Desert Center

"Decent Folks are Welcome; Enjoy but Don't Destroy"

When Stephen "Desert Steve" Ragsdale and his wife Lydia were stranded while traveling across the remote Chuckwalla Valley, they were rescued by a prospector named Peter Gruendyke. Gruendyke owned a well roughly halfway between Mecca and Blythe. Recognizing the potential for a service station along the desolate road and tired of struggling to make a living growing cotton in Blythe, Desert Steve returned to Gruendyke's Well and purchased the property. He built his first service station in 1921, and Desert Center was born.

Desert Center
c.1940s

In 1925 it was announced that a new state highway would be constructed through the Chuckwalla Valley, but its route didn't pass through Desert Center. Undeterred, Desert Steve moved his home a few miles to the southwest and built a new service station and adobe-style cafe along the new road to cater to travelers. Desert Steve, a colorful character himself, wrote a number of advertising slogans for Desert Center, including "Our Main Street is 100-miles long!", "We lost our keys…we can’t close!", and "Free Room and Board Every Day The Sun Doesn’t Shine In Desert Center!". He also despised liquor, gambling, and prostitution and was apparently known for taking a stick to those who showed up intoxicated to his cafe.

In the 1930s Desert Steve, now owning some 700 acres, built shacks and a mobile home park to house workers on the Colorado River Aqueduct. It was at this time that Dr. Sidney R. Garfield opened a small medical clinic to care for aqueduct workers. It quickly went broke as patients weren't able to pay back for their care. Hearing this, Henry J. Kaiser, an executive for one of the project's executives, devised a plan for 5¢ to be deducted from each worker's paycheck to prepay for work related injuries (another 5¢ could be deducted to cover injuries outside of work, and another to cover dependents). This proved to be a successful system, and Garfield's Contractors General Hospital would move on to other projects, ultimately evolving into today's Kaiser Permanente.

By the early 1940s, Desert Center had dwindled to just a few occupants. In 1942, Maj. General George S. Patton established the Desert Center Army Air Field (a subbase of Thermal Army Air Field) and Camp Desert Center to train troops for combat in the North African desert. The base closed in 1944. Desert Center also saw an influx while Kaiser Steel's Eagle Mountain Mine, one of the largest open-pit iron mines in the world, was in operation from 1948-1982, just twelve miles away.

Today, Desert Center is a much quieter place. Desert Steve, after being accused of dallying with an employee, left town in the 1950s and spent the remainder of his days in his cabin near the peak of the Santa Rosa Mountains, passing in 1971. His son Stanley took over Desert Center, conducting business into the 1990s. Despite its prime location along Interstate 10, the only remaining business in town is the post office. The cafe and service stations have been closed for several years, and palm trees planted in eccentric shapes around town by Stanley (he wanted a "tree ring circus") have all since died. In November 2019, the remaining contents of town - vehicles, signage, gas pumps, etc. - were all auctioned off, and for now, the future of Desert Center is uncertain.

I Visited Desert Center
1.18.2019

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