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For Hamlet: To Be or Not to Be?

Remote former mining camp may become a ghost town again if private prison closes.

October 03, 2003|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

EAGLE MOUNTAIN, Calif. — In a last-ditch effort to keep this remote company town from dying, Eagle Mountain operations manager Jan Roberts is calling on anyone who might be able to help: state lawmakers, federal land authorities, even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who worked here a decade ago during the filming of a "Terminator" movie.

The California Department of Corrections plans to cease funding a privately operated prison nearby, the lifeblood of the town. The prison, and many of its employees, lease property and homes from the community's owner, Kaiser Ventures.

Kaiser has instructed Roberts to mothball the former mining camp -- established during World War II -- if the prison closes as planned in December.

Standing on a 1,000-foot-tall mound of mine tailings and surveying the little town below, Roberts sighed and said, "The prison has got to stay open."

"I've been kissing a lot of frogs lately, hoping one of them will turn into a prince who can turn things around," she said. "I won't let this town go down without trying everything I can."

Eagle Mountain has died before.

Kaiser, which maintains the community -- midway between Indio and Blythe -- where 3,750 people once lived, ceased active mining here in 1983, and boarded up 381 homes, eight churches, a beauty parlor, a bank, a movie theater, a gas station, a bowling alley and two of its three schools.

It remained a ghost town until 1988, when Management and Training Corp. of Utah contracted with the state to run the Eagle Mountain Community Correctional Facility for minimum-security inmates.

The prison provided jobs for the 300 residents who remained in town. But they still had to drive 10 miles for a gallon of milk and 65 miles to see a doctor.

Its property lease with Kaiser also ensured that the steel company, which filed for bankruptcy in 1987, would not have to cut back on medical benefits for its 7,000 retirees.

Eagle Mountain High School remained as an elementary school for children living in desert communities within 50 miles.

Today, that campus has 60 students, along with a principal, three teachers, three aides, a secretary, an accountant and a bus driver. Its swimming pool is cracked and empty. Its music room has a closet of neatly pressed 20-year-old band uniforms too big for the students.

The school is surrounded by abandoned homes on weed-choked streets at the base of what was once among the nation's most productive iron ore mines.

In September, the Department of Corrections notified Roberts that it had decided to close three contract prisons, including Eagle Mountain, as a cost-cutting measure. The action would drop the number of such facilities statewide to 12.

News of their impending move has rocked Eagle Mountain's residents. Again.

School secretary Connie Ottinger, 45, said, "I get sick just thinking about the prospect of watching this town go through another closure."

"The last time it happened," she said, "outsiders came in and broke windows and kicked in doors, even hung a dead cat and coyote from the ceiling of our Mormon church."

She added: "How many times can a town die?"

Night watchman Rodney Brooks wonders the same thing as he makes the rounds, replaying memories of better times.

"Eagle Mountain was a great place to grow up," he said, driving a company jeep down a lonely lane called Elm Street. "The lawns were green, the homes were occupied, and folks had all the quirks you might expect in a place like this."

"I rode motorcycles down these streets when I was just 7 years old," he said. "When I got a little older, I jumped on railroad cars for fun and turned $25 cars into sand buggies."

"Will it ever return to the way it was?" he asked. "I sure hope so."

Down the road at McGoos Country Store, Ken Statler has been gathering signatures from locals who also want to "keep that town, and its school, open."

Leaning back in a chair in a back room of the store he has operated for two decades, Statler said, "when the mine closed, we fought hard to get that prison. When we got it, we thought it was something that would last for a long, long time."

Now, Roberts and Statler are desperately seeking someone with the clout to keep the prison open, or the funds to turn the property into a retirement community, a rehabilitation center for substance abusers, a job training facility, an industrial park or a prison for geriatric inmates.

Roberts sent a letter Thursday to gubernatorial candidate Schwarzenegger, seeking a review of the decision to shut the prison. That is, if he wins Tuesday's recall election.

But so far, no takers for the town have surfaced. Eagle Mountain is a hard sell. The area's inherent problems are exacerbated by strict state and county regulations governing water and air quality, as well as higher energy costs.

Then there is the lawsuit filed a few years ago to block a proposal to haul Los Angeles trash by rail to Eagle Mountain's abandoned mining pits.

With the planned closure of the prison only two months away, Roberts and others are running out of ideas.

"People will move, real estate will go down, business will be hurt and the school will close, meaning those students will have to be bused to Blythe," said Margit Chiriaco-Rushe, 65, a business owner and member of a pioneer family in these parts.

"If Eagle Mountain closes, there will be a very serious ripple effect throughout the region," she said. "I think Eagle Mountain is worth fighting for."

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