs and wells to serve as reliable sources for boiler water for locomotives, became a railroad company town, with company housing and other such facilities.

The first through passenger train on the new railroad started out from Salt Lake City for Los Angeles on February 9, 1905, carrying, among others, Senator Clark. The Salt Lake Route was equipped with a stable of modern standard gauge steam locomotives, most equipped with partly cylindrical Vanderbilt tenders, and the latest of passenger cars. It soon had a premiere train, The Los Angeles Limited, which would remain the most prestigious, Pullman-sleeping-car-equipped train on the railroad. Whereas most of the line’s passenger trains stopped for the passengers to have meals at stations such as Kelso, Las Vegas, Caliente, and Milford, The Los Angeles Limited had its own dining car and did not need to make meal stops. It was not until the mid-1930s brought new technology of locomotives powered by Winton and later diesel-electric engines pulling new “lightweight” streamlined passenger cars that a still newer train, the Armour yellow City of Los Angeles eclipsed the Limited as the principal train on the line.

The railroad remained the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad until 1916 when management of the line decided to shorten the name, dropping the words “San Pedro” to make it simply the “Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad.” Five years later, in 1921, the company persuaded Senator Clark to sell his 50 per cent interest in the line, and the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad. Unlike most such instances, when the Union Pacific dissolved and absorbed the property of a subsidiary into its own corporate structure, in the case of the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad, the Union Pacific retained it as a separate company until 1988, when it was finally dissolved and absorbed into the Union Pacific Railroad. Until that time it was common for locomotives owned by the L.A.& S.L. to carry the name “UNION PACIFIC” in large letters but to have elsewhere on cabs or tenders or both of steam locomotives the initials “L.A.& S.L.”

Commonly called the Salt Lake Route, the line featured a number of fairly ordinary depots and eating houses, many of them wood frame, until the early 1920s when Union Pacific management caught a contagious disease that might be termed either “Santa Fe Envy” or “Fred Harvey Envy.” The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe System had worked out with an entrepreneur named Fred Harvey in the 1870s an agreement under which Harvey took over and managed railroad depot eating houses and depot hotels. Harvey had very definite ideas about how such establishments should be operated, hired first rate chefs, obtained the highest quality of fresh meat, poultry and produce, installed the finest of linen and china, and employed energetic young women uniformed in black dresses with white aprons as waitresses, this in an era where railroad eating houses were notorious for their awful coffee, their stale sandwiches with desiccated bread, rancid meat, and rubberized cheese, greasy China and implements, and dirty employees. After the Santa Fe bankruptcy in the 1890s and its reorganization, under a new president named Edward Payson Ripley the company began hiring first rate architects to build attractive permanent depot hotels, depots and eating houses in Spanish mission revival, English Tudor half-timbered, Moorish and neo-classical Palladian designs. This was the competition the Union Pacific faced after the end of World War I, and west of Mojave National Preserve at Barstow the Santa Fe and Fred Harvey had their Moorish-style depot hotel and restaurant known as Casa de Desierto, or “house of the desert,” and east of Mojave National Preserve at Needles the railway had its neo-classical, Palladian Harvey House and restaurant known as “El Garces” after a Spanish padre of that name, both impressive pieces of architecture. Worse, west of Daggett through Barstow and over Cajon Pass to San Bernardino, the Union Pacific shared joint trackage with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, so that westbound travelers on Union Pacific trains who had been fed at little board and batten eating houses across Utah, Nevada and at Kelso, now passed by the elegant depot restaurants and hotels the Santa Fe had to offer its passengers. Eastbound, after passing such structures, they were then faced with the Salt Lake Route’s rough facilities from Daggett to Salt Lake City. So it should not be surprising that by the early 1920s the Union Pacific, infected with Fred Harvey envy, should decide to build at Milford, Utah, Caliente and Las Vegas, Nevada, and Kelso and Daggett, California, attractive new depot-eating-house-hotel combinations all in the California mission revival style, emulating the style of some of the Harvey Houses such as the Alvarado in Albuquerque. And thus it was in 1923 and 1924 that Kelso, California acquired a spiffy new depot, eating house and hostelry which the National Park Service now owns and has just finished restoring as a visitor center for Mojave National Preserve.

The Union Pacific continued operating passenger trains through Kelso until 1971, when the Federally chartered National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak, took over most of the national’s passenger trains. On the Salt Lake Route, Amtrak operated a through streamlined passenger train known as the Desert Wind between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles until May 10, 1997, when it was discontinued, and earlier operated a “Las Vegas Fun Train” between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Nevada. Since the discontinuance of the Desert Wind. the Salt Lake Route has experienced no passenger traffic across its line. Only freight trains now pass across Mojave National Preserve, but freight traffic has grown to such proportions that the Union Pacific is preparing to convert the main line across Mojave from single track to double track. Meanwhile, the Salt Lake Route from its completion in 1905 to the present, connecting with the Union Pacific at Salt Lake City and Ogden, has offered that company another transcontinental railroad connection as well as access to the markets of southern California, so with its operation Mojave National Preserve had not only one transcontinental railroad along part of its southern boundary, but another right across its heart!

In this photograph, the Desert Wind (Ogden-Las Vegas-Los Angeles) has a varied consist of old and new rail cars. Behind the locomotives are a Heritage Baggage car; Heritage Sleeping car; Amdinette; and bi-level Superliner coaches. The single-level Amfleet equipment, built mainly for use in the East and Midwest, was introduced in 1975, and the Superliners, designed for use on western long-distance routes, went into service in 1979. The Desert Wind was not equipped with Superliners until June 1980. Located about 40 miles northeast of Barstow, California, Afton Canyon was carved by the Mojave River, which for most of the year is not visible above ground.

The Desert Wind was established in 1979 during a major route restructuring mandated by Congress. Years later, the train was combined with the California Zephyr east of Salt Lake City for through service to Chicago. In 1997, the train was discontinued.

Photographer: Unknown for Amtrak.


Los Angeles Limited

Beginning in 1905 the Los Angeles Limited was the flagship train of the Union Pacific between Chicago and Los Angeles.

In the 1950s ridership on the Los Angeles Limited declined rapidly.
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