Road Trip Journal: Keys Desert Queen Ranch – An Oasis of Man-Made Stuff in Joshua Tree National Park

Needless to say, before there was a Joshua Tree National Park, it was just…somewhere out in the desert. Native Americans lived here first, of course, and then white men moved in, here and there, either mining or ranching. And by far the most colorful and legendary of the latter was Bill Keys, who lived here from 1910 until he dies in 1969. His Desert Queen Ranch has been preserved by the NP Service, and one can sign up for a daily tour. Which we did. I hadn’t expected to see cars, but this first sight of the place changed that quickly.

Bill Keys came here to work on the Desert Queen Mine, but after the owner died, his widow deeded the ranch to him in exchange for unpaid back wages. A few years later he went to Pasadena to do some shopping, and met his future wife behind a sales counter in a department store. it was quite a transition for her to move out here, having been a city girl. They had seven kids, three of them died young and were buried here.

During the decades that Bill lived here, the climate was somewhat wetter and there was just barely enough annual grass and other vegetation to support limited cattle ranching. And the Keys family had a huge irrigated vegetable garden and fruit orchard behind the house; his wife and the girls canned over 600 jars of the stuff every summer, in the blazing desert heat.


It’s been over a month now, so some of the details are getting fuzz, but this ex-military Jeep was traded for something shortly after the war, and Bill drove it until his death in 1969.


Presumably the seat was in better shape then. The desert sun is harsher on some materials than others.


The ranch house has been well preserved. Bill built it mostly out of recycled wood, scavenged if some other settler or miner gave up trying to make it in the harsh conditions here.


Needless to say, water was the critical ingredient to life out here. The Desert Queen had two main sources: a reservoir in a little canyon nearby created by building a dam and piping the water to the ranch, and a well. The well has a windmill, and also agas engine to power it.


A Fairbanks-Morse engine, specifically, and making 6 hp @ 450 rpm.


This is an earlier hand-dug well. One of the Keys boys died when a bucket somehow came undone and hit him in the head while he was digging in the bottom of it.

Another of the vehicles was this 4×4 truck, an ex-military machine most likely too. I can’t readily identify its provenance, but I’m sure one of you will.

It’s got a long bed; probably to haul pipes and such.

If I had a bit more time, I’d figure out what make this engine is. But you do…

Bill was a very intelligent and resourceful man, the keys to his success in this harsh environment. Rather than mine himself, which was risky and the returns, even if there was good ore, were quite modest due to the costs involved in extracting it and processing it. So Bill made a steady income from processing the ore for others, with this stamping mill, which crushed the ore so that the resulting material could be processed with mercury to extract the gold. Bill charged $5.00 per ton, which was not exactly small change.

The machine is pretty simple, with a single heavy stamping cylinder that is raised repeatedly to be dropped by gravity. Power was provided by a variety of sources over the decades, starting with a horse or mule, and progressing to steam and then gas engines.

There several of them still around.

Bill knew how to keep anything running.

And he was a hoarder, which given the great difficulties in accessing products, was an asset in his case. he bought, traded or scavenged all sorts of stuff. Lots of it.

And of course folks came to him who needed stuff. Although he obviously ended up with a lot more than he sold.

A bit further on is this fine old mack truck. it’s not the legendary original Bulldog, but a somewhat smaller truck.


But still plenty tough. Chain drive to the rear wheels, as all Macks had until quite late.

Yes, it really is a Mack. So when is mack going to make pickups? Somehow a “Mack” on the back of a pickup seems like it might be a draw these days.



Need pipes or fittings? Bill’s got em’.


Stoves too. Reliable ones, at that.


And old cars. Don’t these curved shapes harmonize perfectly with the rounded rocks all around?

A ’37 Plymouth and ’41 Dodge, IIRC.

Something else.

I fell in love with this Dodge business coupe.


A Luxury Liner indeed.



I’m thinking this is a Mopar too. Bill seems to have been partial to them.





One of the cabins for workers. And some bedsteads.



This car was turned into a chicken house.


And a number of wagons, of course.

In 1943, in an incident straight out of a western dime novel, a relatively new neighbor and difficult character named Worth Bagley ambushed Keys just outside Keys’ ranch, on an established access route to one of Bill’s mines that Bagley claimed went over his land. Bill returned fire and shot Bagley to death. The trial was a mockery of justice, with some powerful cattle ranching interests twisting the results against Keys.

Keys was convicted and spent five years in San Quentin. he put the time to good use, reading everything he could get his hands on, and proclaiming his time there as an excellent education, one he never had earlier. He was eventually pardoned, due to the intervention of his many friends.


Bill Key’s remarkable resourcefulness, ingenuity and resilience are on display all around the ranch, and the fact that it’s preserved and available to be seen is a testament to those enduring qualities.