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Edition #85, September 1, 2008
Photographer: Bob Finan
Photo by Bob Finan
My infatuation with the Santa Fe as it traversed the great Mojave Desert, as well as remaining portions of what once was Route 66, led to an obsessive preoccupation with the life and times of the earliest settlements, those in particular that pre-dated “The Highway” itself. The railroad was responsible for their existence in almost all cases. The Needles District as it was once known, prior to 1923, was a single-track railroad with passing sidings. At most of the sidings there was a manned station with an operator on duty.
Water was brought in by train in tank cars to these remote outposts, as the arid climate and geological features offered few opportunities to provide wells. Any water from such a source would be brackish in nature – basically non-potable.
The line featured three westbound ascending grades, all of which were the same rate of incline -1.4% - the longest being 31 miles, from the yard at Needles, to the apex at Goffs.
The second ascent, from Bagdad to Ash Hill, wasn’t nearly as long – only a little more than 17 miles. At Ash Hill Summit, they built a wye to turn helper power returning to Bagdad. So, it was here that the railroad decided to establish a helper station at this critical watering stop. This, of course, required housing crews. With that, the desert oasis of Bagdad was born.
The town grew quickly, to serve the needs of the families that settled there. Nearby mining drew additional inhabitants. Besides homes and stores, saloons and hotels arose. Even Fred Harvey opened one of his landmark eateries by late 1884. A Post Office was established in 1889. Things were indeed booming in Bagdad. Yet, as robust as the town seemed, it would begin a precipitous decline.
Starting with the completion of Needles District double tracking in 1923, larger, more powerful locomotives were now the rule of the day. The need for helper locomotives was diminishing, too. The mining interests went bust. The Post Office was closed in 1929. By the time the double rut-in-the-sand trail was reborn as the new (and paved) Route 66 in the late ‘30’s, even that event couldn’t slow the hemorrhaging. By the ‘40’s, all that remained was the depot, a few homes, the (original) Bagdad Café, a gas station, and cabins for overnight layovers for those who bypassed Amboy to the east. Nearing the end of World War II, the town population went from its halcyon peak of several hundred to fewer than twenty. By the early ‘60’s, it was all over but the crying. In 1972, when Interstate 40 was completed between Essex and Ludlow, that was the final nail in the coffin, so to speak.
Today, after the remaining foundations were excavated and the town graded flat, there is simply no vestige of what was once here. In my recent research on the town, I saw on an old map a town cemetery. That in and of itself isn’t surprising. It is simply that for all the times I visited this place, I never realized one had survived, albeit on the other side of the tracks. Further, in reading a newspaper article about the town and its’ demise printed in the early ‘90’s, a former Bagdad resident had mentioned that vandals had gone through and desecrated the burial sites there.
The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway itself, with its’ iconic Circle and Cross logo, has been relegated to the same fate as the town it once spawned. The successor road, originating in 1995 as the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway, has capitulated to the mindless marketing of the new millennium, discarding the historic banner, now referring to itself as simply BNSF.
Ash Hill grade still awaits westbound trains of all types. The motive power climbs it faster than anything previously built. Some things in the desert will fade into the sands of time. Documenting evidence of what went before, for future generations, is ever more important.
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