The first time I saw Needles, California, I was driving an air-cooled Corvair in September, 1969. The temperature was one hundred degrees, and the closest breeze was somewhere over the Pacific.
My little roadster began to run hot. The only way I could keep it cool was to drive across the desert in third gear, scurrying from rock to rock like a lizard. The I-40 bridge across the Colorado River was completed in 1967, and I believe the road across the desert was entirely four-lane by the time I first saw it.
Before the road was built, the federal government proposed to use nuclear bombs to excavate a massive road cut through the Bristol Mountains to accommodate a better alignment of the highway and a new, more direct route for the AT&SF Transcon. The bombs were never detonated. (The plan was called “Operation Plowshare” and included many proposed nuclear excavation projects in addition to the new route for the Transcon. Look it up.)
|BNSF 7535 West (an ES44DC) Crosses the Colorado River into California|
Okay, so the federal government did not eviscerate Needles. Instead, California has done the same thing in slow motion by the accumulation of laws and regulations that make the cost of living more than twice as high as immediately across the Colorado River in Arizona.
The Arizona side of the river is surprisingly populated for such a harsh desert. Lake Havasu City, where I stayed during my last visit, is a bustling community and tourist destination. Topock and Golden Shores are also livable communities where many have chosen to retire.
|Eastbound BNSF 7591 (ES44DC) Approaching Colorado River Bridge|
|Late-Running Amtrak #3 After Crossing the Colorado River and Turning North Toward Needles|
|Here a westbound stack train is approaching its crew change point below the formations that gave Needles, California, its name. The Colorado River is visible above the train's power.|
During winter, “snow birds” drive their trailers south and live in huge parking lots that Arizona has created along state highways 10 and 95.
Needles, on the other hand, appears to be slowly dissolving back into the sand. Businesses such as Walmart, Kmart, and Home Depot have chosen to open stores in Bullhead City, Arizona, only a 20-minute drive from Needles. And because gas is often a dollar per gallon cheaper east of the Colorado River, I and most other travelers always fill our tanks in Arizona.
|Another ES44DC Beneath "The Needles"|
Named for the nearby pointed mountain peaks, Needles was founded in 1883 as a division point on the Atlantic and Pacific Railway, later to become the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. The city's location along the western bank of the Colorado River provided ample water for the steam locomotives of the nineteenth century as well as travelers entering California during the Dust Bowl. Like Tom Joad and his family, thousands stopped in Needles for gas and supplies before crossing the Mojave Desert.
|Eastbound Stacks Rolling Through Colorado River Valley|
|Overlooking Colorado River Valley|
Originally, the railroad crossed the river at Needles on a rickety wooden bridge that was washed out by flooding three times in five years – 1884, 1886 and 1888. The railroad eventually surrendered to nature and built a cantilever bridge at a much narrower point in the river, with solid rock footings, ten miles downstream near Topock, completing the structure in May 1890.
The new “Red Rock Bridge” served the railroad for decades until increasing train weights and heavy traffic in the Second World War required the Santa Fe to construct a new crossing. The present 1,500 feet deck truss bridge was opened March 7, 1945. The Red Rock Bridge was then used to carry traffic on Route 66, replacing the Old Trails Arch Bridge. After the I-40 bridge was completed in 1967, the Red Rock Bridge was destroyed. The Old Trails Arch Bridge still remains and today carries a gas pipeline across the river.
|Another Eastbound Approaching Colorado River|
|A C44-9W Leads Stacks West Up Goffs Hill Beneath the Dead Mountains|
Needles is lined with motels and other shops from the Route 66 era. The "Carty's Camp," which appears briefly in The Grapes of Wrath as the Joad family enters California from Arizona, is now a ghost tourist court, its remains located behind the "66 Motel" – itself in advanced stages of dilapidation.
If you get off the Interstate and drive along the old highway through the heart of Needles, you will be startled by the number of abandoned houses and businesses. Without the BNSF, I think it is fair to say that Needles might disappear entirely.
|Westbound Autoracks Enter Needles from the South|
|Eastbound Stacks (Led by Another ES44DC) Approaching Needles|
The Great Mojave Desert
The Mojave Desert is the transition zone between the Sonoran Desert to the south and the Great Basin to the north and occupies more than 25,000 square miles in southeastern California and smaller portions of Nevada, Arizona and Utah. The Mojave lies in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, where warm, moist air from the Pacific hits the cold dry mountain air and falls as rain. Very little moisture crosses the mountains, and most of that evaporates before reaching the ground. Average rainfall in Needles is 4.5 inches per year, the bulk of which falls from December through March, the “rainy” season.
Elevations can be extreme.
Death Valley National Park includes both 11,049 feet Telescope Peak and
the lowest point in North America – 282 feet below sea level at Badwater. Needles sits at 488 feet, while the highest
point on BNSF’s Barstow Subdivision is 2599 feet at Goffs. The Transcon makes this climb of over 2000
feet in only 32 miles.
|Westbound Stacks Climbing Grade out of Crestview Wash|
Current theories of the Mojave’s geology help explain the formation of this extreme landscape. The oldest rocks found here are between 1.7 and 2.5 billion years old (early Proterozoic). Some contain metamorphic minerals and textures consistent with having experienced pressures and temperatures typical of between 12 and 25 miles below the Earth's surface.
|Eastbound Stacks Crossing Crestview Wash|
|Westbound Approaching Needles, With Black Mountains in Background|
|A GE C44-9W Leads Stacks West Towards Needles Beside the Colorado River|
Geologists believe that a "supercontinent" that had assembled earlier in time began to break apart, and the western edge of North America slowly sank beneath the ocean. Sedimentary rocks accumulated along the continental edge -- formed from sand, mud and the limey shells of marine animals. The sedimentary rocks continued to form from the late Proterozoic through all of the Paleozoic – almost 800 million years. The Mojave Desert today is underlain with a thick (over five miles) limestone platform filled with fossils of the many marine animals whose shells drifted to the bottom of the continental shelf.
Here the theory of plate tectonics controls. Western North American began drifting above the adjacent crust of the Pacific Ocean. The ocean crust went down, while the continental crust went up, forming mountains. Magma generated by the collision was squeezed upwards, some reaching the surface, forming volcanoes.
Next a series of huge granite masses (called batholiths) bubbled up from deep in the earth, forming the cores of the Sierra Nevada and many of the mountain ranges throughout the Mojave. Granite batholiths were formed in the Jurassic (170 to 140 million years ago) and again in the mid-Cretaceous (about 100 million years ago).
|Westbound Stacks Climbing Goffs Hill Beside Dead Mountains|
|BNSF 6774 (ES44C4) Leads Westbound Trailers up Goffs Hill Beneath Dead Mountains|
|BNSF 4483 East (C44-9W) Leads an Eclectic Mix of Power Downhill Toward Needles|
Throughout the late Tertiary and Quaternary, volcanic eruptions occurred fairly frequently in the Mojave. Volcanic ash blanketed the landscape; many ash beds are preserved today in the alluvial deposits that have eroded down mountainsides and accumulated in the basins. Eruptions in the Mojave began in the late Tertiary (around 7 million years ago) and have continued episodically through late Quaternary time (in the past one million years). The last volcanic episode in this area occurred only about 8,000 years ago. The mountains you see in this area today not caused by plate tectonics were caused almost exclusively by volcanism.
BNSF Operations Across the Desert
BNSF’s Needles Subdivision runs from Needles to Barstow. This post covers the eastern half of the subdivision which, as discussed above, climbs the 2000 feet from Needles to Goffs in 32 miles. The ruling grade of 1.4 percent is not as steep as Ash Hill to the west but still taxes even the hottest Z Trains. By comparison, trains climb the 2,600 feet from San Bernardino to Cajon Summit in about 20 miles.
Needles is a division point for crews running west to Barstow. East lies the Seligman Subdivision which stretches all the way to Winslow, Arizona, where if you are lucky, you may see a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford! Most traffic through Needles is intermodal (stacks and trailers), but there are enough manifests, autoracks, passengers and coal drags to keep things interesting.
The grade to the top of Goffs Hill is continuous for 32 miles. There is nowhere for westbounds to rest. The approach to Needles from the east, on the other hand, runs through the thick sand and loam of the flat Colorado River valley. In this day and age, obtaining a photograph of the river bridge is challenging. If you take the Park Moabi exit, the first or last in California (depending on your direction of travel), you will funnel down the hill to a short segment of the National Old Trails Highway (the predecessor of Route 66). Turn right (east) and follow the ancient road, dodging potholes big enough to swallow dogs, as it curves south underneath I-40. You can then climb the embankment on the highway right-of-way to shoot westbounds crossing the river.
A word of warning. The California Highway Patrol is all over this portion of the Interstate, like ants on honey. The only time I took shots from this location, I scrambled back down to my Jeep and was heading back to the Interstate when I passed three Highway Patrol cruisers coming towards me. They did not slow down, and neither did I. I do not know if they were looking for me or not, but I can’t imagine who else they might have been searching for, since the old road dead ends at the point where I climbed onto the Interstate right-of-way.
Another warning. The area around the railroad bridge is part of the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge and is crisscrossed with dirt roads open to the public. Do not – I repeat, do not – venture into this area in anything less than a four-wheel drive, off-road vehicle. The sand and loam in this area will swallow any car or two-wheel-drive pick-up. Even my Wrangler Rubicon struggled in several places, though I am pleased to report that I did not have to call a tow truck.
The tracks run northwest out of Needles, on the west side of I-40, then cross under the Interstate near Java. Here there is a turnout with an open area where you can park a vehicle well off the road. In the winter, with the sun low in the southern sky, one can shoot trains in either direction, as the line here runs almost due east/west.
|Late-running Amtrak 3# is approaching Java after a quick stop in Needles. In the far background are the Black Mountains of Arizona.|
|A Westbound Mineral Train Struggles Up Goffs Hill at Java|
Back on I-40, head west to the U.S. 95 exit and turn north. Soon after leaving the Interstate, you will roll downgrade into the valley of the Crestview Wash. On your right (east) you will see a gravel road heading into the desert above the wash. This road is open to the public and provides some nice photo locations. Again, four-wheel drive is recommended.
|Stack Trains Passing at Crestview Wash|
|Westbound Stacks Approaching Crestview Wash|
In researching this article, I discovered “Klinefelter’s Syndrome,” a genetic disorder that affects males and occurs when a boy is born with one or more extra X chromosomes. Most males have one Y and one X chromosome. Having extra X chromosomes can cause a male to have some unusual physical traits. For example, men with Klinefelter’s Syndrome can have sparse body hair, enlarged breasts and wide hips. Testicles may remain small. In some men, the penis does not reach adult size. Voices may not be as deep. Men with Klinefelter’s syndrome usually cannot father children.
I don’t know why I added that information to this post. Perhaps it was the second glass of wine.
|BNSF 5023 East (C44-9W) Rolling Downgrade Past the Mysterious Desert Trees at Klinefelter|
|Eastbound Autoracks at Ibis|
|Westbound Manifest Curving Upgrade to U.S.95, with Steeper Eastbound Track in Foreground|
|Westbound Stacks Grinding Upgrade to Goffs|
|A Hot Z-Train Ascending Goffs Hill After Climbing out of Crestview Wash on the Steeper Grade|
Continuing west will bring you to the top of the hill at Goffs, originally a siding on the single track railroad between Needles and Barstow. In 1893 a short line, originally called the Nevada Southern Railway, but later the California Eastern Railway, and still later the Searchlight branch of the Santa Fe, was constructed north from Goffs, reaching Searchlight, Nevada in 1907 -- the only place where Santa Fe rails ever penetrated that state. (The branch line was abandoned years ago.)
During the teens, the wagon trail parallelling the tracks became the National Old Trails Road – the main automobile route to southern California from the east. In 1926, with designation of the first national highway system, this road became U. S. 66. By then, Goffs had become a major highway town.
Goffs prospered until late 1931, when U. S. 66 was realigned six miles south of town through the Piute Mountains. The new section of road was opened December 4, 1931, and Goffs began to disappear. Today Goffs is a ghost town. The times I have driven through I have not seen a soul. The few remaining buildings are falling to the ground, returning to the desert. Because there are no significant photographic opportunities at Goffs, I have spent little time there.
In the desert, every living thing is reduced to its lowest common denominator. Life is possible only at the edges. The civil engineers who have figured how to supply water to desert communities are true miracle workers. But the scent of disaster is always present, as though the façade of civilization may be ripped away at any moment to reveal something more primal and therefore more terrifying.
When I think of the desert, I think of Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.
To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.