Photo from "The Silence and the Sun" by Joe De Kehoe, courtesy of Martha Burnau and Sally Carlos.
by Matt Blitz
In the middle of October, the Mojave Desert is cool by desert standards. The wind is so strong it's hard to stand up straight. The air is so dry that thirst is a constant. Dust, rock, and sand get into every crevice. Few brave living here.
Eighty years ago, though, this desert was alive with trains, people, stores, cars, gas stations, and cafes. Many of those buildings are still here, but only a few are occupied. By the mid-20th century, there was no longer enough to live here for. Not enough trains or cars passing through. Not enough commerce to sustain a community. Not enough committed citizens to reinvent the towns. The buildings were left as they were, as if the former occupants had every intention of coming back. The mostly-wooden structures still stand, swaying with the wind, baking in the heat, and collecting dust.
The Mojave Desert is filled with these ghost towns, places like Essex, Baghdad, Ludlow, Chubbuck, and Goffs, all teetering on the edge of existence. They inspire questions about our responsibility to abandoned buildings. Do we just let them rot away? Do we continue to hope that people will come back? Is preserving the past a noble cause or a fool's errand?
Amboy, one of the many wind-blown towns of the Mojave left to fade away in the sun, has changed ownership numerous times with no one able or willing to put in the work to revive it. In 2003, Amboy was listed on Ebay for $1.9 million. There were no takers and the property entered foreclosure. In 2005, at a much-discounted price, it finally landed in the hands of a Southern California chicken magnate, Albert Okura, who committed to reviving the town. Nine years have passed and Okura remains steadfast in his commitment. But the future of Amboy is up in the air, swirling around with the dust and sand.
Amboy's official birth year was 1883, but it was actually settled in 1858, when prospectors came to claim the hills' iron ore. According to an 1877 map (right) drawn up by Lieutenant J.C. Mallery of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a road established in these years connected Amboy to the Dale mining district.
It is not exactly clear why the settlement was named "Amboy." As the railroad established water stops in California, the communities were named in alphabetical order from west to east, stopping at the Arizona state line. Amboy was the first.
Seven years later, in 1865, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company was founded with the goal of establishing rail service from San Francisco to San Diego. The company did just that, but its goals were much loftier. Beginning in 1862, the Pacific Railway Acts promoted the construction of a transcontinental railway through land grants and government bonds. The Southern Pacific Railroad Company took full advantage of these government handouts. By 1884, through land grants, bonds, company consolidation, and leasing of other railroads, the "mighty" Southern Pacific reached New Orleans (a route nicknamed "the Sunset Route").
Southern Pacific promised to build at least twenty miles of rail per year beginning in 1870. Construction fell behind, but on June 22nd, 1883, the Southern Pacific Railroad finished its 223 miles of rail connecting the Mojave Desert to Needles, California, allowing the giant steel beasts known as locomotives to pass through the desert.
At first, Amboy was nothing more than a water and repair stop for the trains. Amboy didn't have a bank or a fire department, though a two-room wooden schoolhouse was built in 1903. (Western railroad towns, in general, tended to be unimaginative in design and created for the sole purpose of catering to the railroad worker and self-sufficiency.)
Other communities in the Mojave, like Ludlow or Essex, were different from Amboy. They became 'blow-off' towns for the thirsty, recreation-starved miners who had to deal with alcohol-free mining camps. With their abundance of pool halls, saloons, and brothels, communities like these lived off of workers' vices. Amboy, though, got a boost from the discovery of a natural resource. This resource wasn't found in the mountains, but at the bottom of Bristol Lake.
That resource was salt, or calcium chloride. Drilling a water well in 1910, the railroad company had discovered that the water contained 10 times as much salt as the ocean. The Pacific Cement Plaster Company had already built a mill in Amboy in 1904 to process the gypsum at the bottom of Bristol Lake, and the salt offered another revenue stream. By 1914, mining in Bristol Lake for both salt and gypsum was at its height. Mills, worker residences, and even saloons were hastily built in the nearby town of Amboy. But like all booms, this one was short-lived. Over-mining and discovery of other salt deposits in easier-to-reach places forced all the mills to close by 1924. Amboy began to deteriorate, just like the other towns of the Mojave Desert.
Other problems followed. On October 29th, 1929, "Black Tuesday," the stock market lost nearly thirteen percent of its value. The subsequent Great Depression decimated the railroads. The Tonopah and Tidewater and the Ludlow and Southern line, other famed desert railroads, were ripped up by 1935. The mighty Southern Pacific, bigger and more financially solvent than its competitors, continued to operate and was still turning a profit until the late 1940s, but the end was nearing for even the strongest of the locomotives.
But the invention that came next, the automobile, revolutionized the way Americans traveled and breathed new life into Amboy.
In 1927, Cyrus Avery (right) and the newly formed US Highway 66 Association convinced Congress to establish a well-maintained, easily passable interstate highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. Construction began on US 66 that same year and all 2,448 miles were paved by 1938. Route 66 was built specifically to follow the railroad, which had carved a clear path, both in infrastructure and notoriety, through the southwest. The road was built nearly parallel to both the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads. For this reason, Amboy was included on the route.
During the mid-1930s, with the Depression at its height and the dust storms wrecking havoc across the Midwest, thousands of people traveled the newly-built Route 66 in search of a better life elsewhere. As immortalized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Route 66 was "the path for people in flight, refugees from the dust."
Amboy flourished, hitting its peak right when the Depression was at its worst. The permanent population jumped to nearly 200 people. Three gas stations, two cafes, three motor courts, four garages, a post office, a church, and a school were built, all with colorful signs and enticing offers (air conditioning!) to lure in visitors.
If Amboy was an oasis in the middle of the desert, then Roy Crowl was mainly responsible for its reemergence. Working as a railroad line operator a few miles down the road in Saltus, he noticed the rise of car traffic and decided it was time to go where the people were. He moved to Amboy and built Roy's Garage. The desert roads were rough on cars and thus made Roy's the busiest place in town. Soon, Roy realized that waiting customers got hungry, so he built a café. Auto parts weren't always available, so travelers had to wait, sometimes overnight. Luckily, Roy also built a motel.
Roy's Motel & Café has since become a Route 66 legend. Opened in 1938 by Roy and his wife Betty, along with their son-in-law Buster Burris, the motel has five cabins with a café next door. Roy did so well with his properties that he was able to buy Betty, a trained pilot, a runway left over from the 1920s. Propeller planes still land on this runway (in fact, Harrison Ford made an unscheduled stop there in the mid-2000s). Roy and Betty retired in 1959, leaving Roy's in Buster's name. Buster traveled to Los Angeles for design ideas and renovated Roy's in the style he observed there. The Roy's sign still stands over the town of Amboy, its retro-future look harking back to another era.
On June 29th, 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act. He called it "the greatest public works project in the history of the world." It is said that a cross-country trip that would have taken twenty days in 1950 would now only take four.
For Amboy, it was another death sentence. Route 66, with its twisty, turning road and lower speed limits, would become obsolete. And so would the small towns that populated the road. By 1964, the concrete had been poured for the new super highway, Interstate 40, and cars were bypassing Amboy and the other Mojave towns. Life again screeched to a halt in the desert.
Today, Amboy feels more forgotten than dead. The landscape is still dotted with rubble, but there are signs of life. A dog barks in the near distance. Some of the houses are lived in. RVs and trailers along the side of the road provide traveling homes for a few. An estimated 15 to 20 people live here year-round. On nice days, like this one in October, cars pass through, stopping for a picture of the most photographed sign in the world. The trains still huff and puff occasionally on the outskirts of the town.
But Amboy is still very much on the mind of Albert Okura. In 2005, Okura bought the town of Amboy from Buster Burris' ninety-year-old widow for $425,000. She had better offers, but Okura had cash and a promise. Okura explained over the phone, "I told her I am going to keep it pure."
Okura grew up in Wilmington, only a few miles from Long Beach on the coast of southern California. His first job was at a Burger King in 1970. Fourteen years later, Okura opened his own fast-food restaurant with an uncle in San Bernardino County (about 55 miles from Wilmington)—a Mexican rotisserie chicken place called Juan Pollo. Today, there are 27 locations throughout Southern California. Okura purchased the site of the very first McDonald's in San Bernardino County in 1998, which was run by the McDonald brothers in the 1940s before Ray Kroc bought out their company. He turned the site into the corporate offices of Juan Pollo on one side and a McDonald's museum on the other. On the surface, the McDonald's site purchase makes more sense than Okura's decision to buy Amboy, but Taylor Louden, a preservation architect who helped Okura with Amboy, describes Albert as a benevolent collector. "Things just find their way to him. He's sort of a one-man orphanage."
When Amboy appeared on Ebay in 2003, a friend who knew of his tendency toward collecting alerted Okura. The price was too high, but Okura, believing it was "his destiny" to own Amboy, kept checking in until the number came down. Okura immediately went to work cleaning, repainting, and preserving the town. In the nine years he has owned it, he hasn't knocked anything down, and the only thing he's built is a small storage shed. He has simply tried to keep the town afloat. Okura reopened Roy's, not as a motel or café, but as a gift shop with hopes of turning it into "an authentic Route 66 diner" someday. Okura hired a few people living in town to work shifts at Roy's. He was able to bring back gas to two pumps (a third was already functional). Okura and Louden even gave Amboy a clever nickname, "the ghost town that ain't dead yet," in hopes of attracting tourists. Despite all of this hard work, Okura admits the task is tougher than he thought. Okura explains he never had any delusions of making money off of Amboy itself; the value for him was promotional, "if I keep it pure, functional, historically accurate, than me and my company…get recognition."
Still, he tells me that he spends upwards of $5,000 a month on staffing, keeping gas flowing, and general maintenance. It took two years to get electricity because "Buster, the great man that he was, did his own electric work and it wasn't up to county codes." Okura says he loses money on his investment on a yearly basis.
Despite Okura's best intentions, Amboy sits in a state of suspended life. The old cabins that still stand off to the side of the former café have a decently fresh coat of paint but are a mess inside. A "Keep Out" sign blocks off visitors from the rest of the cabins behind Roy's. The giant white church down the road (built about the same time as the new school) is empty inside, save for a single ghostly chair delicately placed at a piano, as if waiting for someone to play it one more time.
Amboy illustrates the difficulty of preserving the past. Towns like Amboy must adapt or die in a kind of Ghost Town Darwinism. Although Okura has no plans to demolish any buildings in Amboy, perhaps that should be an option. If no one wants to live there or turn it into a useful property, why expend energy and resources preserving something that provides very little, if any, value back?
Before I leave Amboy, I wander into Roy's. Thirsty from the Mojave, I pick up a bottle of water and approach the man at the cash register, whose name is Kevin. I ask him how business is today ("Not bad. A guy and his girlfriend on a motorcycle was just here about twenty minutes ago."), tourism in general ("We get a lot more people from Europe and Asia, than Americans"), and if he lives in town (he does, in a room inside of the café). And then I ask Kevin the question: is Amboy a ghost town? His answer: "I live here and I'm alive. So, this town ain't dead yet." But for how long?