Barstow’s Once-Quaint But Deteriorated El Rancho Motel Lost In Suspicious Fire

The once quaint but more recently significantly delapidated historic El Rancho Motel in Barstow was largely destroyed in what officials say was a suspicious fire on Tuesday, July 5.
The Barstow Fire Department raced to the scene at 112 East Main Street around 9:35 p.m. and was later joined by units with Fort Irwin Fire Corps and the Victorville Fire Department. Concerted efforts to douse the flames were made. The fire raged for a good 50 minutes after the arrival of the first responding engine to the three-alarm fire. The fire was eventually knocked down, but not before nearly three-fourths of the rooms at the motel were fully engulfed and destroyed.
There was no immediate indication that the fire was deliberately set, but arson investigators have been combing the wreckage, searching for clues. The circumstances leading up to the fire might suggest that the motel’s ownership, based on the deeply troubled nature of the operation and the issues that complicated the prospect for the motel to again become a profitable concern, had reason to see El Rancho destroyed.
The 75-year-old motel, which was built by Cliff Chase in 1947, was constructed in part with wooden railroad ties from the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, which gave the place an old-fashioned but pleasant appearance when it was new. The railroad ties served as something of a tribute to Barstow’s historic role as a major railroad town in California in the late 1800s. Later, Barstow was a significant outpost on the National Trails Highway, and then an important stop along Route 66 when it was established in 1926.
While not built to the same standard as many luxurious hotels throughout the country, Chase’s El Rancho Motel offered comfortable accommodations to those traveling through the desert. Early references state the motel consisted of 100 rooms, which a few years later were said to have increased to 150 rooms. By 1959, brochures again reference 100 rooms. That literature touted each unit as having a private bath.
Photos from that era depict a swimming pool in the center of a parking lot surrounded by units which featured clay Spanish-style roofs. For the first decade of its incarnation, it served the public. By the 1960s, there were only limited vacancies available to travelers, as the Santa Fe Railroad had reserved the lion’s share of its units for its workers who overnighted in the city. Later, with the decline of Barstow as a major railroad center, the motel became for a time a residence for senior citizens. Later, large numbers of its units were converted to permanent residential units.
Tuesday’s fire was not the first to wreak major damage to El Rancho.
El Rancho Restaurant was at one time an intrinsic element of the motel. The restaurant was located between the motel office and the street. It was rebranded as the Cedar Restaurant and Travel Store in later years. In May 2011 it caught fire and was completely destroyed.
An important part of the original motel was its towering, 100-foot high neon sign, which made a bright display that featured “El Rancho Motel” an unmissable element of Barstow’s night skyscape. The sign was part of the original construction and was built by the Electrical Products Corporation and installed in 1947. It was restored in 1994.
The deterioration of the motel was a sad reality that sunk in gradually.
Those included problems with electricity and plumbing, vermin, bedbugs, fleas and rowdy residents and guests.
The penultimate death knell came with action by Barstow’s code enforcement division, which first red-tagged individual rooms, then the entirety of the motel or rooms connected together. The specific code violations pertained to electrical outages and sewage system failures. The entire motel was declared unsuitable for human habitation more than two months ago.
Tuesday’s fire appears to have been the final nail in the motel’s coffin.

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