Death Valley Railroad

Spring 2003

By: Ellen Grau


Ever since my husband introduced me to my first Desert Peaks experience, I have become inextricably drawn to the desert. Its history, the lure of “the mysterious and unknown” that hides in its shadows I’ve come to learn is the reason why I feel this way. The desert is different from other places, because it takes a special person to really see “it” for what “it” is. The desert is tougher than most any place on earth. It is more colorful, with its varied rock formations and plant life. It is solitary, because of its harshness and extremes, causing most people to stay away. This is what draws me to the desert, Death Valley being one of those destinations.

I think that same spirit lived in the people who came out to Death Valley and tried to “tame it”. You can never tame the desert. It won’t let you. So why did people come to Death Valley back in the late 1800’s? That would be the equivalent of trying to live on the moon! Follow me, as I take you back in time to Death Valley Junction and Ryan and the gold rush for riches.

Historical Overview

The Narrow Gauge Death Valley Railroad was built in 1914 to haul Borax from the mines in Ryan, CA to the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad some 20 miles away at Death Valley Junction, CA. The upper part to of the line required extensive grading and many high trestles. The maximum grade was 3.5% and curves were as sharp as 24 degrees. The railroad scheduled a single daily excursion, except for-Monday when a mixed train would amble across the desert at 15 miles per hour. A Baby Gauge railroad was constructed to bring the borax from the various mines where it was “dumped” via a transfer trestle.

Although the group’s focus was not on the Tonapah and Tidewater on this trip, all three railroads were dependent upon each other.

This is where our story begins. Mystery of the desert, and the romantic days of yester-year, the Wild West, had brought together a group of hearty hikers to retrace the Death Valley Railroad and the Baby Gauge Railroad from Death Valley Junction to Ryan.

The hike was lead by Larry and Barbee Tidball and Ron Grau. Ellen and Bogie went along for the scenery. The other participants included: Pat and Dean and Gozer Acheson, Neal Scott, Judy Ware, Cliff Jones, Rich Gnagy, Bob Michael, Mary Motheral, (I’m missing some names). These railroad enthusiasts belong to a rare breed.

So, Saturday, February 22, we all met off highway 190 (see map where it curves left). Larry had us hike from our parked vehicles up a wash that was made up of tons of sand that had been hoppered in and dumped on top of the wooden trestle. The remains of the trestle are still there, in part because the sand had been poured on top of it preserving it and preventing it from burning up due to a hot ember from the steam engine setting it ablaze.

We hiked above the canyon along the old railroad bed for 5 miles taking us just outside of Ryan (Ryan does NOT allow visitors, so do not attempt to go into the site). The chocolate, cream, purple, gray, green, and reddish colored mountains surrounded us as we made our way along the railroad bed. We could easily see where the land had been scraped away for the train to skirt the side of the mountain. Several “fills” had been created with lovely rockwork walls to keep the train on an even keel. Half way through our trek we came across a cemetery with 6 wooden “headstones”. We were able to read the name on one of them, Jeff Jones 1836-1906. We also found the bases of several tent homes. Rock walls and rusted out tin cans were all that remained.

We arrived back at the trucks and headed back to our campsite. Barbee made a wonderful dish of tortilla enchiladas, and there were salads, cakes, and pies. How can a person hike their brains out all day and end up weighing five pounds more than when they left the house on Friday. The DPS crowd sure has some good cooks!

Sunday morning we drove the short distance up the road to the base of the Baby Gauge. We hike over to the end of the line at Ryan and then proceeded to hike all the way to the widow mine where it makes the loop back to Ryan. At the end of the line near the loop, the baby gauge has three levels of track. There are places where the switches are still in place.

Our hike over, we headed back to civilization....reluctantly. After you have visited ghosts of the past, you don’t always want to jump back in to the present and head toward the future. Although the work was very hard, and the living conditions were not at the standard that we are used to, that time, long ago, seems more adventurous and exciting. Life was not routine, life a series of new events, ever changing, ever moving in a strange and wonderful direction.

We hope to see you on our next railroad exploratory. Until then, if you hear a forlorn steam whistle in the middle of the night, try and follow it and see where it takes you. You will be pleasantly surprised.

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