A Day in the Life of the T&T

by David T. Sprau

Presented at the 5th DeathValley Conference on History and Prehistory.
 

What would you think, if today's news sources reported that demolition and removal of Interstate 5 was contemplated because the highway was no longer needed? Your disbelief might be quickly followed by question as to how an integral part of the landscape, with its enormous component of concrete and steel, could ever be obliterated from the face of the earth. The answer might well be that it couldn't be, as evidenced on a smaller scale by a short-lived little railroad once serving the fringes of Death Valley.

In 1940, the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad was "abandoned in place," meaning a regulatory condition of discontinuance was, rail and ties must be left intact, should restoration of service become necessary. However, wartime contingencies soon eliminated this prohibition; the line was taken up (that's a railroad term for "removed") in 1942. Strangely, the subsequent absence of rail and ties, as well as frequent windstorms and cloudbursts which assault this granular, fragile landscape, have failed to obliterate a railroad abandoned nearly sixty years. It remains a ghostly, visible presence in 1999, both upon the face of the earth, and in the memory of employees and patrons.

This narrative doesn't pretend to be a history of the railroad; many comprehensive and excellent accounts already exist. However, some prologue is necessary. As with almost any piece of abandoned railroad, the builders of this little line expected it to survive far beyond its actual lifetime. In 1905, Francis M. Smith, personified as Borax Consolidated Limited, realized the necessity of rail transport for the white mineral from mines near Death Valley Jct. to a connection with the outside railroad world.

With air and highway competition unanticipated, any railroad between two or more points in 1905 was considered a moneymaking opportunity. Therefore, instead of rail construction stopping when the principal destination (the borax supply) had been served, surveys provided for more ambitious dreams, those of being a common-carrier railroad. Probably no better example of dreams gone awry is exemplified by what subsequently happened. Fortunately, obscure records still exist, and conspire with the silent right-of-way to enable us to glimpse, for a moment, a view of this unique line in operation.

Motorists along California highway 127 between Death Valley Jct. and Baker find welcome oasis at the village of Shoshone. Familiar travelers know this is where one may turn east to enter Nevada via Pahrump in order to reach glittering Las Vegas. However, the less-hurried traveler, or sojourning tourist, in need of sustenance or a cold glass of beer, is welcomed at the Red Buggy Café and Crowbar saloon; a friendly, laid-back little place at the center of town. Should the visitors' eye roam the material and photos adorning the walls look carefully behind a hatrack in the southwest corner of the café, - lo and behold! - A dispatchers train sheet , replete with its cryptic railroad terms and abbreviations, hangs within a frame. On yellowed paper, in the faded handwriting of train dispatcher Hugh McPhee and a young assistant, anonymous for 58 years, both of whom compiled it from their office at Ludlow, California on May 5, 1933, unfolds this story of a day in the life of the Tonopah and Tidewater (T&T) Railroad.

The line began at Ludlow, California, connecting there with the transcontinental Santa Fe. However, it never reached Tonopah, and was initially able to reach Beatty and Rhyolite only through a trackage-rights agreement with the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad. Indeed, only by sporadically assuming operation of financially distressed Bullfrog-Goldfield north of Beatty from 1908 until abandonment of that portion in 1928, did T&T ever gain proprietary entry to Beatty, or come closer to fabled Tonopah than thirty-mile distant Goldfield. But by May 5, 1933, train service had dwindled to once or twice weekly. To add further insult to the once-promising line, "passenger" service now was provided either by operation (after 1929), of a new, gas-electric "doodlebug" or by adding coaches, instead of the usual caboose, to the rear of a freight train. And so on the morning of May 5, 1933, we find train 26 with locomotive No. 9 at Beatty, preparing for departure to Ludlow, 169 miles distant.

Meanwhile, at 10:00 AM on that day, Trainmaster McPhee, acting in dual capacity as train dispatcher, reports for duty at the company's dispatching office at Ludlow, the southern end of the line, (but only for five more months) and a connecting point with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. T&T trains do not run over "Santa Fe" tracks into Los Angeles; however, T&T does interchange Pullman cars with, as well as lease a Los Angeles telegraph wire from, Santa Fe at Ludlow. As we shall observe, this enables T&T stations to communicate directly with Borax Company general offices.

During this same hour at Beatty, as Conductor Wm. "Blackie" Maher and engineer J.F. "Mickey" Devine go on duty; the locomotive is watered, lubricated, and otherwise prepared for service. The train consists of a few freight cars, with a passenger coach at rear. Dispatcher McPhee issues the necessary clearance form via the Beatty telegrapher, which includes written train orders for operation as an "extra," or unscheduled train, for the short distance to Coen clay pit near Ash Meadows.

Perusing the train sheet, we see "open" stations, those having telegraph service, indicated by printing their respective "call letters" to the right of the station name; Beatty is "BY," Death Valley Jct. "JN," Shoshone "NE," and so on. Briefly, these are utilized by repetitious transmission of letters for the desired station over the telegraph wire, followed once by the call letters of the station desiring contact. Thus, the Ludlow dispatcher, (DS) wishing to contact Shoshone, would telegraph thusly: "NE NE NE DS"

In much the same manner as we know and recognize the sound of our first names, telegraphers respond to their station call letters, seat themselves at the telegraph desk, and commence code conversation with the calling party. That system, universal in the railroad industry, was used on this day in 1933 on the Tonopah and Tidewater. McPhee recorded weather at various stations when commencing work; Ludlow, Shoshone, Death Valley Jct. and Beatty all having clear skies and temperatures near 70. This, however, will be precursor to a day of unusual weather.

At 11:05 AM train No. 26 departed Beatty with two loads, one empty, and 80 gross tons. In the mind's eye, one can see the little procession skirting the westerly Funeral Mountain range, squeezing past "Big Dune" west of Lathrop Wells, traversing the long tangent past Leeland Station, and crossing into California. A stop will be made at Bradford, but officially, nothing more is recorded until the agent-telegrapher at Death Valley Jct. reports No. 26 as having arrived at 1:55 PM. Here, crew and passengers will eat lunch. In the interim, something has happened to the telegraph wire. A notation under "Unusual Occurrences" made 35 minutes earlier states:

1:20 PM - Our wire is grounded between Death Valley Jct. and Shoshone.

1:30 PM - Shoshone succeeded in getting word over phone to HW Rosenberg at Death Valley Jct. to clear the trouble & DV said would get him out ---.

Then, at 1:45 PM, the weather begins to act up. McPhee notes:

Ludlow, 1:45 PM, small cyclone wind passed from right of way, took path through LCP back yard, unroofed 1 chicken house and carried debris to WWC front yard - tore limbs off tree at LCP chicken houses.

Telegraph troubles were remedied shortly afterward:

2:03 PM (trouble) was in Death Valley Jct., (wires) crossed with local phone, (now) OK through to Los Angeles.

It should be noted for posterity as related by T&T telegrapher "Deke" Lowe, that the aforementioned T&T telegraph circuit was powered by "150 wet cells at Ludlow and Beatty." (Porcelain-topped gallon jars with zinc plates immersed in copper sulphate solution). Deke also volunteers some surprising information relative to the trainsheet itself:

On that trainsheet part of the "OS" (train times) are mine. I was the telegrapher-clerk. McPhee was inclined to go on binges and not be around the office for days. There was also an independent telegraph line from Death Valley Jct. to Furnace Creek Inn. The telegrapher at Death Valley Jct. relayed telegrams for reservations or orders for supplies between the Inn and Los Angeles offices of the Death Valley Inn Company until a telephone was installed about 1933.

Returning to his dispatching duties, McPhee receives a report from Death Valley Jct. that train 26 has departed at 3:00 PM with 7 loads, 3 empties, 412 tons. At the same time, he transcribes pertinent times wherein train 26's engine left cars and passengers behind at Bradford, ran 3 miles to Coen Pit, returned to Bradford with 5 cars of clay, recoupled the train and, departed for Death Valley Jct. Such event times are recorded by conductors on a "Delay Report" form as they occur, and given the nearest telegraph operator for handling thusly. Today's clay trip delayed train 26 at Bradford just over an hour. One can imagine the impatience of travelers who viewed the engine disappear on the horizon. How would this handful of travelers aboard a rail coach, more or less abandoned on the main track at obscure Bradford, California, at the edge of Death Valley, while away an hour? Probably, in unhurried 1933, they philosophically took a nap, ate snacks from a wicker basket, played cards, or visited; such was the genteel art of travel in days gone by.

We may digress for a moment to discuss the personae of T&T riders during the railroads' lifetime. Author George Pipkin (of Wildrose Station in the Panamints) stated he had never ridden, but often observed, the train poised at Beatty for its cross-desert trip, and subsequently was informed by Shorty Harris as to its handy utility for picking up or dropping off prospectors at most any spot they desired. George provided anecdotal information regarding prohibition-era bootleg whisky produced around Death Valley Jct. (some by moonlighting railroad employees), being of finer quality than previously-legal brands. And while we have no passenger list for this day, because no such thing usually was compiled, an infrequent patron was the old charlatan, Death Valley Scotty, who had a tenuous relationship with T&T. He didn't like the company too well because, unlike Santa Fe, which participated in his famous Los Angeles-Chicago excursion of 1905, T&T had neither time nor inclination to participate in publicity stunts and rebuffed the desert rat on at least one occasion when a special train was requested. This did not deter the reprobate, enroute his frequent soirees in Los Angeles, from flagging the train at Bonnie Clare. Grizzled Conductor Maher, weary of exasperating bull sessions as Scott held court for other passengers, a motley group of "prospectors, hardrock miners, gamblers, dance-hall girls, speculators, mothers with babes-in-arms, deadheading railroad men, and workers enroute to or from their various places of employment," sneeringly referred to his frequent "star" passenger, probably not behind his back, as "The Big Death Valley Wind."

Upon leaving Death Valley Jct., Conductor Maher reported:

No. 26 has 2 passengers for LA via Ludlow.

This latter to make clear the two would detrain at the end of the line and take the Santa Fe, rather than at Crucero, where similar connections could be made via Union Pacific. Dutifully, McPhee recorded this information. Hopefully, train 26 of so many years ago arrived at Ludlow early enough for the sojourners to catch a westbound without unduly long wait.

Susan Sorrells, author of Charlie & Stella Brown, chronicling the life of her pioneer grandparents, tells of early life at Shoshone:

The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad was now completed, and the arrival and departure of the train was the highlight of the day!

On Friday, May 5, 1933, this "highlight" came and went at 3:50 and 3:52 PM, respectively, as reported by the village telegrapher and recorded in ink on McPhee's train sheet. In past years before meals were taken at Death Valley Jct., passengers and crew repaired to the Shoshone eatery operated by Charlie and Stella Brown. The building used for that purpose survives to this day.

Upon leaving Tecopa, southbound trains begin descent on a grade of about one percent per mile, passing over a wooden trestle at Acme, once known as Morrison. It was near here that a runaway off the spur to China Ranch once resulted in an expensive, messy derailment. Passing Acme, the traveler continues on through the Amargosa River Canyon and its views, as described by a newspaper reporter:

A trip to view the most gorgeous wonderland. The action of the water on these canyon walls, during the centuries, has made some of the most magnificent formations. Here mammoth cathedrals raise their spires and domes, up to an elevation of several hundred feet above the train that is speeding along through cuts and over bridges and fills at the base. Near these great temples can be seen turreted and fortified castles that look almost to be real.

Two hours from Shoshone, at 5:54 PM, train 26 rolled into Silver Lake, having covered the 53 miles of hot, undulating desert at an average speed 23 MPH. Silver Lake telegrapher R. M. "Jack" Lowe (Brother to Deke), recalled the post-midnight passage of the "Julian Special," a trainload of 360 prospective financiers from Los Angeles enroute Rhyolite to inspect nearby Leadfield, a purported bonanza mineral strike (actually a stock fraud, later resulting in the suicide of promoter Julian). To get into the proper frame of mind, one must first imagine stygian blackness enveloping the little village at just past one in the morning back on Sunday, March 26, 1926. Everyone for miles around, Lowe said, gathered to watch "the longest excursion train operated in T&T's history:"

The crowd waited and gabbed most of the night. Then at 1:30 AM we saw the star-studded sky over Baker light up, pale at first, then brighter by the minute. In a short while, the train's headlight skirted the Lake, and then straightened out for a run to Silver Lake station. When it got closer, we could hear the thunderous exhaust and saw lightning-like flashes of flame from two purposeful steam engines straining against their burden of fifteen varnished coaches. At 1:45 AM, on the dot, what we had waited for rolled slowly by so that we could get a good look. Before our eyes were half full, it was gone, except for the two bright red markers on the rear car, which soon disappeared around a curve. The show was over.

During the time train 26 crawled between Shoshone and Silver Lake, a succession of weather-related events was playing out, capturing the attention of dispatcher McPhee. Unlike train dispatchers on busier lines who had numerous trains opposing each other, each demanding individual attention in the form of written orders regarding taking siding to meet opposing movements, McPhee had relatively little to do. An abrupt change in weather had, therefore, become his focal point.

At 4:00 PM, recorded McPhee, Ludlow, Silver Lake, Shoshone, and Death Valley Jct. advised of extremely strong winds with blowing sand, and temperatures hovering around 80; cooler Beatty, however, reported:

"Cloudy, south wind, 64."

At 6:00 PM, the situation was worse:

"Ludlow: Clear, hurricane from west to northwest, 78."

Silver Lake: Clear, strong west sand storms, 72."

Shoshone: Part Clear, strong south, bad wind, 70."

Station agents at Death Valley Jct. and Beatty had gone home by this time; no weather entry for their stations was recorded. The Union Pacific telegraph operator at Crucero, where T&T crossed the Clark/Harriman road at nearly right angles over a diamond frog, reported train 26 as having arrived 7:50 PM and departed 8:07 PM after picking up two Union Pacific clay gondolas and leaving behind other cars for the UP line. Just before, at 7:30 PM, final commentaries were made in the lower right corner of the trainsheet:

7:30 PM. This has been a cold, stormy day - wind a regular gale from west to NW and at this hour, not moderating in its intensity. Crucero says it's a h--- of a storm. Never worse here - it has . . . looked bad in distance but it is right here now, don't have to look out in distance - it is right here.

8:10 PM Smith at Rasor says "bad storm" - sand dune drifting on track at bridge 27A milepost 28.

Smith, patrolling track, probably is the party who routinely advised earlier that twelve feet of water remained in the tank at Shoshone, and ten feet at Silver Lake.

Before leaving Crucero, a T&T vignette is supplied by R.M. Lowe, who before his tenure on T&T, was a telegrapher for the Clark road at that point:

In 1923 while working for the Salt Lake line on the graveyard shift at Crucero tower, which we telegraphers had nicknamed "Rattlesnake Flat" in honor of the carpet of sidewinders that covered the ground at night, the southbound T&T stopped opposite my passenger platform. Conductor Blackie Maher carefully wiped the grab irons with his red bandana and a dude with with a fancy grip alighted. I was about to show him to the dimly-lit waiting room when he said jovially, "I'll bet your're 25-9 most of the time at this place." Recognizing those terms as ciphers used by we of the telegraphing fraternity to indicate "busy on other wires," or "busy with dispatcher," I reversed course and showed the visitor to my office in the tower. Figuring he knew something about telegraphy, I launched into a lengthy dissertation on the craft, to which my guest sat indulgently with paternal smile. He turned out to be such a friendly and down-to earth sort of person that I finally confessed that the job was over my head and whatever I accomplished was pure accident. With that, he laughed and said, "Many years ago, I began my career as a telegrapher on the Great Northern Railway. One night at Summit, Montana I'd sometimes get so scared when all the crews left, I'd turn the lamp wick down and peep through the window to check on prowling Blackfoot Indians, --but I never saw one!"

As the night wore on, he grew quiet, and seemed to dream, while listening to the long table of main line telegraph sounders throbbing and fussing, of once upon a time. Just before dawn, Salt Lake passenger train 7 nosed around the curve and obeyed my stop signal. We shook hands, and the visitor said, "Young man, let me urge you to study and apply yourself zealously. Some day, your accumulated knowledge will open many doors for you." With that, he was aboard and off for Los Angeles. My relief, the old daytime telegrapher, awakened by the unusual ruckus, appeared at my side. "Kid," he said, "Do you know who you been talkin' to?"

"All I know," I replied, "is that he was a nice person. We had a good visit. He never introduced himself."

The incredulous day man gasped: "That man was Christian Brevoort Zabriskie! He not only is president of the Tonopah and Tidewater, and an official of the Borax Company, but he is the man responsible for payment of half our salary at this station!"

Many times I have thought of how strange that meeting was. He never told me his name, and I never gave mine; nevertheless, we had a good time.

Finally, at 9:20 PM, No. 26 climbed the twelve-mile, eighty-three hundredths percent grade from Broadwell to its final destination, Ludlow, with 9 loads, 4 empties, 558 tons. Conductor Maher went off duty at 10:00 PM; engineer and fireman did a bit of inspection and shut-down work required by regulation before tying up fifteen minutes later, at 10:15 PM. A final notation on Maher's delay report offers the following excuse for not making schedule time: "High winds, full tonnage."

Posterity beholds nothing to compare with a ten-hour, fifteen-minute, 169-mile trip along Death Valley and the Mojave in 1933, in a wooden rail coach behind a dirty, sooty steam locomotive. Only a few yellowed records left behind, such as "The Trainsheet on the Wall," assisted by our imaginations, give insight to the nature of such an adventure.

Five months after this trip was made, partially as consequence of traffic losses as well as overall impact of the great depression, in a futile effort to stem the flow of T&T red ink, operation of the segment between Crucero and Ludlow was suspended. Dispatcher McPhee, along with the rest of the railroad's facility and personnel at Ludlow were moved to Death Valley Jct., performing their duties there until the final train was run. The automobile age was catching up to T&T.

On June 15, 1940, Tonopah and Tidewater issued Supplement "A" to Employees' Timetable No. 63, which had the unusual effect of cancelling previous Timetable 63 and declaring "Abandonment of Operations of entire line between Crucero, California and Beatty, Nevada: Authorized by Interstate Commerce Commission, Finance Docket No. 12265" but the actual mortal blow had probably been delivered in 1927, when discontinuance of borax mines near Death Valley Jct. as well as the line's predecease by Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad signified a drop in vital freight revenue which never could be recovered by haulage of a now-increasing influx of tourists.

The railroad career of many T&T employees didn't end at that point. Superintendent Cahill's brother, Wayne, went to the Alaska Railroad as a locomotive engineer; the Lowe brothers became employees of the Santa Fe and Frisco roads; fireman Russell Devine became a Santa Fe locomotive engineer, and brakeman Paddy Miles went to Norton Airbase on the military railroad located there. Perhaps the most unusual "last gasp" of all was that of veteran conductor Blackie Maher. At the time of T&T's demise, the venerable old gent had thirty-six years of service, dating to his beginnings as a brakeman back in construction days. A small, sturdy man, he was well-known for outspoken loyalty to, and defensiveness of, "his" railroad. Having worked on passenger trains during the railroad's glory years, it must have been difficult to preside over those last years of what was essentially "slow freight" service. Often, at Crucero, the Union Pacific telegrapher would feel Blackie's sharp tongue for delaying T&T trains behind a red signal while Union Pacific's yellow Streamliner, passing at high speed, received priority. On other occasions, while freight or express shipments were unloaded by the telegrapher, Blackie would strut up and down Crucero's platform, watch in hand; and call out, "All Aboard!" as though the platform were crowded with people of yore, though nary a passenger had been in sight for many weeks.

When, in 1942, demolition of the line began at Beatty working southward, the Los Angeles contracting firm of Sharp & Fellows experienced great difficulty locating dependable workers who could stand the heat. In addition, it was wartime and difficult to find experienced railroaders. An emergency call was sent out, and Blackie came back to help, after two years of retirement. The black hair was now gray, with a beard added to the once-trim mustache. Striding around in a weather-beaten hat, he looked more like an old prospector than the slick-uniformed conductor of bygone days. But time, which had changed his looks, had done nothing to impair his railroading ability. The scrap iron cars at Crucero had found very little space available while awaiting pick-up by Union Pacific. Floaters and ex-cowboys previously hired to do the job couldn't perform in the heat, making a mess of things. Experienced Blackie, however, not only could switch the Crucero yards blindfolded, he was unfazed by the heat. Therefore, he was a welcome and valuable addition to the forces performing these last, sad duties.

And so ends our excursion into the past over the T&T. Nobody who watched her disappear during those early wartime years could have predicted that the line would live on. The kindness of mother nature in not obliterating many landmarks, and the foresight of those who left behind written and oral memories, and saved documents and photographs for use by authors and historians in compiling articles and papers such as this, have made it so.

(Copyright 1999, David Sprau)

 

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