ghost town news photo

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By BEAU YARBROUGH | byarbrough@scng.com | The Press-Enterprise PUBLISHED: August 13, 2021 at 8:23 a.m. | UPDATED: August 13, 2021 at 9:18 a.m.

The Desert Center Cafe sits abandoned Friday, July 30, 2021. The outpost in eastern Riverside County has been sold for $6.25 million. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Riverside County desert ghost town sells for $6 million

A century after its founding by “Desert Steve” Ragsdale, a truck stop owner scored the winning bid at an auction.

Nothing moves on Ragsdale Road. Cars whiz past on the 10 Freeway about 100 yards away.

At an abandoned gas station, the pumps are stripped of their outer shells and wiring. The convenience store is covered in graffiti, its door kicked in, contents looted. Nearby restrooms are smashed and unworkable, but the stench suggests that hasnʼt stopped everyone from using them. The sign over the station announces 24-hour service, a claim that hasnʼt been true in years.

Desert Center doesnʼt look like itʼs worth $6.25 million.

Thatʼs what Riverside resident Balwinder Singh Wraich paid at auction July 13 for the 1,034.78 acres of property in and around Desert Center. What he does with the land could radically transform a region thatʼs home to people whoʼve spent generations in desert solitude.

Hereʼs what else $6 million can get you in todayʼs Southern California real estate market:

A 3,200-square foot Palm Springs house, designed by architect Ray Kappe, with spectacular views of the city and

surrounding mountains.

  • A 6,000-square foot, six-bedroom, seven-bathroom “retreat” in Malibu Canyon, on an 8-acre property.
  • A 3,750-square foot, five-bedroom, four-bathroom house literally on the beach in Dana Point.

But Desert Center is a largely empty desert outpost in the Chuckwalla Valley, about 50 miles from either Blythe or Indio, almost exactly halfway between Los Angeles and Phoenix. The land Wraich bought includes two gas stations, a cafe, a hotel, store, school and the gravesite of a former cafe cook — all abandoned.

Desert Center has no city council or other government. But the U.S. Census Bureau lists it as a spot where people have come together, even though itʼs not a formal town or city. The bureau estimates 216 people lived there in 2019, with a median age of 70.6 years old.

The Desert Center Unified School District teaches 29 students, according to the California Department of Education, ranging from kindergarten through 8th grade. The district operates just one of its former five schools. The others shut down after Kaiser Steelʼs nearby Eagle Mountain mine closed in 1983. High school students travel about 50 miles each way to attend classes in Blythe. The shell of a former school, caked in graffiti, with broken glass and ceramic tile covering the floor, is visible to freeway motorists zipping past Desert Center.

The road behind

According to legend, in 1915, Kansas-born Stephen Ragsdale and his wife Lydia were driving to Los Angeles, before breaking down on the dirt wagon road between Blythe and Indio. Rescued by a prospector, Ragsdale saw opportunity in the other motorists crossing the Colorado Desert.

“Heʼd seen numerous people who had been unprepared crossing the desert, so he conceived of the idea of having a rest stop at the halfway point,” said Steve Lech, a historian and author who co-writes The Press-Enterpriseʼs Back in the Day local history column. “Thatʼs why he called it Desert Center: It was kind of a marketing ploy.” Opened in September 1921, Desert Center was a family affair.

 

“He would run the tow truck and pump gas. His wife would run the café and do the cooking,” Lech said. “He had two sons and a daughter and they would do auto repairs and work at the center.”

Ragsdale, rebranding himself “Desert Steve,” had dreams of expanding Desert Center, according to Lech. But Ragsdale believed in temperance: Even after Prohibition ended in 1933, he didnʼt want tenants to serve or sell alcohol. His lawyer said Ragsdale couldnʼt legally prohibit alcohol.

So Desert Center stayed small. Margit Chiriaco Ruscheʼs parents started the competing community and

rest stop of Chiriaco Summit, 19 miles to the west, on the western rim of the Chuckwalla Valley. They spent decades as frenemies of the Ragsdales. According to Rusche, Steve Ragsdale vowed to “run that

upstart Italian out of town” when Joe and Ruth Chiriaco moved there in 1933.

“It was very remote,” Rusche said. “As little kids, we pumped gas, we made hamburgers.”

Today, sheʼs CEO of Chiriaco Summit. It offers food, gas and the General Patton Memorial Museum for road-weary travelers. A motel and a mobile home and RV park are planned.

After his death in 1971, Ragsdaleʼs son Stanley ran Desert Center until he died in 1999. He kept it small, turning down offers from fast-food chains and others who wanted to “improve” the outpost.

Stanleyʼs six kids couldnʼt agree on how to manage the businesses, so Desert Center gradually shut down. Their battle spent two decades in probate court. It might be the longest probate case in county history, according to Paula Turner, the real estate agent whose Coachella Valley firm handled the sale.

“I havenʼt sold a town before,” she said. “This is my first town!”

Even before the auction, Rusche had tried to buy a piece of Desert Center more than once.

“When they were closing down, we were going through a contract to lease the (Desert Center) coffee shop to update it.

Thousands and thousands of dollars later, one of the brothers said ʻNo, not with a Chiriaco,ʼ” she said.

Rusche then tried to buy part of the property, but the family member selling it didnʼt have the clear legal right to do so.

Finally, Riverside County had enough.

“The judge said ʻItʼs been 20 years, weʼre putting it up for auction,ʼ” Rusche said.

Wraich did not respond to repeated requests for comment. His family runs the Fontana-based trucking company Wraich

Transport, which includes the Wraich Travel Plaza truck stop in Fontana.

The property was put up for auction for $5 million, before Wraich outbid Rusche, winning Desert Center with a $6.25 million bid. That brought an end to the Ragsdalesʼ ownership of the community founded by their patriarch. Members of the Ragsdale family declined to comment.

“Thatʼs how it goes,” Rusche said. “We decided that dirt wasnʼt worth that much money.”

In the end, the Chiriacos did get a bit of Desert Center, purchasing a totem pole that once stood outside the cafe. It will be going up at Chiriaco Summit soon, Rusche said.

 

The here and now

Trucks idle in vacant lots, curtains drawn as drivers presumably get some sleep. The roof of the Desert Center Market is caved in, roof beams crashed down around empty ice cream and soda refrigerators. A

sign in the window reads “Sorry, weʼre closed.”

Someone appears to have walked away from the boarded-up cafe mid-cleaning. A bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels on a table caked in a thick layer of dust are visible through the windows.

Only the U.S. Post Office is still open. The other three shops in the tiny strip mall are long since closed. They seem to have shut down mid-renovation, with paint cans and drop clothes covered in dust visible inside.

“They let it go really bad,” said Harold Copeland, whose first job was working at Desert Center in 1977. “They should have sold something a long time ago and made something of it.”

Few live in Desert Center today. The biggest nearby population center is at Lake Tamarisk, 2 1/2 miles away. A few dozen homes cluster around a county-run nine-hole golf course. The residents are mostly “hermits,” according to one.

Copeland grew up in Eagle Mountain, moving there in 1967. He now lives in Indio, but his mother still lives at Lake Tamarisk.

“They love it out there because itʼs just so quiet,” Copeland said. “The streets rolled up at 6 oʼclock, but we learned to live with it.”

The lack of things to do in the Chuckwalla Valley is part of the attraction for some.

“Thereʼs no temptations,” said Adrianna Ornales, taking a midday dip in Lake Tamarisk with other members of the Set Free church congregation. The pool at the nearby community center is dry and the

center itself locked up. It was 104 degrees at midafternoon on July 30. Ornales moved to Desert Center in 2018, along with about four dozen other members of her church, to escape the seductions of the big city. “Itʼs our little safety bubble out here,” she said. Ornales works at Lake Tamariskʼs one-room library, open three days a week, that shares a building with the small county firehouse. She hopes Wraich can bring Desert Center back to life.

“I hope he does something with it,” Ornales said. “More job opportunities, so people can get on their feet.” The other big population center is Lake Tamarisk Resort, a mobile

home and RV park for those 55 years old and up. Many of the 150 trailers and RV spots are empty now, the snowbirds flown away to cooler climes. Once upon a time, it was a park for high-end Airstream trailers. Before that, it served the World War II era Desert Training Center first run by Major Gen. George S. Patton.

Brenda Cervantes, who with her husband has managed the resort about a year, also wants to see Desert Center revitalized. “They need some business brought back here,” she said. “People call and say ʻWhereʼs your gas station?ʼ”

The nearest one is 19 miles away, in Chiriaco Summit. Groceries mean a 50-mile trip to Blythe or Indio.

“Weʼre self-sufficient,” Rusche said. “Thatʼs part of being desert people.”

Cervantes believes Desert Center can be restored without losing the quiet isolation residents enjoy.

“Weʼre hoping something good comes in,” Cervantes said. But no one ends up staying in Desert Center by accident. “Weʼre our own little oasis out here,” Cervantes said. “Most everyone comes here because itʼs out of the way.”

The Road Ahead

Copeland has high hopes for Wraichʼs Desert Center.

“I think theyʼll build a big truck stop right there and maybe houses or condos for the people who work there,” Copeland said.

Rusche is skeptical. Desert Center doesnʼt have its own source of potable water, she said. And the historic buildings will need to be completely torn down.

Wraich has “got a lot of hoops to jump through,” Rusche said. “Heʼs got to get through the county process, which is hard.”

She thinks the land is best suited for something modest.

“Why build a truck stop in California so close to the border where they can get their gas so much cheaper than they can here?”

Rusche said. “To me, it doesnʼt make that much sense.”

Change has come to the desert, of course. North of Lake Tamarisk, a huge solar farm has gone in. And in cooler weather, visitors race at the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. But most days are quiet, especially during the hottest days of summer.

Whatever else might change, Chuckwalla Valley residents say the desertʼs appeal is eternal.

“Itʼs a really tight community still,” Copeland said.

When skeptics ask him about growing up in the Chuckwalla Valley, “I say ʻhow many friends do you hang out with from your high school?ʼ And they say none, because there were 500 people in their graduating class. I still see everyone, because there were 35 in my graduation class.”

His graduating class still gets together annually, he said.

“It would be hard for me to live anywhere else,” Rusche said. “We have freedom and we have the mountains that are a different color every time you look at them.”

But for now, the traffic on the 10 keeps racing past.