Admit it. If you’ve traveled on the I-40 or Route 66, you’ve stopped at Exit 50 for ice cream or gasoline. Maybe a corn dog.
The tiny ghost town of Ludlow, California is just off these long stretches of roads. You can’t miss it and if you do, you have miles to go before you can turn around. We think Ludlow is the perfect little desert spot in the middle of nowhere. The town boasts two gas stations, a Dairy Queen, a diner, motel and a train maintenance yard.
Ludlow is also is home to quite a few abandoned ramshackle houses and countless rusted cannibalized vintage cars. Ludlow even has its own pioneer cemetery. You could say Ludlow has it all. Like many ghost towns, what Ludlow has the most of is a wealth of history. And because it is located right smack dab in the Mojave Desert, there is no shortage of scorching hot days in the summer either, as our spontaneous July sojourn would confirm.
The year of 1882 saw the founding of the town of Ludlow, brought about by the establishment of the Southern Pacific Railroad until May 4, 1897 when it became the Santa Fe Railway. This was the main line and connection with Los Angeles.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1900, the Bagdad Chase mine was discovered about ten miles to the south. The railroad to the mine, rich in copper and gold, was called the Ludlow-Southern. The train traveled the road from Ludlow to the mine in about 40 minutes.
The living area at the mine was known as Camp Rochester. This camp was often nicknamed “Copenhagen” due to the fact of numerous Danes and Swedes who gathered there to find employment.
Ludlow became the hub of a thriving community. Workers from the railroads, plus the miners at Camp Rochester soon chose Ludlow for their amusement and entertainment.
Ludlow was the “water stop” for all steam engines. Water was found here but proved to be too salty for overall use. So water was hauled by train tank cars from Newberry (later known as Newberry Springs) to permanent tanks in Ludlow.
A complete railroad shop was built in Ludlow with housing for the employees. Later, a school and church were constructed.
“I lived in Ludlow in the forties as a kid, and knew everyone in town. Went to school in the still standing school house that was later converted to a residence. Jack Sheridan was the bus driver who took the older kids in to Barstow to every school house. His wife, Vernie, was the postmistress.”
~Mike L. McNeill
In 1905, the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad was started mainly for transportation of ore from Beatty, Nevada. This line transported mixed baggage and included a passenger car.
W.W. Cahill was superintendent and lived aboard his private car on a line in Ludlow. He used this car for administrative offices. The presence of Cahill and his crew, plus all the railroad workers and miners from Bagdad, created much activity around Ludlow, which became the junction and headquarters for all the surrounding area.
“The Pendergast motel was really owned by Venus McNeill, who married Penny and then got him appointed by powers in San Bernardino to the constables job. Venus was my dad’s cousin. Her father was the Santa Fe section foreman, and later the track superintendent on the track between there and Needles.”
~Mike L. McNeill
Cafes and rooming houses sprang up. These were used as meeting places for business, as well as entertainment. One of the more popular gathering places was known as “Ma Preston’s.” She had moved from Calico after marrying Tom Preston, who had discovered a silver lode but moved to Ludlow for the construction boom.
Besides being a miner, Tom had been a partner in a saloon venture in Calico. Sadly, Tom tended to drink away his profits until he met Mathilde, a tough-as-nails stocky woman from France with big ideas. We know her today as “Mother Preston,” or “Ma Preston.” If you recall, we originally mentioned Ma Preston in our Daggett article https://www.thedesertway.com/daggett-ca/
Mathilde, known as “The Queen of the Desert,” became one of the principal land owners in several mining towns, and also operated a number of ‘boarding houses.’ According to Dix Van Dyke, in his book, “Daggett, Life in a Frontier Town,” those boarding houses tended to lean heavily towards the definition of brothels, making “Madame Preston” also a “Madam Preston.”
“Ma Preston was a madam of sumptuous proportions and valorous spirit, capable of locking the head of an unruly client in the crook of an immense arm and pummeling his face with her windmilling fist.”
Tom “Dad” Preston told his old friend Sheriff Shay he had never been photographed in his life. Tom decided to have his very first and only photo taken with his wife Mathilde by his side when they applied for their passports together. Both were notoriously shy when it came to cameras.
So newsworthy was this momentous event that the San Bernardino Sun ran a story about it the next day in their June 29, 1920 edition. No other known authenticated photos exist of the pair together.
Tom’s passport photo is the only authenticated facial photograph of Ma Preston. Both Tom and Mathilde returned to her native France to live out the rest of their days near Paris. In 1926, Mathilda passed away exactly five months and one day after Thomas died of natural causes.
The official cause on her death certificate was attributed to “myocardial insufficiency” –Mathilde had often said she could not live without Tom–and apparently died of a broken heart.
Since Tom and Mathilde’s marriage bore no children, she left a sizable estate, even by today’s standards, to her two nephews.
The first school contract was signed August 10, 1905. Cliffie Hoffman, the first teacher, received a salary of $60.00 dollars a month. A tent structure, with board walls half-way up was the first schoolhouse. There were six original pupils. Later, the attendance reached 40, with two teachers.
A United States Post Office was founded in 1902. Originally called Stagg, in the honor of an engineer on the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, this office was officially changed to Ludlow in 1926. The post office was discontinued in 1974.
Lee Yim was the only Asian businessman located in Ludlow. He was a cafe owner and operated a barber shop in the same building. He raised a family of 9 children, 8 of whom were graduates of Barstow High School.
Note: Our research revealed there was another Asian businessman in Amboy by the name of Lee Yim, or more commonly known as Bill Lee or Bill Yim. Bill and his war bride, Hilda, owned a cafe and Texaco filling station in Amboy. This was about 5-7 years before Roy’s Cafe.
In the mid-1930s Bill Yim’s Texaco was the only building on the north side of the road in Amboy. Bill grubstaked prospectors and he had financial interests in some mines in the area. Bill and Hilda had one daughter, Dorothy. The Lee family remained in Amboy until 1957 when Bill retired and moved to Barstow. But I digress.
In 1913, Ludlow consisted of two blocks of business establishments. Contained within this area were two general merchandise stores, three cafes, a pool hall, a barber shop and two rooming houses.
The Murphy brothers, originally from Tecopa, were prominent Ludlow residents. Tom had a store and cafe in Ludlow while Mike conducted a like business in Tonopah.
The brothers had an acrimonious business relationship with Ma Preston which resulted in accusations of battery and a civil lawsuit, which Mathilde won.
In 1915, there was a cross country automobile race from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Arizona. People from Death Valley came to Ludlow to view the race. Barney Oldfield was the main attraction, being the top auto racer in the nation. The entire day was like a county fair.
Ludlow continued to prosper and through World War I, the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad remained in operation on its now 250 mile route. However, on June 14, 1940, it ceased all runs.
During its peak years, Ludlow’s population was about 500 people but after the T & T ceased operating the population dwindled to a mere handful of permanent residents.
In 1962, the Cameron Friend family purchased the town site. Lack of water still made living in Ludlow very costly. So, Cameron Friend “water witched” the area. A well was drilled and good water was found at 650 feet down. Today there are three wells producing good water in Ludlow. The Friend family continues.
Ludlow is a ghost town of two era’s; it was also a rest stop for weary travelers along Route 66, National Trails Highway. Interstate 40, also known as Needles Freeway, was built in the 1970s.
In 1962, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway began planning a new railway between Needles and Barstow through the Bristol mountains in California. The straighter, more level route would be 15 miles shorter than the old line, shaving 50 minutes off the trip. But getting through the mountains would require either drilling a tunnel or excavating a new pass; the railway judged the cost of doing either with conventional means to be prohibitive. So, in December of 1962, the Santa Fe Railway contacted the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), to ask if the job could instead be done with hydrogen bombs.
The excavation program’s primary objective was digging a sea-level replacement for the Panama Canal. The California Department of Public Works (DPW) was also planning a new road through the area to shorten US Highway 66, and they joined the project as well.The AEC, DPW, and the railway together published a feasibility study in November of 1963 proposing to use 23 nuclear bombs, totaling 1,830 kilotons, to blast the new pass through the Bristols. They called the plan Project Carryall.
Twenty-two devices of 20 to 200 kilotons yield would be set off 340 to 780 feet underground. The explosions would remove 68,000,000 cubic yards of earth, creating a roughly parabolic cut 11,000 feet long, 360 feet deep, and from 600 to 1,300 feet wide. A final 100-kiloton device would dig a drainage crater to hold rainwater runoff from the new pass.
The California highway division dropped out of Carryall in September of 1966, unwilling to wait any longer. Projects Buggy and Schooner were finally fired in 1968. The biggest project, Galley, a five-bomb row charge blast that would be almost a rehearsal for Carryall, never took place. The Carryall project was never formally shut down, but the study was put on hold in 1965, and its last official mention was in May of 1970. The Plowshare excavation program itself terminated in 1975.
The new pass was eventually dug by more traditional means. Whew!
Once Upon a Desert, by the Mojave River Valley Museum Association Bicentennial Project, Edited by Patricia Jernigan Keeling, 1976