Visiting Amboy: California's Favorite Pit-Stop

Heather Monroe

In the middle of California's vast Mohave Desert exists a town too quaint to die

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Famous Roy's Cafe Sign at Amboy in front of the motelPhotographersnature/Wikimedia

Route 66 enthusiasts are always glad to reach Amboy in San Bernardino County. The giant midcentury neon sign advertises Roy's Cafe. A gas station and a few scattered buildings break through the sand and shrubbery like a mirage.

In a sense, Amboy is a mirage. The motel closed long ago, and the once-bustling cafe is now a gift shop. Aside from souvenirs and cold drinks, Amboy has two commodities: expensive gasoline and nostalgia. Motorists are happy to see both.

History

Driving to Amboy from Joshua tree, you know you are close when the plants slowly disappear, giving way to a sandy, lifeless terrain. You will cross a series of canals full of what appears to be vivid blue water. These canals are the National Chloride Company of America and where the history of Amboy begins.

The tiny town of Amboy lies just north of one of the richest salt mines in the world. Rainwater pushes so much calcium chloride into the groundwater that it becomes ten times saltier than the ocean. The water in Amboy isn't even close to drinkable, and all four residents must have water hauled in to survive.

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Salt Flats of Amboy, CAHeather Monroe

Amboy was settled in 1858 to house railroad workers and employees of the calcium chloride mine. The original town center was closer to the railroad tracks than the current town.

Amboy's founder, Lewis Kingman, created a series of villages along what is now called The National Trails Highway. He named each town in alphabetical order, with Amboy being the first, followed by Bagdad, Chambless, Danby, so on and so forth, until you eventually reach Williams, Arizona.

Work at the railroad and salt mines brought families to the community. Rather than transport children far from town to attend school, a wooden schoolhouse was built in 1903. Amboy slowly outgrew the original schoolhouse by 1960 and built a new school and playground across the highway.

In 1926, route 66 brought travelers through the center of the tiny desert town. Amboy served as a central stopping point on The Mother Road.

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Amboy SchoolOziris/Wikimedia Commons

Development

Roy and Velma Crowl had the good fortune to break down on the road at Amboy in 1924. Unable to pay their repair bill, they each took jobs in town. The couple never left.

The Crowl family watched as workers built a new highway and residents opened new businesses. Amboy, as the Crowls saw it, represented an opportunity.

The desolate location of Amboy is the reason it survived the great depression and World War II. Despite unfavorable financial conditions, Americans still needed to travel, and they still needed to eat. So the couple saved their money, and in 1938, opened the iconic Roy's Cafe.

Roy's Cafe quickly became a landmark. Visitors traveling East towards Arizona or West towards Los Angeles all passed through Amboy, and all of them were hungry. Just as today, the closest towns with food or toilets were around two hours away.

By the 1940s, the Crowls expanded upon the success of the restaurant and built a motel. The motel consisted of tiny bungalows with private bathrooms. The motel lobby was elegant and modern, especially for a remote desert town.

Amboy enjoyed its status as the crown jewel of the Mohave until the construction of Interstate 40 in 1973. I-40 bypassed Amboy completely. It was quicker and straighter than the old Route 66. Without tourism, Amboy's population began to diminish. Amboy became part of the scenic route.

Today

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Roy's Cafe at nightHeather Monroe

Today, little remains of the town that once serviced so many. With decreased population, the buildings began to decay. Even so, modern travelers are grateful to see the impossibly tall neon sign flashing "Roy's Cafe" against the night sky.

The cafe is gone, and gas runs high, but a person can still get a cold drink and use the facilities. The more adventurous types can do a little exploring.

Please don't enter any of the buildings without permission, as some are on private property, and most are unsafe. You are welcome to view them from the outside.

A few of the old motel rooms are open for viewing. The lobby remains a mid-century time capsule, exactly as it appeared in its heyday. The school still stands next to the cafe. Across the street is a post office that serves Amboy's population of five people.

Also visible are St. Raymond's Catholic Church and parsonage. Dedicated in 1953, the church once boasted a congregation of more than 100 souls. The steeple toppled over in 2013, but you can peek inside and view the mural just behind the pulpit.

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A peek inside the church window reveals a dimly lit sanctuaryHeather Monroe

Next to the church, you can find the old cemetery. All but two of the graves are unmarked. Townsfolk have lovingly maintained each rock-mound grave with a wooden cross. The cemetery consists of 47 gravesites inside the parameter and at least eight just outside the gates. Newspapers report burials here as early as 1908, but some are likely much older.

By far, the oldest surviving landmark in Amboy is a 1500x250 foot crater. Amboy Crater, designated in 1973 as a National Natural Landmark, is an example of an extinct symmetrical volcano. Its ancient lava field covers 24 square miles. Although trails to the crater exist, visitors are discouraged from hiking to it during the dangerously hot summer months.

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Amboy CemeteryHeather Monroe

Tomorrow

All is not lost for Amboy, despite the tiny population and decaying buildings. In 2005, Albert Okura, owner of Juan Pollo chicken restaurants, purchased the whole town. He bought Amboy from long-time resident and owner Bessie Burris for a mere $425,000.

Mr. Okura plans to restore the town to its former glory. Occasionally, he rents out the little motel cottages for art installations. He also makes Amboy available for filming purposes. Amboy has appeared in several movies, such as Kalifornia(1993) and The Hitcher(1986).

Next time you travel to Vegas, why not take the scenic route, and stop by Amboy? Take in some California history, and see the lesser-known sights. Just make sure you gas up first.

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Route 66Image by Sue Lowe from Pixabay

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I am a freelance writer, mom, and genealogist from California. I adore rock hounding, and living my best RV life.

Los Angeles, CA
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