This place is incredibly and romantically alluring, while at the same time quite sad. For 30 years, these railroad tracks were left rusty, unused, and weed grown. Today, all that remains is a vacant trackbed, the rails ripped up in 2017/18 and sold for scrap.
The old Eagle Mountain Railroad was a legacy from a great past, when the “iron roads” ruled, forging their way across the U.S. and taming the wild lands.
It’s forlorn beauty as it lay forgotten and fed upon by the forces of nature now remains only in photographs, taken by those few explorers who ventured out into the Mojave Desert to see firsthand the snaking 51-mile-long tack disappearing off into the horizon.
Built in 1947-1948 to haul iron ore from the Eagle Mountain mine down to what was then the Southern Pacific transcontinental mainline, Eagle Mountain Railroad was one of the longest new rail construction projects of the century.
It crossed a number of washes with wooden bridges and cast-iron culverts, the longest of which was a 500-foot-long steel bridge at Salt Creek Wash. This replaced an earlier wooden trestle after it was destroyed by fire.
The Eagle Mountain Railroad ran east from a connection with the Southern Pacific Transportation Company in the Coachella Valley, named “Ferrum Junction” (Latin for iron), over the mountains to the Eagle Mountain Mine.
The iron ore was transported directly to Henry Kaiser’s steel mill at Fontana, California. Built in 1941-2 to produce steel for his shipyards, it was the only integrated steel plant on the West Coast of the U.S.
A truly great American industrialist, Henry Kaiser founded more than 100 companies including Kaiser Aluminum, Kaiser Steel, and Kaiser Cement and Gypsum. Taking the profit from his first construction project, he went on to build everything from dams to houses to ships.
Kaiser’s hallmark was that he didn’t rely on external suppliers for raw materials. For example, to construct the Shasta Dam in 1939 he not only set up a cement plant but also a nine-mile-long conveyor belt to transport the cement to the dam site. To build ships in WW2, he built a steel mill and bought mines and railroads to feed it.
With no regular maintenance of the tracks or culverts since the mid-1990s, the railroad was left at the mercy of the harsh desert climate and monsoon floods. The worst damage due to washout of the trackbed, caused by flash flooding in 2003, occurred close to the I-10 underpass.
Pictured here is washout damage at the bottom of “Caution Hill”, the steepest section, so named because a train once ran away there. A strict speed limit was imposed after the incident and trains had to stop after coming down the 2.15 percent grade to cool their brakes.
Even though owners Kaiser Ventures, Inc. (formerly Kaiser Steel) stopped investing in repair works, the tracks remained in relatively good condition throughout their abandonment despite the washouts — a testament to the quality of construction of this line.
At its peak, from the 1950s through 1970s, two fully-loaded 100-car ore trains departed from the Eagle Mountain Mine.
The drivers handed over their full trucks at Ferrum Junction to operators of the Southern Pacific and returned with two empty trains. In the late ’70s this was down to one train a day, and just one a week by the mid-80’s.
Eagle Mountain Mine closed down in 1984, however the railroad continued to be used to haul stockpiled ore that was mostly shipped overseas.
The last commercial train ran on March 24, 1986, though according to discussions on Abandoned Rails, members of a rail speeder club were using the line in 2011.
Very little still exists at the Ferrum Junction switching yard, where the Eagle Mountain connected with the Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) mainline. Gardner reported on LiveJournal that a small maintenance shed and a few storage tracks still remained in the spring of 2017.
The huge trestle at Salt Creek Wash was the longest bridge on the railroad. It carried the tracks over the main water channel coming down the west slope of the mountains — but this, too, is now gone.
Controversial plans to turn Eagle Mountain Mine into what would have been the world’s largest garbage dump were scrapped in 2010. After years of costly court battles, Mine Reclamation LLC, part of Kaiser Ventures, filed for bankruptcy in 2011.
It was planned to revamp the switching yard for use in the landfill project, however the railroad was disconnected from the national rail network by Union Pacific after the plans fell through.
It stands to reason that Kaiser Ventures — which still owns the mine, the railroad and the town — would want to recoup some money from an asset that had for decades been rusting away out in the desert.
Gardner writes that “In April 2017, modified backhoes began removing the tracks, starting at the fenced off ghost town of Eagle Mountain and working their way West. The crews had already come by and unbolted the rail connections and pulled up the spikes holding the rails to the ties.”
“Pulling up the tracks and selling the rails for reuse or recycling makes more sense than letting them sit out in the desert.”
Henry J. Kaiser’s legacy lives on — and not only in firms such as Kaiser Steel. His original health maintenance organization, founded here at Eagle Mountain town and rolled out to provide care for workers in all his enterprises, was the precursor to the modern Kaiser Permanente integrated healthcare system.
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But the town itself and what remains of the railroad are slowly disappearing into the desert.