The ghost town of Eagle Mountain, California has sat vacant for decades, crumbling away in the heat of the California desert. The town sits about twelve miles north of Desert Center at the base of the Eagle Mountain iron mine, which was once California’s largest iron mine. Over the years, this once lively town in Riverside County saw numerous uses, and may one one day see yet another use.
The town was established in 1948 by industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, owner of the Kaiser Steel Corporation. The town would see a peak population of approximately 4,000 as mine operations grew. Among over 400 homes, the town also provided space for over 200 trailers, and numerous boarding houses and dorms where many of Kaiser’s workers would reside. With the rapid growth of its population, a fully integrated medical care system was eventually put in place for residents of Eagle Mountain, which would become the root for operations of the modern-day Kaiser Permanente.
Aside from its top tier medical system, the town also offered numerous other amenities for its residents, including an auditorium, park, shopping center, community swimming pool, bowling alley, two gas stations, eight churches, three schools, and even lighted tennis courts and baseball fields.
Prior to the opening of Eagle Mountain however, Kaiser had other business ventures dating back to the 1930s. In the late 1930s, the first fully integrated steel mill on the West Coast was built by Kaiser. The company then built another similar mill in 1942 in Fontana, California, about 112 miles west of Eagle Mountain. It was after these business ventures that Kaiser would purchase the Eagle Mountain land from the Southern Pacific Railroad; its current owner at the time. The purchase of the land, which would eventually become Eagle Mountain, was part of Kaiser’s plan to make use of rail and raw materials to turn a previously agricultural area into an industrial one. Kaiser built the town over what was previously a pig farm.
With an increase of iron shipments at the Fontana facility during 1948, it was decided that a town should be constructed closer to the main source of iron, and construction of the town was started. The mine above Eagle Mountain would soon become Southern California’s largest iron mine. The town was connected to the Southern Pacific Railroad by a railroad branch known as the Eagle Mountain Railroad. The railroad stretched from the mine and ran approximately 60 miles to the northeast shore of the Salton Sea. In October 1948, the first shipments of iron ore from Eagle Mountain to Fontana were sent out, and about five to eight 100-car trains would continue running back and forth weekly. On August 17, 1977 a celebration was held to commemorate the mine’s 100 millionth ton of ore shipped.
During the 1970s however, concerns were also raised about environmental issues due to the mines. In combination with heavy foreign competition, the output of iron was dramatically reduced, and the population of the town started to decline as workers were left without jobs. By 1980, the town’s population had dropped significantly. During that summer, the mine was shut down for a brief period of time, but was reopened on September 23, however only 750 workers were brought back to the town.
On November 3, 1981, it was announced by the Kaiser Corporation that they would begin closure of half of the Fontana operations and the entirety of the Eagle Mountain Mine operation over the following several years. Over the next year, more and more layoff led to a sharp decline in the town’s population, and closure of numerous buildings in the town. In October 1982, the grocery store was shut down, and only a year later the post office followed. The last class to graduate from Eagle Mountain High School held their graduation ceremony in June of 1983, and shortly after the mine and mill both ceased operations. The former high school is actually one building that still continues to operate today, though it is now the site of the Eagle Mountain Elementary School. The three other schools in town were boarded up after they closed. Local high school students in surrounding areas are all taken by bus to Palo Verde High School in Blythe, California. The students must take the round trip bus ride 120 miles every day. Students at the elementary school in Eagle Mountain are children of Desert Center residents, as well as children of employees of two nearby water pumping plants.
Since nothing else continues to operate in the town, most mail is now sent to the nearby town of Desert Center.
In 1986, Eagle Mountain would see some activity when a privately operated prison was proposed for low-risk inmates. The California Department of Corrections saw this as an ideal space as it was far enough away from anything in a wide open area out in the desert. It wasn’t until 1988 that the decision was made to go ahead with the prison, and the former shopping center was converted into the Eagle Mountain Community Correctional Facility. Eventually the state would encounter financial issues resulting in worsening conditions at the prison. A riot broke out in 2003, and the prison was closed in December of the same year.
In 1988, the state also was in talks about attempting to turn the formerly operational open-pit mine into a new high-tech sanitary landfill. Kaiser Ventures, the successor to Kaiser Steel, met with two privately operated trash collection firms to talk of the plans. The project was approved in October 1992 by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors after the EPA approved the project. However, due to numerous lawsuits over years in regards to the environmental effects from the landfill, the project was to be shut down. In late 1999, the project was finally abandoned. Kaiser Ventures bought out the other company’s shares, and remained the controlling owner of the entire project.
In August 2000, Kaiser Ventures met with the Los Angeles Sanitation District to strike up a new agreement for them to purchase the landfill project, essentially giving them a replacement for the Puente Hills Landfill, which at the time was nearly filled to capacity. The LASD stated that before any talks of final purchase that all lawsuits connected to the project were to be taken care of. By 2008, only one lawsuit remained pending, but by that time, with a rise in recycling, the LASD saw less urgency for a new landfill. In May 2013, the LASD decided they no longer were interested in converting the Eagle Mountain mine into a landfill, as it was not needed.
Currently, there is a proposal by Eagle Crest Energy for a 1300 MW hydroelectric plant to be situated in the location of the former Eagle Mountain Mine. The company purchased the land from Kaiser Ventures in July 2015. In November 2016, a partnership was formed between Eagle Crest Energy and NextEra Energy, with support from many for bringing more renewable energy to California. However, the project faces criticism by environmentalist groups as there is a high potential that it will cause damage to plant and animal life in and around Joshua Tree National Park.
Today, hundreds of homes still sit vacant and crumbling in the former town, which remains gated off to visitors.
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