Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ferrum, California

A warm breeze carries the smell of algal growth across the Sonoran Desert. The massive expanse of the Salton Sea glistens to the west across twin pairs of steel rail lines.  In the distance, a locomotive brays a warning as it drags its chain of freight across a road crossing.

Two football fields distant from the main highway between Mecca and Bombay Beach, California, a blackened, stair-step structure beckons to the curious traveler.  Beside it, twin rusted beams of steel stretch into the dry expanse of the desert landscape. The scrubby vegetation shoving itself upwards between the rails bears witness to the fact that these rails are no longer in use, the leftovers of a bygone era.

30 years ago, these rails hummed with activity as iron ore was brought here from the Eagle Mountain Mine located 35 miles to the northeast.  This is Ferrum, California, the southern terminus of the Eagle Mountain Railroad, built after World War II by the Kaiser Steel Company to provide iron ore for the thriving steel plant in Fontana.  The death of the American steel industry in the 1980s silenced the steel plant, the Eagle Mountain Railroad, and the town of Eagle Mountain.

The remnants of this shortline railroad can be seen at Ferrum.  The stair step structure is an old maintenance shed, now sitting idle and empty.  It's existence as an child of the railroad is obvious in examining its bones and skin.  It is constructed of a skeleton of rails with a shell of railroad ties coated in tar paper.  In the landscape surrounding the shed, the detritus of the glory days can be found.

Hundreds of rail spikes cluster in a swarm around a shattered locomotive headlamp as if attracted like moths to its now extinguished light.  A knuckless coupler reaches toward the rails as it trying to grab on before being swept away by the tide of time.  A topless wooden crate rests mired in silt that forms a new base for the box, its content long since removed and distributed elsewhere.  As if procaliming the finality of the railroad's usefulness, a sign lies face up in the dirt: Stop! Derail 150 feet.

If you should decide to visit this outpost of California history, please do not remove anything or disturb the content.  Allow others to experience it as you did.

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