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A Brief History of the Mojave Phone Booth

phone booth next to joshua tree in Mojave desert
Mwf95 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

For more than 50 years, something curious awaited people adventurous enough to visit the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County, California: a solitary phone booth positioned in the middle of the desert. It worked, too—and although the Mojave phone booth, as it was called, went largely unnoticed for most of its lifetime, the last few years of its existence brought with them a notoriety the likes of which most telecommunications devices can only dream. (Insofar as machines are capable of dreaming, that is.)

The history of the Mojave phone booth is an odd one—almost as odd as the device itself.

Here’s the story of the Mojave Desert’s lone phone booth—from its humble beginnings to its explosive end.

The Phone’s Arrival

Mining of all sorts has been undertaken in what’s now the Mojave National Preserve for more than 160 years. The first significant mining activity in the area, which kicked up in the 1860s, was centered around the discovery of silver; however, in the years since then, minerals of all kinds have been unearthed, including gold, lead, zinc, copper, tungsten, vanadium, and iron. Clay and cinders have also been mined in the area.

We have one cinder mine in particular to thank for the arrival of the Mojave phone booth: the Cima Cinder Mine. Owned and operated by Emerson Ray, it began operating around 1948. At this time, Ray requested the installation of a telephone so his miners would have at least some means of communication with the outside world. The request was approved, and shortly thereafter, a hand-crank telephone that operated via a magneto generator (known as Cinder Peak 2) was set up along a phone line that ran from Highway 91 to Route 66, straight through the east part of the Mojave Desert.

The phone, which was capable of both making and receiving calls, stood in that same spot for decades, although it underwent a few changes as the years passed. In the 1960s, the phone was upgraded from the original hand-cranked device to a rotary payphone; then, in the late 1980s, the rotary payphone was swapped out for a touch-tone one. The number also changed a few times; originally, it was BAker-3-9969, back when it was still on the exchange system; later, after the North American Numbering Plan kicked in, it became 213-733-9969. It also held various area codes over the years, including 714, 619, and, finally, 760.

The Cima Cinder Mine operated through the 1990s, with the phone booth continuing to service the area. After the original owner Emerson Ray’s death, his daughter, Lorene Caffee, and her husband, Terence, took over operations; however, it was eventually shut down in 1999 amidst concerns over mining activity within what had been the Mojave National Preserve since 1994.

But the phone booth? That stayed—and it would soon become a sensation.

The Rise of an Icon

At the end of May in 1997, Arizona resident Godfrey Daniels (who goes by Doc) was reading the latest issue of Wig Out!, the zine published by the band Girl Trouble. As he flipped through the issue, he spotted something odd among the letters to the editor: A message someone from California going by the name “Mr. N” had written about a weird phone booth they had found in the middle of the Mojave Desert, about “15 miles from the main intersection” and “in the middle of nowhere,” as the writer put it. The letter included the booth’s phone number at the time, 619-733-9969.

The idea of a random phone booth just sitting out in the middle of nowhere—especially in a time before mobile phones were truly the norm—fascinated Daniels. “When you were out in the desert in those days, you were on your own. You couldn’t call people,” he told NPR’s Snap Judgment in 2014. “So the idea that there could be this phone booth just sitting out in an un-contactable place, it was kind of like, if somebody was on the moon, you know, and you could talk to somebody on the moon.”

Joshua tree in desert against sunset

So, he did what anyone with a sufficient sense of curiosity would do in this situation: He called the number.

Initially, it just rang. But Daniels didn’t stop at one call; he began calling it every day, becoming, as he put it, “obsessed.” And eventually, someone picked up: Lorene Caffee. He had a chat with Lorene, who told him exactly where he could find the phone booth, and encouraged him to come visit when he said his plan was to do so at some point.

And visit, he did—many times over the years, in fact. He took his first trip to the Mojave phone booth in August of 1997, driving out to California with a friend from his home in Arizona, and found it looking lonely in the dark. Most of its glass had been shot out—but, said Daniels to NPR, despite the fact that it was “kind of a wreck,” he found it “just… beautiful.” He sat there for several hours making calls from the lonely phone booth in the middle of the desert.

Upon returning home, he knew he’d probably continue to call the phone booth periodically from then on—but he thought the story itself was mostly over. And perhaps it would have been, had he not done something else—something that turned out to be a crucial development in the phone booth’s rise from obscure telecommunications device to cultural icon: He created a website for it.

This website, which documented Daniels’ journey with the Mojave phone booth and listed its current phone number, allowed word of the booth to spread far and wide. By the time Daniels made another trip to the phone booth roughly a year after the first one, the phone was no longer silent; it was ringing nonstop. News coverage in several major outlets followed, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. People from all over the world were calling it: An IT worker from South Carolina, a 20-year-old babysitter in Boston, a pizza delivery guy in southern California, a teenager in Hamburg, Germany, a stay-at-home spouse from New Zealand, a repeated mystery caller who identified themself as only “Sgt. Zeno from the Pentagon,” and more.

People began making pilgrimages to this strange, no longer quite so lonely phone booth in the middle of the desert. They left tributes and offerings—toys, candles, license plates, and so on—and drew pictures and left messages. They patched up the holes in the booth’s glass walls with Band-Aids. And, for a time, the booth was beloved.

Alas, though, all things must come to an end—and the Mojave phone booth’s end was closer than anyone thought.

The End of an Era

Amidst growing concerns about the increased tourist traffic to the phone booth and the effects it might have on the Mojave National Preserve, the National Park Service (which is in charge of the preserve) and Pacific Bell (which serviced the booth) made the decision to remove the Mojave phone booth from its longtime home in 2000. “After weighing environmental concerns and public need, Pacific Bell and the National Park Service agreed to remove a pay phone located in a remote pocket of the Mojave National Preserve,” their joint statement read, according to a report from Wired published at the time of the removal.

Those who loved the booth weren’t happy about its removal, but they were out of luck: Despite their protests, the booth came down on May 17, 2000, and the phone associated with it was officially retired. The booth itself has also reportedly been destroyed.

But the story isn’t quite over.

Daniels’ phone booth website hasn’t been updated for a few years, but it’s still live; it also retains its late ‘90s aesthetic and design, making it as much a blast from the past as the phone booth itself was. He also funded the publication of a book, Adventures with the Mojave Phone Booth, via Kickstarter in 2014; the book was finally made available in 2018 and can still be purchased via Amazon as a paperback or directly from Daniels as a PDF. HE also sells signed paperbacks as well.

In 2013, some happy news arrived: The Mojave phone booth had been revived, in a sense. Jered Morgan, a phone phreak who goes by the handle Lucky225, acquired the booth’s final phone number, 760-733-9969, and set it up to function as a conference line. The upshot? You can still talk to random people by calling the Mojave phone booth’s number, even if the booth itself is no more.

In the digital age, nothing ever truly dies—and, true to form, the Mojave phone booth lives on.

Lucia Peters Lucia Peters
Lucia Peters is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared at Bustle, The Toast, Crushable, The Gloss, and others. She also writes and manages The Ghost In My Machine, where she haunts readers several times weekly with spooky stories of the strange and unusual. Her first book, Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, was published by Chronicle Books in September of 2019. Read Full Bio »