Abstract from the 2002 Desert Symposium
California State University, Desert Studies Consortium


Borax Smith
and the
Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad

By Stephen P. Mulqueen


The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad operated between 1907 and 1940 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 in the Amargosa Desert east of Death Valley resulted in a rail system which benefited all those who lived in the surrounding area.

The history of the Tonopah & Tidewater is a story of success in overcoming formidable obstacles in the desert regions of California and Nevada. These obstacles included steep mountains, dry lakes and washes subject to flooding, and long expanses of uninhabited land devoid of trees and reliable sources of water. The great geologic forces that formed high-grade mineral deposits also created adverse conditions which impeded the economic development of those resources.

William T. Coleman

The occurrence of borate minerals in the Death Valley region of Inyo County attracted early settlers to the area. These minerals included ulexite and colemanite which occurred naturally within lacustrine deposits at locations on the floor of Death Valley and in the hills surrounding the Furnace Creek wash. In 1881, Isadore Daunet became the first to develop borate minerals within Death Valley. Daunet's operations were known as the Eagle Borax Works.

During that same year, Aaron Winters discovered "cottonball" ulexite in the playa mud, a short distance from the northwest edge of the alluvial fan of the Furnace Creek wash. William T. Coleman bought claims from Winters and began developing the deposit. With the help of Chinese laborers, Coleman successfully harvested cottonball ulexite from the mud flats. In 1883, a processing plant was built to convert ulexite into borax, a more desirable commodity that could be marketed. He called his operations the Harmony Borax Works.

Hauling borax out of Death Valley was a great task for Coleman. He had heard about the use of large wagons pulled by a team of 20 mules which, at that time, were the most efficient means of transporting heavy loads of freight and ore. The 20 mule team wagons were first designed in the early 1870s to haul freight and ore for remote mining camps in California, Nevada and Arizona. John Searles was the first to apply this technology to haul borax. In 1873, Searles and his teamsters transported borax from his mining operations at what was then known as "Slate Range Playa" and later called "Borax Lake" (now Searles dry lake). Before the railroad was built through Mojave, Searles' 20 mule teams and wagons hauled borax 175 miles to the harbor at San Pedro.

In 1883, Coleman ordered his own 20 mule team wagons which were built by craftsmen in Mojave, California. Later that year, Coleman and his teamsters began hauling borax out of Death Valley to the Southern Pacific Railroad at Mojave using the 20 mule teams and wagons. (The "20 mule team" actually consisted of 18 mules and 2 horses).

"Borax" Smith

Coleman produced and shipped borax from the Harmony Works for several years. By 1888, his 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. With this acquisition, Smith took possession of 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 Desert), and the colemanite deposits at Mule Canyon near Calico in the Mojave Desert. Included in the purchase were the successful 20 mule teams, wagons and rigging. (The Lila C. mine was named after Coleman's daughter Lila.)

Twenty Mule Team at the 1949 Death Valley Encampment William H. Smitheram.

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).1

To haul borax from the mill at Borate to the railhead at Daggett, Smith first used the 20 mule teams and wagons. Beginning in 1894, a steam traction engine known as "Old Dinah" pulled borax wagons and hauled freight, traversing the 11 mile trek to the railroad. Old Dinah was not as reliable as the 20 mule teams. The steam engine developed frequent breakdowns, and its heavy wheels would often bog down in mud and soft sand. In 1898, the narrow-gauge Borate & Daggett Railroad was built to transport borax and supplies.

In 1899, Smith formed an organization formally known as Borax Consolidated, Limited, an international organization with headquarters in London, England. By the year 1904, the deposits at Borate were beginning to reach the end of their productive life. Smith began moving the mining equipment and personnel northward to the large colemanite deposit at the Lila C. mine.
Head frame at Shaft #2, Borate; narrow-gauge tracks of the
Borate & Daggett. Mule Canyon, Calico Mountains, 1898.
W. H. Smitheram.

Hauling borax from the Lila C. mine proved to be Smith's greatest challenge. At that time, the closest railhead was at lvanpah, which was over 100 miles from the mine. He first met the challenge by placing Old Dinah back into operation. In April, 1904, Smith put the engine to the test. After traversing only 14 miles, the steam boiler blew out and the machine came to a sudden stop.2 The failure of Old Dinah was the event which set the stage for the construction of the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad.

The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad

Borax Smith was convinced that a railroad was the only answer to his transportation dilemma. He set his sights high and envisioned a standard-gauge railroad which would not only service his mine but also extend to the gold and silver mines around Goldfield and Tonopah in Nevada. Smith also considered extending the route south to the tidewater at San Diego, although this plan was never implemented. On July 19, 1904, the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad Company (T & T) was incorporated by Smith and registered in the State of New Jersey. Smith immediately claimed title to the wagon road between lvanpah and the Lila C. mine and began the task of finding investors for his great project.

Survey crews began charting a route from lvanpah northward. During that time, a new railroad was reaching completion, known as the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad (SP, LA & SL). With the line open for traffic, survey crews also mapped a possible path for the T & T from the SP, LA & SL line north, through the Kingston Range and on to the Lila C. mine. Survey crews also considered a route from Las Vegas.

By 1905, Smith decided to begin building the railroad at Las Vegas. Smith met with Senator William A. Clark and, with a handshake, was given verbal approval for the railroad. (Clark was a Senator from Montana who had sizable investments and considerable political power within the State of Nevada). This gave Smith the consent he needed to begin construction of the railroad. On May 29. 1905, groundbreaking ceremonies were performed dedicating the start of grading operations for the new T & T line near Las Vegas.

Shortly after this event, Senator Clark began having second thoughts about letting Smith build the T & T railroad from Las Vegas. Clark wanted to form his own railroad from Las Vegas to the mines at Tonopah. He 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.

Clark did not make it clear to Smith regarding his change of plans. Instead, he made it difficult for Smith to build his railroad. Without warning, the SP, LA & SL 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 construction costs. Smith tried to gain permission to connect the T & T line to the SP, LA & SL rails. His request was flatly denied. Clark had indirectly put a stop to Smith's plans by exerting his influence on the construction operations. Shortly after this event, Clark announced the formation of the Nevada Transit Company which began planning the construction of the Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad (LV & T).

This action was a great setback for Smith. Over 12 miles of railroad bed had been graded. It was "a road to nowhere." Smith had no choice but to shift his operations from Las Vegas, Nevada to Ludlow, California.

Smith obtained approval to connect the proposed rail line with the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad near Ludlow. 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). The race between Clark's LV & T and Smith's T & T was in full swing.
T & T engines #7 and 8, T & T rail yard at Ludlow, 1910.
W. H. Smitheram.


In October, 1905, Clark and the Nevada Transit Company purchased the 12 miles of graded railroad bed built by the T & T and began construction of the LV & T. This sale gave Smith and the T & T the money to recover from the setback of relocation. Smith wasted no time. He appointed John Ryan, Clarence Rasor and William (Wash) Cahill to supervise construction operations along its extensive route. By November, 1905, the first rail was laid at the "Big Loop", the term given to the circular rail pattern at the rail yard near Ludlow. (Written accounts of the T & T also refer to the "Big Loop" as the T & T Loop Line and/or the "Balloon Track".) The "Big Loop" enabled trains coming south to easily turn around for the return trip north.

From Ludlow, the railroad crossed the SP, LA & SL line at Crucero (Spanish word for "crossing") and extended over Broadwell and Soda (dry) Lakes. By March, 1906, the T & T completed the crossing of Silver (dry) Lake north of Baker. At that stage of the project, survey crews continued to chart 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 in San Bernardino County.

The greatest challenge that the crew faced was the 12 mile ascent through the Alexander Hills north of Dumont by way of the Amargosa River Gorge. These mountains consist of a sequence of extremely hard and erosionally resistant volcanic rock formations. This great obstacle extended east to west for many miles. Going around it was not an option for Smith.3

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. Supplies and equipment were offloaded at Dumont and hauled by horse-drawn wagons to the construction site.

By this time, the hot weather during the summer of 1906 was paying its toll on the work crew. Construction workers began quitting. By the time Smith was able to attract additional crews to the area, the weather had cooled and the fall season had arrived. 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.
Greenwater Valley in 1916 (Cadillac is model year 1912).
Bob Tubbs (left), Barney Minor (right), William Smitheram in car.
W. H. Smitheram.

Workmen constructed several trestles, excavated long cuts and compacted numerous fill-slopes. Many of the cuts were excavated through solid rock which required extensive hand drilling and blasting with dynamite. One of the trestles was over 500 feet long. In order to reduce the steep grade and elevate the tracks above the bed of the Amargosa River, the railroad crossed the canyon twice. 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, on the south edge of the Amargosa Valley. Smith had lost several months worth of time from the delays encountered in the Amargosa Gorge.

By June, 1907, the railroad was completed to Zabriskie, a railroad siding 4 miles north of Tecopa. While construction continued northward, borax from the Lila C. mill was hauled by wagon to the advancing rail line. Shortly after reaching Zabriskie, Smith formed the Tonopah & Greenwater Railroad which was incorporated in 1907. He proposed a railroad spur off of the T & T line at Zabriskie to the mines of the Greenwater District in the area surrounding Greenwater Valley. The Tonopah & Greenwater Railroad was never built as a result of the collapse of the mining industry during the Panic of 1907 and because of rumors of stock swindles common to the mines of the Greenwater District.

On August 16, 1907, the railroad was completed all the way to the Lila C. mine. Borax from the mill was shipped by rail on that same day. By this time over 700 men were working on the railroad. Camps were established at Leeland and at Gold Center, Nevada. Work progressed north from the Lila C. and south from Gold Center. On October 30, 1907 rail lines were joined and rail service arrived at Gold Center. There was no celebration for this great event.
T & T engine #6 at the Lila C. mine, 1910.
W. H. Smitheram.

By that time, the economy was feeling the full effect of the Panic of 1907. Many mines in the area continued to close. Also, the Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad reached Gold Center the year before and during October, 1907, was completed all the way to Goldfield, Nevada.

The T & T became known as "The Nevada Short Line." 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 put into operation at the Lila C. mine. The town which grew around the Lila C. was named Ryan in honor of John Ryan, Smith's right-hand man during the construction phase of the railroad. 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 Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad now extended from Ludlow, California all the way to Goldfield, Nevada.

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