Borax Smith
and the
Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad

By Stephen P. Mulqueen

A Full-Service Railroad

Timetable March, 1917
The opening of scheduled rail service by the T & T brought progress to all the mines and towns along its route. The great hardship of hauling supplies and ore long distances by wagon had been superceded by the new railroad. Food, supplies, mail, mining equipment, farm equipment and even potable water could now be transported with relative ease. Commodities from surrounding mines, transferred on the T & T, included refined borax, colemanite ore, gold and silver ores, base metal ores, bentonite clay, talc, gypsum, fluorspar and quarried marble. The railroad brought many new industries and jobs to the area to service the mining and farming industries. Prospectors who were waiting for supplies from their grubstakers could arrange for deliveries at any point along the route.
A railroad timetable which was printed in the Spring of 1917 proclaimed that passengers could leave the Santa Fe Depot in Los Angeles on the eastbound Santa Fe Railroad at 8:30 PM, transfer to the T & T line at Ludlow and arrive at Death Valley Junction at 10:50 AM the next morning. From Death Valley Junction, passengers could transfer to the Death Valley Railroad and arrive in Ryan at 12:40 PM or continue on the main line through Beatty and arrive in Goldfield, Nevada at 6:00 PM. The T & T offered this service three times each week. Pullman service was also available for those traveling "first class."

T&T Timetable - March, 1917
Stephen P. Mulqueen Collection


Smith's Final Challenge

During the year 1913, Borax Smith began having his own financial troubles. His shares of Pacific Coast Borax Company stock were sold on the London Stock Market. With the sale of stock, he lost his controlling interest in the company. On July 17, 1914, Smith resigned. What began as an American-owned organization under the name Pacific Coast Borax Company, was now British-owned. The borax mining company and the railroad which Smith struggled to create continued to prosper. After Smith stepped down, Wash Cahill managed the T & T railroad while Richard Baker took over the affairs of PCB.

With time, Smith again entered into the borax business by developing a colemanite deposit at the Anniversary mine in the Muddy Mountains northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. Smith also developed borax and other products from the brines of Searles Lake at the Westend plant, operated by West End Chemical, located south of Trona in San Bernardino county, Ca. In 1928, Smith officially retired. His health was failing rapidly with complications from minor strokes. On August 27, 1931 Francis Marion Smith died. He had achieved a legendary 60-year career in the borax industry. The borax empire he created under the name Borax Consolidated, Limited and the Pacific Coast Borax Co. is still operating as Rio Tinto Corp. PLC and its subsidiary U. S. Borax Inc.

The Tecopa Railroad

In May, 1909, the Tecopa Railroad Company was incorporated in California and funded by private investments. By 1910, a railroad spur from the T & T main line at Tecopa was extended southeast to the Gunsight and Noonday mines in the Nopah Range.

The Death Valley Railroad

After ore deposits at the Lila C. were exhausted in 1914, mining operations were moved to the Biddy McCarty mine at the northwest edge of the Greenwater Range near Furnace Creek Wash on the east side of Death Valley. In January, 1914 the Death Valley Railroad (DVRR) was incorporated. New construction of the narrow-gauge DVRR began at Horton, a railroad siding halfway between Death Valley Junction and the Lila C. mine. From this point, construction continued west 17 miles to the Biddy McCarty mine. On December 1, 1914, the DVRR was formally dedicated.

Ryan, narrow-gauge locomotive ‘Francis' 1915.
This locomotive was first used at Borate on the Borate & Daggett Railroad.
In cab is engineer John Connelly.
© W. H. Smitheram.

The new town that grew around the mine was also named "Ryan". The term "Old" Ryan was later used in reference to the abandoned site at the Lila C. mine.

Several borate mines which were operated by PCB from Ryan included the Upper Biddy McCarty, Lower Biddy McCarty, the Played Out, Grand View, Oakley and Widow Mines. The Monte Blanco Mine operated several miles northwest from Ryan.

Death Valley Railroad, engine #1, 1914.
© W. H. Smitheram.

Geologic Hazards

The T & T continued to face great challenges throughout its life. Flashfloods, flooded "dry" lakes, landslides, debris flows, erosion of the railroad bed, train derailments and mechanical problems were all too common on the T & T. Much of this was the result of the construction, operation and maintenance of a railroad in the harsh desert environment. Many of the conditions that resulted in damage to the T & T line were directly attributed to adverse geologic factors along the route. The railroad's greatest menace was the unpredictable Amargosa River which, at times, was known to change from a dry wash into a raging torrent within minutes of a heavy downpour. The 12 mile stretch through the Amargosa Gorge was the most expensive to build and to maintain.


The Tourist Trade

For a short period of time, Borax Consolidated, Limited (BCL), the parent company of PCB, entered into the tourist business. Tourists traveling to Death Valley could ride on the T & T to Death Valley Junction and the DVRR to Ryan. Touring cars provided first-class transportation throughout Death Valley. Hotel accommodations were available at the Furnace Creek Inn, which was built by BCL and opened on February 1, 1927.

Death Valley Railroad, Brill car #5,
a gasoline powered, narrow gauge pssenger car, 1927.
© W. H. Smitheram.

Other accommodations included the remodeled Amargosa Hotel which was originally the civic center complex at Death Valley Junction. (The Amargosa Hotel building is presently the Amargosa Opera House). At Ryan, miners dormitories were converted into the Death Valley View Hotel. BCL's venture in the tourist industry was short lived.

The End of an Era

During the years 1927 and 1928, PCB began shifting its mining operations to the newly discovered Kramer borate deposit in the Mojave Desert, near the present day community of Boron in Kern County, Ca. The Kramer deposit consists of a large ore body of borax with kernite and other associated minerals. Early estimates of ore reserves at Kramer were on the order of hundreds of millions of tons of relatively high-grade borax.

The ore from the Kramer deposit was easier to mine, mill and to ship. As a mineral compound, borax hardness is lower and its solubility is higher than that of colemanite. These factors make borax a superior raw material in the mining, crushing and dissolving processes. Milling costs were far less for processing borax ore from Kramer than with the colemanite ore from the Death Valley region. In the milling process at Kramer, treating the raw borax to make refined borax required less energy than converting colemanite, a calcium borate mineral, into refined borax, a sodium borate product.

Ryan, "baby-gauge" ore train approaching the ore bunker,
PCB company store in foreground;
superintendent’s house just beyond bunkers, 1915.
© W. H. Smitheram.


The Kramer deposit was adjacent to the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad, a factor that resulted in huge savings in transportation costs for shipping borax products. The new mill was also closer to energy sources such as fuel oil that often came by rail from refineries near Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

Simple economics dictated the fate of mining at Ryan. In June, 1927, all mining operations near Ryan ceased even though ore reserves were never depleted. This was the beginning of the end to the T & T. In 1931 the DVRR was officially abandoned. The T & T continued to haul supplies, equipment and ore on the main line for numerous mines and communities along the route.

In March, 1938, the T & T was severely damaged by floods from heavy rains. By December, 1938, an application to cease operations was officially registered with the Interstate Commerce Commission. On June 14, 1940, all operations on the T & T ceased. By 1942, the War Department requisitioned the line and all its scrap iron. On July 18, 1942, contractors began removing rails and associated equipment at Beatty and worked southward, using the line one last time to haul the scrap iron. Ludlow was reached on July 25, 1943, closing a final chapter to the history of this great railroad. The Nevada Short Line had lasted over 30 years, far longer than Clark's Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad (which had been abandoned in 1918).

Remnants of the Past

You can still see traces of the T & T from Ludlow, California to Goldfield, Nevada. These features include the eroded segments of the railroad bed, concrete foundations around railroad sidings as well as bridge abutments and culverts at most major drainage crossings. The amount of erosion now visible along the old railroad bed can offer insight into the hardships encountered by the T & T during its active years.

The railroad passed by the present site of Zzyzx on the west edge of Soda (dry) Lake. The railroad siding at Soda was a short distance from what is now Zzyzx. The railroad bed can still be seen adjacent to the west edge of the property.

California State Highway 127 parallels and crosses the original route of the T & T as it heads north from Baker, through Tecopa, Shoshone and beyond Death Valley Junction. The railroad bed is also visible west of Nevada State Highway 373 and near Highway 95 from Lathrop Wells, through Beatty and on to Goldfield. Remnants of the DVRR are also present between Death Valley Junction and Ryan, along the south side of California State Highway 190.

On a calm day in the desert, some say they can still hear a train whistle along the old route!


The story of the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad is only one chapter in the history of borate mining in the Death Valley region. The construction of the railroad was the direct result of Borax Smith's determination to develop a mineral deposit in a remote area of the Amargosa Desert. His biggest challenges were the geologic obstacles imposed by nature itself. The railroad enabled Pacific Coast Borax Company to overcome tremendous logistical problems associated with the mining and milling of colemanite and the transporting of refined borax. The discovery of the Kramer borate deposit was an important geologic factor that influenced the course of mining at Ryan and resulted in the demise of the T & T. During its active years, the T & T became the lifeline for the remote mining camps and settlements along its route. It brought "civilization" and a means of income for those living near the railroad in isolated regions of the deserts of California and Nevada.


This article first appeared in "The Changing Face of the East Mojave Desert, " R.E. Reynolds, ed., 2001. It has been revised and expanded for this volume.

1 The Pacific Coast Borax Company evolved into the present day U.S. Borax Inc., a 129 year old corporation. Smith's first mining operation after establishing his new company began at Borate within Mule Canyon in the Calico Mountains of San Bernardino County.

2 In 1909, Old Dinah was purchased by J. R. Lane of Calico. After repairing the boiler, Old Dinah was used to haul gold ore and freight for the Keane Wonder mine on the west edge of the Funeral Mountains of Death Valley. In November of 1909, after several months of operations, the boiler again blew out and was abandoned in Daylight Pass, a few miles northwest from the Keane Wonder Mine. In 1932, the tractor was moved to its final resting place at the main entrance to Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley. To this day, the ruptured steam boiler is still attached to the tractor.

3 In this area of California, southeast of Death Valley, the Garlock Fault and the mountains along this structural trend form a dividing line between the Mojave Desert to the south and the Amargosa Desert to the north.


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Dana, Edward S.,
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Faye, Ted,
Death Valley Memories (video), Flashpoint Films, CA, 1994.
The Great Desert Railroad Race (video), Gold Creek Films, 2001.
The Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley (video), Gold Creek Films, 2000.
Gower, Harry P.,
Fifty Years in Death Valley - Memoirs of a Borax Man, Publication #9, Death Valley '49ers, 1969.
Greene, Linda W.,
Historic Resource Study - A History of Mining in Death Valley National Monument, Vol. I, Part 2, National Park Service, 1981.
Hildebrand, George H.,
Borax Pioneer - Francis Marion Smith, Howell-North Books, 1982.
Lingenfelter, Richard E.,
Death Valley & the Amargosa - A Land of Illusion, University of California Press, 1986.
Marcus, Jerry,
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"Geologic Map and Sections of the Amargosa Valley Borate Area", Map 1-782, U. S. Geological Survey, 1973.
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Place names of the Death Valley Region in California and Nevada, 1891, reprinted by The Sagebrush Press, 1980.
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Definition of Terms
borate mineralA mineral compound characterized by the borate ion.
A clear colorless mineral, hydrated sodium borate, from the Arabic name for "white", bauraq or buraq.
A white or clear-colorless mineral, hydrated calcium borate, named after William T. Coleman.
A person who supplies provisions or money to a prospector with the promise of a share in any mineral discoveries.
lacustrinePertaining to, produced by or formed in a lake.
A dry, flat area often composed of mud which forms in an enclosed desert basins.
A person engaged in the exploration, discovery and testing of minerals from naturally occurring deposits.
A white or clear-colorless mineral, hydrated borate of sodium and calcium, named after the German chemist George Ludwig Ulex (1811 - 1883).
"cottonball" ulexite
A variety of the mineral ulexite which, under general observation, resembles a ball of cotton.


Steve and his wife Susan currently live in Ventura, Ca. Steve is an Associate Mineral Resource Engineer with the Mineral Resource Management Division of the California State Lands Commission. Previously he had worked more than 20 years as an Oil & Gas Engineer with the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology at Cal Poly, Pomona in June, 1978. As an undergraduate, Steve developed an interest in industrial minerals, mining geology and mining history. He was employed at American Borate Company's Billie borate mine in Death Valley from 1978 to 1979. In Trona, Ca., Steve worked as a geologist for Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation at their Searles Lake operations from 1979 to 1982.


A word of thanks goes to Robert Reynolds who encouraged me to write an article on the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad which was first printed for the Desert Symposium held at Zzyzx, California in April, 2001. Photos in this article were made available from U. S. Borax Inc. archives and from the William H. Smitheram Collection. Words of thanks also goes to the following individuals who offered insight, information and critique for the article; Steve Carpenter (Rio Tinto Exploration), Greg Corrion (IMC Chemicals), Ted Faye (Gold Creek Films), Fred Johnson (mining consultant), Mike Rauschkolb (U. S. Borax Inc.), William H. Smitheram, (historian) and Sunny Vasquez (Shoshone Museum Assoc.).


This paper was presented at the
2002 Desert Symposium
of the
California State University,
Desert Studies Consortium

Department of Biological Science
California State University, Fullerton
Fullerton, California 92384
It is presented here with the permission of
the author and the D.S.C.
who are solely responsibly for its contents.
The photographs are used
with the permission of the copyright holders.
copyright 2002, Stephen P. Mulqueen


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