Exploring the history of Route 66 through photography: Goffs Cultural Center

I woke to horrible news. Before I had gotten out of bed, I saw a photo of the historic Goffs General Store along Route 66 engulfed in flames. An abandoned home in Goffs had burned the same day, as had an abandoned building in nearby Essex. Officials suspected foul play.

I had been working on my third book, a history and night photography book about Route 66, and had photographed Goffs before. I knew Goffs had played an important part of that history.

And I was to have photographed that structure a week later.

Saving history through photography

I had photographed Goffs General Store before. I now felt fortunate that I had done so.

The photo that saved the Goffs General Store and Saloon sign.

Also, I had photographed the store sign at night. It had fallen and was leaning against one of the exterior walls. Someone had seen the sign. That person brought it to the attention of the nearby Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association in Goffs. They took the sign over to the cultural center for preservation.

Now, that sign was all that was left of Goffs General Store.

Route 66 and Goffs

Goffs is an almost-ghost town. There are few residents left. Located hours from Los Angeles or Las Vegas, it sits on an old alignment of Route 66 approximately half an hour west of Needles, CA. The town prospered until 1931, when Route 66 was realigned and bypassed Goffs by six miles.

The restored Goffs Schoolhouse, photographed at night with a Lensbaby Edge 35 Optic, which produces a side-to-side, slice of focus effect.

The cultural center includes the restored historic mission-style Goffs Schoolhouse, built in 1914. The school served students until 1937. After that, things changed. The U.S. Army stationed troops in Goffs during World War II, with the school serving as a cafe for soldiers. It eventually fell into disrepair before Dennis and Jo Ann Casebier purchased it. They and MDHCA eventually raised money and restored the historic structure.

The cultural center also has an impressive outdoor display of items from the Mojave Desert and Route 66, occupying some of the 70-acre property. This land was donated to the Association by the Casebiers.

I was going to stay there for three nights.

The perfect place to stay

Night photo of an old vintage gas pump at Goffs Cultural Center.

The last time I had photographed the cultural center, one of the volunteers asked if I wanted to stay there the next time I visited. It’s a fantastic place for history as well as for night photography. Everyone there is extremely friendly. I was excited.

Goffs is spitting distance from the fascinating Mojave National Preserve. It’s also reasonably close to many historic areas that I would want to photograph or visit along Route 66, including Amboy, Essex, Oatman, Yucca and, of course, Goffs itself. Other places to stay are at least half an hour away or more. Therefore, it would also drastically reduce the amount of late-night driving.

A beautiful surprise

I was greeted warmly by Mo and Judy on June 21, 2021. They showed me where I was staying. It was a comfortable single-wide trailer with air conditioning, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a sitting area with a microwave. Luxurious!

To stay here, I became a member of the association. I also left a donation. There’s no way I couldn’t.

My trailer sat among numerous travel trailers or RVs. The cultural center holds various events. Members and guests gather for a still-operating historic 10-stamp mill in April, the Mojave Road Rendezvous in October and even a camel trek along 90 miles of the Mojave Trail. They can stay in one of the trailers.

The first night of photography

Night photo, Goffs Cultural Center, showing the movement of the stars over long periods of time.

I wandered the grounds of the cultural center, photographing with a Pentax K-1 and 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, creating three to 15-minute long exposures while light painting with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device. It was a hot night. At 12:30 a.m., it was still close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. But it didn’t matter. I was out in the quiet of the desert, with only the nearby trains to break the silence.

Here today, gone tomorrow. Almost nothing left of the historic Goffs General Store. The light on the horizon is the light pollution from Las Vegas, NV, about 100 miles away.

I did briefly drive over to the Goffs General Store. To my surprise, there was nothing left. Workers had cleared the remains. I photographed the area from three different angles anyway. I included a similar angle to an earlier photo for the sake of comparison. I then returned to the cultural center to photograph more.

Finishing, I simply walked over to the trailer to go to sleep. This felt luxurious. Usually, I would have to drive back to a motel, one that was not always near.

The second night of photography

Upon waking up, I opened the outside door. An oven-blast of air greeted me. I had slept blissfully late, but now it was over 100° F outside. I retreated back inside.

I had brought lots of food. With the closest restaurant at least half an hour away, this was especially great. The trailer had a refrigerator. Actually, two. Fantastic.

Night photo of the old Whiting Brothers Motel sign in Yucca, AZ.

After consulting the Clear Outside app to determine weather conditions, I decided to drive to Yucca, AZ, a little more than an hour away. Yucca is also along Route 66. It has a number of historic signs, including a motel sign and Whiting Brothers service station sign as well as an old cafe and a truck on a pole.

I arrived during blue hour, after the sun had set. I photographed there with the same setup as the previous night.

Photographing Essex

The Wayside Cafe as well as the station and market were built in the 1930s, selling much-needed water, among other things. Illuminated by a full moon and warm white and teal light from a handheld ProtoMachines LED2.

After an hour, I drove to the almost-ghost town of Essex. It feels like there are more abandoned structures than occupied ones there. I had heard about the aforementioned structure fire from the week before. I was concerned about what would be left. Would the cafe still be standing? The old wooden homes?

I quickly saw that the building that had burned was 1.6 miles outside of the town center.

A fisheye night photo of an abandoned house along Route 66 in Essex, CA, located in the Mojave Desert. Once considered the “Mother Road,” much of Route 66 dried up when the Interstate Highway System was built.

I photographed the old Wayside Cafe, the rustic Western-style wooden homes, and an old house with the roof beams still showing, the rest of the roof stripped away. Then I grabbed the Nikon D750 and Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye to create different looks.

This was a beautifully quiet night with almost no traffic. I returned to my trailer in Goffs around 3 a.m.

The third night of photography

I woke up late. This time, upon opening the door, the air was noticeably cooler. A cloud cover had helped with that.

I visited with Laura, the Executive Director of MDHCA. I wandered the outside area around the exhibits for two hours, enjoying the cooler weather. 

Photographing at an abandoned home in Goffs

Nighttime with an abandoned camper on the property of a house recently destroyed by a fire. I lit the scene with warm white and red light from a handheld ProtoMachines during the exposure.

Laura suggested that I photograph the nearby abandoned Harris House, the house that had burned under suspicious circumstances. I ordinarily don’t photograph structures after fires, but she had mentioned that there were some interesting vehicles and trailers there. I would be photographing history.

All that was left of the house were several charred posts, lots of ash, a surprising amount of appliances and several vehicles and trailers. The area still had that sickening smell of a house fire, a smell I knew all too well since my house had caught on fire years ago. It’s a smell that you never forget.

I primarily photographed the trailers and vehicles. After a while, the smell got to me. I returned to the cultural center, just a minute away.

Atlas Engine Works boiler, photographed at night with the Lesbaby Edge 35 Optic.

This time, I used The Nikon D750 and fisheye lens as well as the Pentax with a Lensbaby Edge 35 Optic, experimenting with some different looks. I went to sleep around 3 a.m.

I will return

I woke up very late and said my goodbyes. This had been an amazing experience. And I was now a proud member of the MDHCA. As I was leaving, I was already plotting my return.


Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)

Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols



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