Monday, January 25, 2010

The Castle and the Ghost Town: The Wrapup

Notes from Lynn:

When a few years ago we arrived in a quaint English town, the first in the world to be named Ludlow, we stayed in a B&B over a pub. Margo signed the register with my name. In a weary voice, the burly bartender/landlord asked only, “Couldn’t you be more original?”

When we arrived in mid-December in an unquaint Mojave Desert town, the last in the world to be named Ludlow, we stopped at the only restaurant. I told the sun-dried waitress my surname. But in a weary voice, she asked only, “What would you folks like?”

This is a message to all Ludlows:

1. Go to County Shropshire in the west of England. And if you do…

Find the ruins of a Norman castle atop a hill. It’s surrounded by picturesque Ludlow, described by Country Life magazine as “the most vibrant small town in England.” Before it grew, it was a medieval walled town. A lot of history. Two Michelin-starred restaurants. Cobbled streets. Half-timbered Tudor buildings. At the historic St. Laurence Church, the poet A.E. Houseman (“A Shropshire Lad”) is buried next to the stump of a cherry tree.

They say the castle is alive, in a manner of speaking, with ghosts.

The town, according to several sources, was named by the Britons for “hlud” (meaning “loud”) and “hlaw” (meaning “hill”), as in “hill by the loud river.” Hludhlaw, its name changed by the Normans to Ludelowe, goes back about 1,000 years, give or take a century. The population today is about 10,000.

Victor L. Ludlow, Ph.D., a professor at Brigham Young University with a Mormon fascination for genealogy, writes in his website that one of the denizens in the 12th century town moved out and settled elsewhere in County Shropshire. Believed to be a sheepman, he would have been called “de Ludelowe,” meaning “from Ludlow.”

A footnote: “As can best be determined by Ludlow family historians, almost all individuals throughout the world with the Ludlow surname are one extended family descending from this common progenitor.”


Sheepishly, let’s quote Cole Porter: It’s delightful. It’s delicious. It’s de-lovely. It’s de Ludelowe.

(Note to “the extended family”: According to the phone books of County Shropshire and San Bernardino County, neither of the Ludlow towns has anybody listed by the name of Ludlow.)

Shopping tip: Buy souvenirs, such as Ludlow Castle coffee cups, to present to Ludlows who stayed back home.

2. Don’t go to the Mojave Desert. But if you do…

Find Old Route 66 and the ghostly town of Ludlow about 50 bleak miles east of Barstow. Find the ruins of wind-tattered barns, abandoned gas stations and tumbledown stores. Find wooden crosses leaning crazily in a forgotten cemetery.

The town with my name was founded in 1882. It’s popular with photographers. They must like shooting a moody picture of a godforsaken gas station with a huge batwing canopy in a land of little rain and lots of sun.

With creosote bushes in front and the Sawtooth Mountains in the background, Ludlow-of-the-Desert is the bipolar opposite of Ludlow-of-the-Castle.

The crossroads hamlet was founded in 1882 as a railroad water stop on tracks laid by the Southern Pacific but soon leased to the Atlantic & Pacific, a subsidiary of what would become the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad. The station was also a depot for the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, which hauled borax from Boron from 1907 to 1940.

I once liked to speculate that the town’s name came from a drunken ancestor who fell off the train. Instead, the dubious honor goes to William B. Ludlow, a master car repairer for one of the railroads. His name has disappeared from the records, but he was probably too wise to move eponymously to a forlorn crossroads so isolated, unshaded and cheerless that the average desert rat would prefer to go north to Death Valley.

In 1898, a roadmaster with the A&P searched for springs in the hills to find water for his steam locomotives. He failed. Instead, he found copper and gold. Prospectors and miners showed up by the hundreds. A spate of prosperity came to Ludlow, along with nearby Amboy, Bagdad and other railroad towns. (At right, Ludlow a century ago.) The rail yards were home to the Ludlow and Southern, Tonopah & Tidewater and the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe. The town in the early 20th century had two general stores, three cafes and saloons, a pool hall, two rooming houses and a barber shop, but water had to be delivered by rail from Newberry Springs.
It took decades, but the mines eventually gave out. They left hundreds of holes in the hills (in all of San Bernardino County, about 22,000). The railroads withered.

Most of the West celebrated when Congress voted for the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921. Five years later, work began on a paved highway on a diagonal course that tied together hundreds of isolated towns from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Inhabitants of Ludlow didn’t rejoice. The new U.S. Highway 66, soon known to all as Route 66, missed their town by more than 1,000 feet. That was enough to cripple the old town by the tracks. Ludlow moved up to Route 66 to see what could be mined from the new bonanza of cars and trucks. (Included in the westward migration were many if not most of 200,000 refugees from the Dust Bowl’s parched fields, failed banks and Simon Legrees. When John Steinbeck wrote about them in “Grapes of Wrath,” he called Route 66 the Mother Road. The name stuck.)

In 1940, the Tonopah and Tidewater went out of business. The tracks were torn up in 1942. Up on what old-timers called “the hard road” motorists could stop at the Ludlow Café, buy gas, look for a motor court and replace the radiator. By 1941, Route 66 carried 7,500 trucks a day and became a legend.

Bobby Troup wrote the song. He sold it to Nat King Cole:

If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, the highway that's the best.
Get your kicks on Route 66!

Starting in 1960, Tod (Martin Milner) and Buz (George Maharis) climbed into their Corvette for weekly adventures in the CBS series, "Route 66." (Buz is on the right, Tod on the left.) When ailments forced Maharis to drop out, Lincoln (Glenn Corbett) took over. The show lasted until 1964. It was the heyday of the highway. In his Road Wanderer website, Guy Randall describes Ludlow as “a welcome stop for the tired and thirsty traveler, a place to get away from the heat of the Mojave Desert.”

But that was before the arrival in 1984 of the Interstate and the dismemberment of the Mother Road.

We had driven through Needles, headed for home, when we pulled off the four-lane freeway to explore a stretch of Old Route 66 that hadn’t been covered by U.S. Highway 40 (the Interstate). We drove past the ruins of Bagdad, a hamlet turned into dust when bypassed by the Interstate. In Amboy, they say Roy’s Café, once a familiar landmark, is being reopened by the investor who now owns the entire town. (Amboy’s population was about 700 in 1950; today it’s about five.)

As we approached Ludlow, we stopped to look at an abandoned gas station with a soaring, 1950s batwing canopy (see above). The old Ludlow Café is boarded up. Half a dozen other structures, their original functions now difficult to diagnose, stand empty.

The Ludlow Motel appeared to be closed, but it’s the slow season.

We didn’t have time to do more than a quick look, but we saw a couple of trailers, industrial-type properties and the A-frame of the area’s only restaurant. It was renamed the Ludlow Coffee Café after the first Ludlow Cafe down the road went, so to speak, belly up. We stopped for lunch. The décor included rusty farm tools and horseshoes on the walls, but there was nothing rusty about the service or the food. We had escaped for a half hour from the world of Applebee's, McDonald's and Denny's. In the spirit of Route 66, we could glimpse the variety of life outside the berms of the freeways and the interchanges with self-serve gas stations and "food marts" that look the same from the Mojave to Des Moines.

Installed in front of the restaurant are relics from the Ludlow Mine and a brass plaque engraved with the history of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. The plaque was contributed by E Clampus Vitus with the approval of the Knoll Family. A stroll through the Internet tells us that the family owns most of Ludlow, including the restaurant (see below, left). At the nearby Ludlow Exit from I-40, the Knolls are listed as owners of the two new gas stations on either side of the freeway.

In “Travels With Charley,” John Steinbeck wrote, “And the desert, the dry and sun-lashed desert, is a good school in which to observe the cleverness and the infinite variety of techniques of survival under pitiless opposition.”

That being true, except when it’s not, someone coined a slogan for Ludlow: “The ghost town that refuses to die.”

Maybe so. Senator Dianne Feinstein submitted legislation in December to create, among other desert-related proposals, the Mojave Trails National Monument. It would ban most development, including solar and wind farms, from 914,000 acres of land along 105 miles of little-used Route 66 from Ludlow to Needles. (Wildlands Conservancy bought the railroad land with private donations; the rest is federal, administered by the Bureau of Land Management.)

A National Monument? Who knew?

Most motorists speed past without looking back at the barren landscape around Ludlow, but Feinstein’s words would make the town’s ghosts burst into spectral tears. “This magnificent land and its lonely beauty are a significant part of our history,” she writes, “and we shouldn’t give it up.”

Shopping tip: Buy “Julie,” a video recording by an Atlanta-based pop rock band called Last November. The performance was taped in beautiful downtown Ludlow, with derelict buildings and barren hills as backdrops. To save a trip to the ghost town that refuses to die, you can watch the show on YouTube:

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