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Mojave River Valley Museum
Railroads and Railways of the Mojave Desert
“Borax” Smith and the Tonopah & Tidewater RailroadStephen P. Mulqueen: The Changing Face of the East Mojave Desert
Tonopah and TidewaterThe Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad (T&T) operated between 1905 and 1938 servicing mines and communities along a route which extended north from Ludlow, California into western Nevada. What began as one man’s challenge to a transportation problem at a borate mine east of Death Valley, resulted in a rail system that greatly benefitted all those who lived in the surrounding area. The history of the T&T is a story of success in overcoming great obstacles in the desert regions of California and Nevada. These obstacles included long expanses of uninhabited land devoid of trees and surface water, steep mountains, dry lakes and rivers which were subject to flooding, etc. The great geologic forces which formed high grade mineral deposits also created conditions that were formidable barriers to their economic development.
William T. ColemanThe occurrence of borate mineral deposits in the Death Valley region attracted early pioneers to that area. These minerals included borax, ulexite and colemanite which occurred naturally within lacustrine (lake) deposits at locations on the floor of Death Valley and in the hills surrounding the valley. William T. Coleman was the first to develop borate minerals from Death Valley. With the help of Chinese laborers, he successfully harvested “cottonball” ulexite from the mud flats. In 1882, Coleman built a processing plant to convert ulexite into borax, a more desirable commodity that could be marketed. He called his operations the Harmony Borax Works.
The success of similar borax operations southwest of Death Valley in what was then known as “Slate Range Playa” and later “Borax Lake” (now Searles Lake), led to the construction of the first 20 mule team wagons and rigging by John Searles in the 1870s. Coleman used this idea for shipping the Harmony borax and ordered his own wagons built to Searles’ original specification. In 1882, Coleman hauled borax out of Death Valley to the Southern Pacific Railroad at Mojave using the 20 mule team and wagons.
“Borax” SmithColeman produced and shipped borax from Harmony for several years. By 1888, Coleman’s operations met with financial losses. It was during this time that Francis Marion Smith (also known as “Borax” Smith) purchased Coleman’s properties and all his holdings, including all the claims, borate deposits and mines originally held by Coleman. These properties included the borax plant at Harmony, the “cottonball” ulexite deposit within the Death Valley playa, the colemanite deposit at the Lila C. mine (southwest of the present day Death Valley Junction, at the edge of the Greenwater Range, Amargosa Valley) and the colemanite deposits at Mule Canyon near Calico. (The Lila C. was named after Coleman’s daughter Lila.)
Smith was familiar with borate mining from his experience producing borax at Teel’s Marsh in Nevada. In 1890, Smith combined the three properties in California and formed the Pacific Coast Borax Company (PCB). Smith’s first operations after forming PCB began at Borate in Mule Canyon in the Calico Hills. From the successes at Borate, Smith formed Borax Consolidated, Limited in 1899, an international organization with headquarters in London, England. After the deposits at Borate were depleted by many years of mining, Smith began moving the mining equipment and personnel to the large deposit at the Lila C.
Hauling borax from the Lila C. proved to be Smith’s greatest challenge. At that time, the closest railhead was at Ivanpah, which was more than 100 miles from the mine. He first met the challenge by placing “Old Dinah” back into operation. Old Dinah was a steam traction engine built to pull borax wagons at Borate. In April, 1904, Smith put the engine to the test. After just 14 miles, the steam boiler blew out and the machine came to a sudden, permanent stop. (Old Dinah now rests near the main entrance at Furnace Creek in Death Valley. One can still see the rupture in the side of the steam boiler.) It was the failure of Old Dinah that set the stage for the construction of the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad.
The Tonopah & Tidewater RailroadSmith was convinced that a railroad was the only answer to his transportation dilemma. Smith set his sights high and envisioned a railroad which would not only service his mine but also the gold and silver mines around Goldfield and Tonopah in Nevada. On July 19, 1904, the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad Company (T&T) was incorporated by Smith in New Jersey. He immediately took title to the wagon road between Ivanpah and the Lila C. and began the task of finding investors for his great project.
Survey crews began charting a route from Ivanpah. During that time, a new Southern Pacific Line (SP) was reaching completion, known as the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad (LA&SL). With the line open for traffic, survey crews also mapped a possible path for the T&T from the SP line north through the Kingston Range and on to the Lila C. Survey crews also considered a route from Las Vegas. By 1905, Smith decided to build his railroad from Las Vegas westward. On May 29, 1905, groundbreaking ceremonies dedicated the beginning of the new T&T line near Las Vegas.
Shortly after this event, Senator Clark of Nevada began having second thoughts about letting Smith build the T&T railroad through his state. Clark wanted to organize and build his own railroad from Las Vegas to the mines at Tonopah. To beat Smith at his own game, Clark organized his own railroad and formed an organization known as the Nevada Transit Company and, shortly thereafter, began construction of the Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad (LV&T).
Clark had large investments in the mines around Goldfield and Tonopah. With a railroad to service those mines, Clark would have more control over those investments and the railroad would add to their success. At the same time, the Southern Pacific Railroad began charging the T&T the prohibitive rate of 45 cents freight for each railroad tie arriving at Las Vegas. This new freight charge would add considerably to the cost of the railroad. Shortly after being informed of this new freight charge, Smith tried to get permission to connect the T&T line to the SP line. It was flatly denied.
This action was a great setback for Smith. Over 12 miles of railroad bed had been graded. Essentially, it was a road to nowhere. He had no choice but to shift his operations from Las Vegas to Ludlow, California. By August, 1905, the transfer of equipment to the new site was completed and a tent city was constructed. The new starting point at Ludlow added 50 miles to the goal of reaching Gold Center, Nevada. (Gold Center was a railroad siding south of Beatty, Nevada).
In October, 1905, Clark purchased the 12 miles of graded railroad bed built by the T&T. This sale gave Smith and the T&T the funds to recover from the setback of the relocation. Smith wasted no time. By November, 1905, the first rail was laid at the “Big Loop”, the term given to the circular rail pattern at the rail yard in Ludlow. The “Big Loop” enabled trains coming south to easily turn around for the return trip north.
From Ludlow, the railroad crossed the SP line at Crucero (Spanish word for crossing) and extended over Broadwell (dry) Lake. By March, 1906, the T&T line completed the crossing of Silver (dry) Lake north of the present day town of Baker. At that stage of the project, survey crews continued to chart out a detailed path for the railroad, in advance of the construction operations. In May of 1906, 75 miles of rail had been completed to a point just beyond Dumont, north of the Dumont dunes.
The greatest challenge that the crew faced was the 12 mile ascent over the mountains north of Dumont, through the Amargosa River Gorge and on to Tecopa on the southern edge of Amargosa Valley. These mountains were formed by left-lateral movement along the Garlock fault and extended east to west for many miles. Going around this great obstacle was not an option for Smith.
Smith met the challenge by starting at Tecopa and working downhill, from north to south. By attacking the problem in this manner, the workmen were able to used gravity to their advantage, a well-known factor commonly applied in the mining industry. This meant that the supplies and equipment would have to be offloaded at Dumont and hauled by wagon over the Ibex Pass.
By this time, the hot weather during the summer of 1906 was taking its toll on the work crew. Construction workers began quitting. By the time Smith was able to attract additional crews to the area, fall had arrived and the weather had cooled. By February 10, 1907, the line was completed from Tecopa south to Sperry, a railroad siding just south of China Ranch, where the Sperry Wash joins the Amargosa River Gorge.
Workmen constructed three trestles, excavated several long cuts, and compacted fill slopes. One of the trestles was over 500’ long. In order to reduce the steep grade and at the same time avoid the bed of the Amargosa River, the railroad crossed and recrossed the canyon several times. In May, 1907, the railroad was completed through the Amargosa Gorge, connecting rails at Sperry with those at Dumont. Within days after achieving this great accomplishment, scheduled train service began operating to Tecopa.
By June, 1907, the railroad was completed to Zabriskie, a railroad siding four miles north of Tecopa. While construction continue northward, borax ore from the Lila C. was hauled by wagon to Zabriskie and transferred to the T&T line. Shortly after reaching Zabriskie, Smith formed the Tonopah & Greenwater Railroad, incorporated in 1907. He proposed a short-line off the T&T at Zabriskie to the mines of the Greenwater District in the area surrounding Greenwater Valley. The Tonopah & Greenwater Railroad was never built because of the collapse of the mining industry during the Panic of 1907.
On August 16, 1907, the railroad was completed all the way to the Lila C. mine. Ore from the mine was shipped by rail on that same day. By this time more than 700 men were working on the railroad. Camps were established at Lee’s Well and at Gold Center. The railroad arrived at Gold Center on October 30, 1907. There was no celebration for this great event. By this time, the economy was feeling the full effect of the Panic of 1907. Many mines in the area continued to go bankrupt. Also, Senator Clark’s Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad reached Gold Center the year before and was completed all the way to Goldfield, Nevada.
On November 25, 1907, the T&T opened the entire line to scheduled freight service. By December 5 of the same year, the T&T boasted with the opening of passenger service. In the spring of 1908, a new rotary kiln was placed into service at the Lila C. mine. The town which grew around the Lila C. mine was named Ryan in honor of John Ryan, Smith’s right-hand man. All remaining equipment, buildings and personnel were moved from Borate to Ryan.
On June 15, 1908, a holding company was formed under the name Tonopah & Tidewater Company, which assumed operations of the Bullfrog Goldfield Railroad. This gave the T&T exclusive trackage rights to Goldfield. With time, the Tonopah & Tidewater Company was absorbed by the T&T. With this action, the T&T now extended from Ludlow, California all the way to Goldfield, Nevada. In May, 1909, the Tecopa Railroad Company was incorporated in California. By 1910, a railroad spur from Tecopa was completed to the Gunsight and Noonday mines.
After ore deposits at the Lila C. were exhausted in 1914, mining operations were moved to the Biddy McCarty mine at the northeast edge of the Greenwater Range along Furnace Creek Wash. In January, 1914 the Death Valley Railroad (DVRR) was incorporated. New construction of the DVRR began at Horton, a railroad siding halfway between Death Valley Junction and the Lila C. mine. From this point, construction continued west 17 miles to the Biddy McCarty mine. On December 1, 1914, the DVRR was formally dedicated. The new town which grew up around the mine was also named “Ryan.” The term (old) Ryan was later used in reference to the abandoned site at the Lila C.
The opening of scheduled rail service by the T&T brought progress to all the mines and towns along the route. The great hardship of hauling supplies and ore long distances by wagon had been superceded by the new rail service. Food, supplies, mail, mining equipment, farm equipment and even water could now be shipped with relative ease. Commodities from surrounding mines shipped on the T&T included gold and silver ores, base metal ores, borate minerals, bentonite (barium clay), and talc. The railroad brought many new industries and jobs to the area to service the mining and farming industries.
The T&T faced great challenges throughout its life. Flash floods, flooded “dry” lakes , landslides, erosion of the railroad bed, train derailments and mechanical problems were all too common on the T&T. Much of this was the result of the construction, operation and maintenance of a railroad in the harsh desert environment. Many of the conditions which resulted in damage to the T&T line were directly attributed to adverse geologic factors along the route. The railroad’s greatest menace was the unpredictable Amargosa River. The river was known to turn from a dry wash into a raging torrent within minutes of a heavy downpour.
In 1927–1928, PCB began shifting its mining operations to a new deposit discovered in the Kramer Mining District, near the present day community of Boron. This was the beginning of the end for the T&T. The DVRR was officially abandoned in 1931. The T&T continued to haul supplies, equipment and ore on the line for numerous mines and town near the route. In March 1938, the T&T was severely damaged by floods from heavy rains. An application to cease operations was officially registered with the Interstate Commerce Commission in December1938 and on June 14, 1940, all operations on the T&T ceased. The War Department requisitioned the line and all its scrap iron in 1942. On July 18, 1942, contractors began removing the rails at Beatty and worked southward, using the line one last time to haul the iron. Ludlow was reached on July 25, 1943, closing a final chapter to the history of this great railroad.
Today, you can still see traces of the railroad from Ludlow to Beatty. What remains today are segments of the old railroad bed, concrete foundations around railroad sidings and bridge abutments, and culverts at most major drainage crossings. The railroad passed by the present site of Zzyzx on the west edge of Soda Dry Lake. A railroad siding at Soda was a short distance from what is now Zzyzx. When visiting Zzyzx, look for traces of the old railroad on the west edge of Soda dry lake. Highway 127 parallels and crosses the original route of the T&T as it heads north from
Baker and beyond Death Valley Junction. On a calm day in the desert, some say they can still hear a train whistle along the old route!
Gower, Harry P., Fifty Years in Death Valley – Memoirs of a Borax Man. Pub. # 9, Death Valley ‘49ers. 1969.
Hildebrand, George H., Borax Pioneer: Francis Marion Smith. La Jolla, Calif.: Howell-North Books. 1982
Myrick, David F., Railroads of Nevada and Eastern California, Vol. 1, “The Southern Roads. Berkeley, Calif.: Howell-North Books, 1962 and 1963.
Travis, N.J. & Cocks, E.J., The Tincal Trail – A History of Borax. Great Britain: Pitman Press. 1984.
Tonopah and Tidewater railroad bed at Broadwell dry lake, near Ludlow, California
Tonopah and Tidewater railroad bed at Silver Lake north of Baker, California
Tonopah and Tidewater railroad bed near Amargosa River Gorge
Tonopah and Tidewater railroad bed at Death Valley Junction, California
More pages about the Tonopah & Tidewater