The Borate & Daggett Railroad,
Forerunner of the Tonopah & Tidewater
by Delmer G. Ross
Professor of History
La Sierra University, Riverside, CA 92515

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By 1896 Smith had decided that the best way of modernizing and reducing the cost of transportation between Borate and Daggett would be to build a railroad. Constructing a railroad was not an inexpensive proposition, but he had already spent more than $100,000 trying to reduce transportation costs, and he had little or nothing to show for it. Consequently, he organized the Borate & Daggett Railroad Company as a subsidiary of Pacific Coast Borax.

Construction got under way early in 1898. The railroad was to be a narrow, three-foot-gauge line. For the most part, it would parallel the road already in use by the mule teams and wagons. It began in Daggett, at the former A&P tracks of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. From there it headed north for about three-quarters of a mile, across a bridge over the Mojave River, to the north bank. At that point, it veered northeast, and, continuing in an almost straight line some five miles across the flat desert floor and part of Calico Dry Lake, reached the Calico Mountains. The line then wound its way up Mule Canyon, over ever steeper grades, until it climbed over a pass.

Although Borate was only a mile from the pass, the approach to the mining camp required the construction of three high trestles, including one with several upright beams 54 feet long. The railroad was completed by the end of the year. From terminus to terminus its total length was eleven miles. Spurs built to different mines at Borate added another two miles of track.

The Marion negotiates a trestle just north of Borate.
Cahill/Clooney Collection, Mojave River Valley Museum.
The superintendent's house in Borate. The railroad came to within a few feet of the front door.
William H. Smitheram Collection.
The Borate reading room, the only officially sanctioned recreational facility in town. W.W. "Wash" Cahill holds a guitar while his daughter sits on the bottom step next to her mother, Isabell. Leslie Chapman stands on the steps.
Cahill/Clooney Collection, Mojave River Valley Museum.
Playing cards in the company store was a popular unofficial pastime in Borate. From left to right around the table: Louis Rasor, "Slippery Dick," Leslie Chapman, W.W. "Wash" Cahill, and "Brig" Young.
Cahill/Clooney Collection, Mojave River Valley Museum.

Much of the construction work was done by Navajo Indians and Mexicans who were paid ten cents an hour. After the railway had been completed, several continued to be employed in the maintenance of the line. The section foreman, who received $65 per month plus the use of a house, was additionally granted an interesting and no doubt welcome perquisite: free ice in the summer.
 

Two gear-driven Heisler locomotives, denominated the Francis (B&D No. 2) and the Marion (B&D No. 1), Borax Smith's given names, provided motive power for the B&D. Both locomotives had "Pacific Coast Borax Co." painted in large letters on their sides. Most of the other rolling stock, mainly short flat cars with removable stake sides, carried the name "Borate & Daggett R. R. Co."

The Marion at the T&T shops in Ludlow in 1913.
Alf Collection, Mojave River Valley Museum.

The new B&D very quickly realized Smith's hopes. The cost of transporting ore from Borate to Daggett tumbled from $2.50 to only $0.12 per ton. Such economy quickly recovered the expense of construction. An added bonus was the savings in time. The round trip was reduced from a day and a half to three hours. Although rarely attained, top speed for a loaded train was fifteen miles an hour. Empty, it was thirty.
 

In addition to modestly naming the line's two locomotives for himself, Borax Smith also named the town of Marion. It was a little community on the B&D some 4.5 miles north of Daggett, where Pacific Coast Borax erected a calciner to roast ore from Borate. The calcining process heated the ore until it was dry and had been reduced to a powder from which certain impurities were easily removed. This means of enriching the ore that was shipped to the company's refineries at Alameda, California, and Bayonne, New Jersey, also served to cut transportation costs.

Men building the Pacific Coast Borax roaster plant at Marion pose along its west side for a photograph ca. 1898. Note the three-rail combination of standard and narrow-gauge tracks in the foreground.
San Bernardino County Parks & Recreation Collection,
Mojave River Valley Museum.

The existence of the plant at Marion created a demand for standard-gauge cars in which to send the treated ore to the refineries. This dilemma was resolved by laying a third rail from the Santa Fe at Daggett to Marion. Because the B&D had no standard-gauge locomotives, most of the switching, even of standard-gauge cars, was handled by either the Francis or the Marion through the use of offset couplers.

The little community of Marion and the PCB mill as viewed from the east. Notice the long inclined trestle used to elevate the tracks so that rail cars loaded with ore could empty into chutes.
Alf Collection, Mojave River Valley Museum.

Some stretches of B&D track had been laid almost on the floor of Mule Canyon. As a consequence, whenever there was any significant flow of water such portions of the line were in danger of washing out. During the nine years of the railroad's operation, this appears to have occurred several times. When it did, though, all that was required was to wait a short time for the soil to stabilize. Then, after a little minor leveling, track could quickly be relaid.
 

After working his shift at Marion, Elvin Leroy Mudgett takes the easy way home over the tracks of the B&D to Daggett. Circa 1898.
Mudgett/Moon Collection, Mojave River Valley Museum

 
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12/09/2002