Not unlike a lonely, quiet, two-lane highway, there is something that is incredibly and romantically alluring, while at the same time quite sad, about a set of rusty, unused, and weed grown railroad tracks disappearing off into the horizon. They are all that remnants of something once great, now forlorn and forgotten, rusting away and succumbing to the forces of nature. They draw me and make me want to walk down them, to find out why and what they were used for, and to imagine them in their heyday.
Out in the Mojave Desert East of Palm Springs – for a few more weeks anyway – are the remnants of the old Eagle Mountain Railroad. I’d first saw this rail line in February of 2014 -- the first winter I spent living here in the desert. I’d been out on my bike Angus photographing an abandoned gas station in Desert Center when I passed over the tracks on the I-10 overpass. I exited and circled back to look at the old rusty sagebrush choked line heading off towards the distant mountains. I had vaguely recalled something about an iron mine in the mountains here and figured that was the line to it. Later, I started doing some research and found that it was indeed the Eagle Mountain Railroad, built to haul iron ore from the Eagle Mountain mine down to what was then the Southern Pacific transcontinental mainline. But it wasn’t until this spring when my long-time friend and fellow rust aficionado Dave Harmer came for a visit that I got to explore the Eagle Mountain in more detail.
What we found was not only fascinating but a great history lesson as well. And as it turns out, just in the nick of time, for earlier this month a rail scrap company began taking up the tracks of the Eagle Mountain. The Eagle Mountain Railroad was built in 1947-1948 to tap into a vast iron ore reserve in the Eagle Mountains and to fuel the huge steel mill that the great industrialist Henry Kaiser built in Fontana, California during WW II to provide steel for his shipbuilding enterprises. And like most research, one finds out things one wasn’t really looking for as one follows the research wherever it leads. Old Henry Kaiser was quite a guy – in the age when this country actually built giant projects and created big things other than software and smart phone apps. He started with a construction company that was part of the consortium that built Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams, went on to build the Colorado River Aqueduct, and then got into ship-building. To provide steel for the ships, he built a steel mill, to get iron and coal for the mill he bought mines and railroads. Later he bought aluminum smelters to provide aluminum for plane manufacturing. If one didn’t know better one might think he was a character from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In a way, maybe he was. In her journals, apparently, Rand came West to interview Kaiser and tour his facilities as she was writing Atlas Shrugged in the 1950s. Is it a coincidence that a main character in her novel is one Henry Reardon -- of Reardon Steel, Reardon Ore, Reardon Coal etc.?
(In an ironic and interesting “six degrees of separation” kind of connection, Kaiser’s Fontana mill got its coal from a mine at Sunnyside, Utah, along the now abandoned Carbon County Railroad – a line Dave and I had also explored some two years ago, and that was abandoned a couple of years before Eagle Mountain was. You can read about it here: http://grgardner.livejournal.com/95813.html)
But we’ll have to leave Henry Kaiser’s accomplishments for another day. The Eagle Mountain was 51 miles long – running from a connection with the Southern Pacific at a place along the Salton Sea named “Ferrum Junction” (Latin for iron) – East and over the mountains to the Eagle Mountain Mine. It was built in two years and was one of the longest new rail construction projects of the century. The maximum gradient was 2.2 percent, and it had one long 500-foot trestle over the Salt Creek Wash as well as a few cuts and smaller bridges in it’s somewhat serpentine climb over the mountains to the mine. In its heyday of the 1950s to the 1970s it would send two 100-car loaded ore trains west from the mine each day to the connection with the SP to be forwarded to the mill at Fontana, and bring back two empty trains a day left by the Southern Pacific. As steel production waned this tapered off in the late 1970s to one train a day and by the mid 80s it was down to one a week. After the mill closed in 1984 the railroad would gradually ship the stockpiled ore left at the mine out for sale overseas until it too was gone. The mine closed down, the town of Eagle Mountain became a modern ghost town, and the railroad stopped running. The last train ran on March 24, 1986. The rails have been quiet since then.
So, on an early March morning we set out in the Hummer to explore what we could of the remains of this mining railroad that has sat unused out in the desert for thirty years now – slightly under half of its life. Here is Dave examining a washout on the railroad near the massive mine which you can see in the far horizon while my boyfriend Eric who joined in on his first foray into the odd world of Gary and Dave stuff is down in the wash looking at spikes and other rusty things.
That location is at the bottom of “Caution Hill”, so named because trains stopped here after coming down the grade from the mountain to cool their brakes. The tracks wander through the Mojave Desert for 51 miles and we were able to – with the traction of the trusty Hummer – able to follow along for a good 80% of it. With no regular maintenance of the tracks or the culverts over the desert washes in the ensuing 30 years since the mine shut down there are numerous washouts caused by periodic heavy rains and flash floods. It’s a testament to the construction of this line, using very heavy rail, that despite the washouts the tracks are in relatively good condition considering.
The huge trestle at Salt Creek Wash still stands. This was the longest bridge on the railroad and carries the tracks over the main water channel coming down the West slope of the mountains.
Very little still exists at the end of the line – Ferrum Junction, where the Eagle Mountain connected with the former Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific “Sunset Route” transcontinental mainline. There is a small maintenance shed, and a few storage tracks where trains of loads were left for the SP to pick up and trains of empties were returned by SP to be taken back up over the mountains to the mine for yet another load of ore.
When the Union Pacific did some major track work here a few years ago they, apparently unbeknownst to Kaiser who still owns the tracks, disconnected the Eagle Mountain from the interchange, so now the tracks just dead end and there is no connection to the national rail network anymore. Rail traffic has changed in the 80 years since the Eagle Mountain was built and the 30 years since it shut down. The old SP is gone; the Union Pacific has created a high-speed modern railway that hauls miles of stacked containers at 80 mph flying past Ferrum where now there isn’t even a connection to slow the passage of these trains.
And soon even these tracks will be gone. In late April, on a drive back to the desert from Phoenix, Arizona, Eric and I decided to loop off the freeway and go look at the old railroad again. Much to our surprise we found modified backhoes had been busy removing the tracks, starting at the fenced off ghost town of Eagle Mountain and working their way West. Upon walking the tracks further down the line, the crews had already come by and unbolted the rail connections and pulled up the spikes holding the rails to the ties.
It’s understandable that the corporate entity that remains of the old Kaiser empire that still owns the mine, the railroad, and the town would want to recoup some money from an asset that is rusting away out in the desert, and the tracks certainly are that. The cost of repairing the line and making it usable far exceed any value – and there is no reason to do it anyway. The business and regulatory climate these days will keep that from ever happening. At one time it was thought the mine pits could be used as a giant dump for LA trash and the rail line could haul it, but that idea was quashed a few years ago. Pulling up the tracks and selling the rails for reuse or recycling makes more sense than letting them sit out in the desert. Wanting to document the old line one last time Eric and I ventured out into the desert again last weekend in the trusty Hummer. In the short span of one week they had torn up a good 10 miles of track. Rails were piled neatly along the right of way behind the advancing equipment. They are moving fast.
They even removed the ties and rails from the washout that Dave was standing on at the start of our exploration in March.
The mine and the town are abandoned now, except for the fencing around it and a few security guards. The huge scars on the land left from digging out the mountain will remain on the landscape for eons, but that -- and maybe a lonely street sign or two -- will soon likely be the only visible signs left of the giant Kaiser empire, who’s name will live on in a few places. Places like Kaiser Permanente, the original Health Maintenance organization founded by Kaiser here at this location, and with his Kaiser Family Foundation which engages in philanthropic endeavors to this day (many of which are decidedly anti-capitalist and would be an affront to the great industrialist the foundation is named for, and again, eerily forshadowed in Atlas Shrugged as well.) The Fontana mill has been torn down and replaced by a NASCAR race track, and steelmakeing itself and ship building has all but ended in this country. And geneiss of all that – the mine, and the railroad that hauled the ore, will one day vanish in the desert winds too.
It’s been more than 30 years since a train like the one below hauled a hundred cars of iron ore dug out of the mountain behind it -- crossing over a bridge that is there to protect the Colorado River Aqueduct from the vibrations of the heavy loads. The aqueduct too a product of Kaiser --built for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District, designed by William Mulholand, and built by Henry Kaiser some 15 years before the railroad was laid and the mine in production. (photo by Craig Walker, RailPictures.net)
Now the last things to roll over this bridge will be the tractors removing the rails and ties, and maybe a lizard or an errant desert wanderer will walk over it if it too isn’t removed by the salvagers.
Once they finish taking up the tracks and the machines all leave, the desert will start to reclaim the landscape, and in another 20 years any sign of the Eagle Mountain Railroad will be gone – save maybe the lonely railroad crossing sign that marked where the tracks once crossed the road. This spot -- where giant ore trains once blew their horns to warn passing motorists as they rolled past on their way to and from the mine, hauling the minerals that built this country and which it no longer needs since it no longer builds the giant dams, roads, bridges, and projects that required mines and railways out here in the wilds of the Mojave Desert. It will soon all be a ghost, with few clues or signs as to what was once here. All in all, it all makes me sad.
In my head I understand why they are taking up the tracks, but in my heart I want them to remain. I want to return to the desert years from now -- to see and to touch the steel -- to imagine loaded ore trains rumbling through the landscape. I want them to remain as a reminder of what once was -- of the power of man to literally move mountains and to dream big. With the rails gone and the roadbed reclaimed by the desert, in the future no one will know what once was here, no one will remember, and there will be nothing to rekindle the glory and the testament to the brilliance and to pay homage to the ego of mankind and what was created -- which has since faded and soon will disappear like the railroad in the desert. I'm glad I saw it -- just in the nick of time.