Desert Center, California:
The Sand Swept Oasis
Of The Mojave
By David Daly
The Mojave Desert of Southern CA holds many secrets. The shifting sands and relentless winds in the area have taken with them countless attempts by people to inhabit this 695,200-acre region. As such, the Mojave is home to many abandoned or almost abandoned homesteads, towns, and curiosities.
Just South East of Joshua Tree National Park along Highway 10 is one such place, Desert Center, CA. One man's entrepreneurial dream would give birth to the town and, before its decline, bear witness to countless travelers, mining fortunes, General Patton's war games, and the start of the modern health care system.
The town was founded in 1921 by Stephen A. Ragsdale, known to many as "Desert Steve." In 1915 Ragsdale began a trip from his farm in the Palo Verde Valley, setting out for Los Angeles, where he had business. At the time, most roads were dirt, and as had happened to many travelers before him, his vehicle broke down.
Fate was on Ragsdale's side, and the location he broke down in, Gruendyke's Well, was inhabited by a prospector named Bill Gruendyke. Ragsdale was looked after while Bill repaired his vehicle. Seeing the potential value in the location, Ragsdale bought Gruendyke's Well and decided to move there. He named his new home Desert Center.
Ragsdale then built a small gas station and repair shop, which did well. When San Bernardino County created a newly paved road a few miles from his new business, Ragsdale relocated but kept the name. Gruendyke's Well became known as "Old Desert Center." Ragsdale built a cafe, gas station, and an oversized garage for service and repairs in the new location.
Later, Ragsdale built a market along with several cabins for travelers. He even constructed a swimming pool. Eventually, the town had its own post office and school. The post office is the only feature still in service to this day. Between 1930 to 1983, Desert Center benefitted from the opening and operation of the Eagle Mountain Mine. This open-pit iron mine was one of the largest in the world.
During its peak, over 4,000 workers and their families lived in the area. Many workers received their mail from the Desert Center post office and patronized the market and cafe. But by the early 1980s, a combination of stricter environmental laws and an increase in competition from the global steel market made operating the mine no longer profitable. It closed in 1983.
In addition to the Eagle Mountain Mine opening in the 1930s, another business began near Desert Center that changed healthcare forever. A major infrastructure project, the Colorado River Aqueduct, was being built by a crew of 5,000 people with the project's headquarters just outside Desert Center. At the time of the project, the nearest doctor was 50 miles away.
On the advice of a friend, Dr. Sidney R. Garfield borrowed money to build a small clinic and provide medical care to the workers. Soon after opening, the good doctor ran into a problem. He would treat workers in between paychecks on a handshake's promise that the workers would pay the bill as soon as a wage came in. Many of the workers would end up spending their money before returning to the doctor.
Soon the doctor was broke and ready to leave. One of the owners of the company building the aqueduct was Henry J. Kaiser. Hearing that the doctor would be leaving due to so many workers not paying him, he presented the doctor with a novel idea.
The doctor would provide medical services for the workers in exchange for five cents per day from each worker's paycheck. The agreement was a success, and the arrangement between Dr. Garfield and Kaiser became Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest nonprofit HMOs in the country.
Major General George S. Patton would leave his mark on Desert Center, as well. In 1942, construction on the Desert Center Army Airfield and Camp Desert Center began. The troops trained there would later go off to fight the Nazis, led by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa. By 1944, allied forces had already taken back control of North Africa, and the bases were closed.
Once closed, Desert Center continued to decline. More people moved into more prominent areas, such as Indio, California, and the surrounding areas. The Desert Center Cafe and gas station remained open until 2012 when they closed. Much of the furniture and vehicles, including old train cars, motorcycles, and tractors, were sold off to the highest bidder.
Most of the town sits in ruins, and there are no local services of any kind. However, passers-by can still see hints of the town's former glory. As of the last census, only 204 people still live in Desert Center. When visiting, if you happen to see a resident of this desert ghost town, proceed with respect and give them the privacy they deserve.
While most keep to themselves, many are also happy to share their knowledge of the city lore. The town occasionally comes to life as Hollywood often uses the location to film movies and commercials. Desert Center has been the backdrop for movies like Terminator 2: Judgement Day and War of the Worlds. Although most of the town has disappeared into the desert sands, there is still more than enough to this town to validate a visit. So, if you find yourself on Highway 10 and the sign for Desert Center appears, take a break from the endless highway miles and see a bit of Mojave history.