Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 16, 2016

Preserved: Railroad Depot; Kelso, California

In a recent post, HERE, I wrote about an old railroad depot in Glendale, California that has been restored and now serves Amtrak and other rail passengers in the suburb of Los Angeles.

This is a theme I’ll explore further. As I mentioned in that article, the West is full of old depots, and while some are derelict and abandoned, others have been maintained or restored.

That’s the case of the Kelso Depot in the Mojave Desert of California.

IMG_9089 Willard Nixon

Built in 1923, the depot served passengers and was a water stop for steam locomotives. The architecture’s a combination of Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial.

IMG_9073 Willard Nixon

It was a desert oasis for passengers, and also served heavy freight traffic on the Union Pacific line carrying ore from nearby mines. UP was in fierce competition with the Santa Fe line, and the Kelso station was one portion of their effort to provide spiffy, upscale accommodations.

IMG_9079 Willard Nixon

The location was a critical one for operations, because ore trains needed helper engines to traverse a long grade up out of the mining country. That meant there was a large number of UP personnel and a lot of rolling stock and maintenance services associated with Kelso.

After WWII, a number of factors converged to make Kelso redundant. Passenger rail traffic declined as the automobile took over, the ore from the mines was no longer a prime commodity, and the advent of more powerful diesel locomotives required fewer helper engines, less maintenance and services, and fewer personnel in Kelso.

Passenger service ceased in 1964, and Union Pacific eventually moved all operations elsewhere. Local preservation efforts succeeded in saving the structure from demolition proposed in 1983, but the building sat unused for 20 years.

At exactly the time I saw it, in 2002, restoration of the building began, and in 2005 it reopened as the Visitor Center for the vast Mojave National Preserve.

Fortunately, Willard Nixon, a tireless traveler who roams the West, camera at the ready, has been to the site and provides a look at the restored Kelso Depot.

IMG_9072 Willard Nixon

Sadly, the formal gardens and exotic trees, with the exception of the date palms, didn’t survive the desert climate during the long period of disuse, but the building looks great. I look forward to returning.

IMG_9082 Willard Nixon

IMG_9080 Willard Nixon

IMG_9068 Willard Nixon

Kelso’s in the middle of a desert. Another worthwhile site just a mile or two away is the Kelso Dune Field, which I wrote about HERE. It’s a haul from LA to the southwest or Las Vegas to the northeast, but they just don’t locate vast deserts conveniently for day-trippers.

Kelso California Map

Kelso’s circled in red. If you come in via Interstate 15 to the north, you’ll have a chance to pass through Zzyzx, circled in blue. Turn off at Baker and head south to reach Kelso. I-40 is the East-West route to the south, and there’s access to Kelso there, as well, out between Barstow and Kingman.

Have you been there? Have another favorite old depot? I always welcome your comments.

© Brad Nixon and Willard Nixon, 2016. All photos by Willard Nixon, all rights reserved.


  1. I like taking the Surfrider Amtrak line from Orange County where I live to San Diego, CA, instead of making the 2 hr. drive in gridlock. It’s a delightful trip along the coast, and there’s a spectacular view of the gleaming white Presidio Miission high on a hill across from Mission Bay as you approach downtown San Diego. There are a couple of old historic train depots there, one in historic Old Town, and the other in downtown.


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