"A Lifetime in the Desert"

excerpts from
A Conversation with Bob Greenawalt

By George Huxtable
 

Bob has passed his 80th birthday and has been hiking and exploring around Death Valley and the western U.S. for much of his life. I've known Bob for many years and many miles together with the Death Valley Hikers Association. He maintains an active hiking schedule driven by his boundless enthusiasm and fascination with the desert. I spent the morning of January 28th, 2003, with Bob at his home in Rosemead, California. Join me now as we talk through what he's been up to since his early days. Bob Greenawalt at 80
 
Photo by Chuck Knight

 

GH: You've lived in Southern California as long as I've known you, is that where you grew up?

BG: I've been in Rosemead all my days. Can you imagine? My old home place is down from here, about two blocks from where I live now.

GH: Is that where you were born?

BG: I was born in Los Angeles, delivered in Los Angeles because there was no hospital around here. My folks came here in 1920. It was a different scene. But, I went to school locally and I've been here ever since. Never left the place, like a crazy nut.

GH: What did your parents do?

BG: My dad worked for Railway Express in Los Angeles. He started with Wells Fargo in Los Angeles in 1906. Okay, now thats a long time ago. My dad was born in 1881, if you can imagine. I'm the only offspring. He came to Los Angeles in 1906 and he hired in with Wells Fargo and stayed with them for the whole round. If you know Wells Fargo history, in 1918 in WWI the government took over all the railroads, including the express companies, and Wells Fargo was dissolved in favor of American Railway Express Company. Do you know about that?

GH: I do yeah.

BG: Okay. That lasted until 1929 and the it became Railway Express Agency, and it was owned by something like 62 railroads and it continued into the 1970s when they went bankrupt. When trains were taken off, and the trucks took over. Railway Express is a dead pigeon.

GH: Did you go out and make desert trips from Southern California when you were young?

BG: Oh, Yeah. I started as a teenager. The first time I went to Death Valley was in 1937. My folks took me, we were going up from Baker. It looks the same. I remember it the very same, it hasn't changed a bit. Well, I'll never forget the first trip. Here we're going up above Baker maybe five or six miles, and here comes the motorcar M100 of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad! My dad related to me then what happened in 1907..... The Rhyolite boom. Welll, that boom in Rhyolite was going on in 1907, so his boss said, "Hey why don't you go up to Rhyolite and see if there's any express business up there." So, he went and got on the Tonopah and Tidewater (T&T).

GH: Where did he catch it?

BG: It started at Ludlow. That's where the T&T takes off from the Santa Fe.

GH: Did he take the T&T all the way to Rhyolite?

BG: Yeah. Pretty exciting.

GH: Rhyolite would have been booming at that time. Did he describe it to you?

BG: We went to Rhyolite together during that same trip in 1937 and he related that he was up there in 1907. He was right there, right there when the stock exchange was operating! My mother was also with us. She worked at L.A. Creamery as a bookeeper. They got married in 1917. Anyway, my mother had this job at the creamery and if you go to Rhyolite, you'll see the old building of HD & LD Porter. Okay, well she said, "My golly, I used to bill things to Rhyolite for the Porter mercantile outfit." She was so surprised to see the old ruins there in 1937. And so, it was a very eventful thing for me to go up there. I didn't know what it was about then, and so, now I've been enriched with all these years of thinking about it,its a very vivid experience. If you can imagine, they had several mines, probably a half dozen or more active mines, the rest were know as prospects. Rhyolite was built on prospects. The stockbrokers would get in there and set up an office and put big advertisements in the eastern papers. All they were doing was based on prospects that things might go well. It's almost tearful to go there and see.... people had dreams, put money in there, and they thought they were gonna have a nice town. It only lasted a few years and the whole thing went bust.

GH: Tell me again about the T&T bolo tie you wear. I think you told me that came from the button of a T&T railroad conductor's coat.

BG: That is it, (Bob shows me the bolo tie he's wearing) this is a conductor's brass coat button. The conductor had very flashy... well just like all the old railroads of a hundred years ago, every company was trying to outdo the other... in finery, they call it varnish, rail varnish. They tried to make it really nice. The dining cars were the best. I'm talking about big railroads, New York Central, Pennsylvania-they were always compeating to see who could have the best. It's just like new cars now, who can make the best, pretties cars. Well, the old dining cars were one of the biggest. They tried to out do the... it's called livery, the livery of the rolling stock. They wanted gaudy colors, they wanted beautiful trains.

GH: These were on the main lines?

BG: On the main lines. Well, T&T was an industrail railroad to start with. Before that, nobody was going up there, mainly because there were no railroads and a guy couldn't go very far with a burro or wagon. After they got the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad in, prospectors started to take off and go everywhere. That's what started the early twentieth century mining boom in Nevada, because they had access to get there. So, all the stock speculators were coming in too! Like Greenwater, the same kind of thing.

GH: When did they build the T&T line?

BG: Okay, they finished it in 1907. It was the third one into (or near) Rhyolite. The first one was the Las Vegas & Tonopah and then the Bullfrog Goldfield.

GH: Didn't the two of them compete, the T&T and the Las Vegas & Tonopah?

BG: They were all competing to get up there, they thought it was the land of plenty. Borax Smith wanted his route to go from Las Vegas, with Senator Clark who financed the Las Vegas & Tonopah. They got into some kind of scrap and so Borax Smith goes and says, " I don't want to do business with you, I'll start my own." So, he went down to Ludlow, off the Santa Fe. The Las Vegas & Tonopah was the one that built the nice station in Rhyolite, which remains today.

GH: How long did the T&T run?

BG: Up until 1940. They were losing money all the time. Borax Smith was the president of the Pacifi Coast Borax Company and you'll see his name all over the T&T. It lasted until 1940 when the government said , "Hey we need steel for the war effort" and they went and tore it up. There's still some ties around, theres still a couple of tie fields that are quite unknown, except to people that like to hike.

GH: You mentioned it was an industrial line, but didn't it also take passengers?

BG: It was a common carrier, but the real reason for it, besides the gold mining boom, was the Lila C borate mine. It went through new Death Valley Junction where there was a 7-mile spur back to the Lila C. Have you been to Lila C?

GH: Yes.

BG: It's very interesting. Later, the Death Valley Railroad took off. In 1914, Harry Gower, if you've heard of Gower... Gower Gulch. He go out of USC as a civil engineer and went out there and ended up locating the Death Valley Railroad.

GH: Where did it go?

BG: From Death Valley Junction to Ryan.

GH: Yes, right. It must have shared some of the track with the Lila C spur.

BG: Yeah, it operated dual gage. They had regular standard gage and narrow. At a place called Horton, its three miles west of Death Valley Junction, the Death Valley Railroad kept going narrow gage and then that's where the standard one goes down to the Lila C. I just happen to have something that's really neat....

GH: Oh, a timetable. (Bob hands me an original timetable dated June 1, 1922 for the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad Company.) This shows it starting in Ludlow.

BG: Yeah, Ludlow and it goes on up to Baker. Okay, that's named after Lord Baker. He was the leader of Borax Consolidated, Ltd. in London. The T&T stops were Silver Lake, Riggs, Valjean, Dumont, Sperry, Acme, Tecopa, Zabriskie, Shoshone, Evelyn, Death Valley Junction, Scranton, Jenifer, Leeland, Ashton, Carrara, and Beatty. (The Bullfrog Goldfield line continued to Goldfield.)

GH: Then to get to Rhyolite they took off from Beatty?

BG: Actually Gold Center, south of Beatty.

GH: Your first trip to Death Valley was in 1937 with your folks, you would have been about 16 years old. I assume you traveled by car?

BG: Yeah. We went to Death Valley in a 1929 Model A Ford. It was a four door sedan with an accessory called a "Kari-Keen" trunk on the back. A metal trunk atop the rear bumper that folded outward to make quite a place to haul luggage. My dad wanted to see Rhyolite, so we went there. That was my first encounter with Death Valley.

GH: Where did you stay?

BG: It was an auto sight-seeing trip for maybe three or four days. I think it was around Thaksgiving.

GH: You were camping I assume?

BG: Probably. I don't remember that part, but I sure remember going to Rhyolite the first time. We drove down to Badwater, and took in the Devil's Golf Course, and up to Scotty's Castle. We probably had a tent. I don't recall.

GH: What sort of things did you bring? I'm curious in terms of things you would have brought with you for that trip in your car?

BG: A card table. (laughs)

GH: A card table?

BG: Yeah, you want to eat on something, so you bring your own table. But, it was a very wonderful trip for me and that's what got me started and the more I go out there, the more I have a special love affair. I guess you do too

GH: Do you remember what was at the Furnace Creek Ranch when you were there?

BG: Yeah, Old Dinah was out in front. No pool. Furnace Creek Inn was there. It started in what, 1929 or 1930.

GH: I guess the motel was not there?

BG: As I recall, there were cabins, but it's not like it is today. The dates were being harvested. Furnace Creek itself was running and it's one the the grandest things that I know of. Furnace Creek is the lifeblood of the whole area there. It comes right out of the ground up above Furnace Creek Wash, its a great thing. If that spring weren't there furnishing water there would be nothing out there. There was a little Visitors Center, but it wasn't much of anything.

Harry Gower is probably one of the most recognized names around Death Valley because he was the Superintendent of the whole borax works. George, he started out in the teens and was there until 1960s. Anyway, I got to see Harry around 1964. I think he passed away the next year.

GH: How did you happen to meet him?

BG: I wanted to meet Harry, so I pursued it and wrote him a letter and found out where he lived, and he said, "Come on over." I told him I was a fan of the Death Valley area there. He was very nice. I was with him all afternoon. I took a lady friend with me over there. I have that book of his, 50 Years in Death Valley. Very interesting! Harry was the guy that was out there, he spent a lot of time out there, his house is still there if you go to Death Valley Junction. That two story home west of the hotel, it's still occupied, it's a beautiful place.

 

The remainder of the interview is available online at the Death Valley Hiker Association pages.

 

Our thanks go to George and Bob for permission to place this excerpt on the T&T pages.

 

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07/02/2004