Trails & Rails In Death Valley
by Walter Kohl
as told to Larry Palmer
published in Railroad Magazine, December 1944 issue
additional images have been added


For a moment Ed Stiles lived once more. There was a shout, a sudden yank on the jerk line and the twenty mules were off on a journey to the valley. Thoughts of storms, heat and thirst quickened my senses, as I followed over broken paths through the mountains that shut in Death Valley on all sides but one. I saw the lonely wastes, the withered grease-wood. Then the suddenness of death put an end to the illusion. For Ed was dead and these images were only a part of the Old Ranger's Tale. With a momentary pause, "Death Valley Days" was off the radio for another week.

Yet somehow, it couldn't all end just there. Too much had been left out of the picture, even as I knew. Thirty minutes cannot encompass the life story of a man, not could this program completely recapture Death Valley as we remembered it. I was a comparative newcomer to the scene, but knowing Ed made a difference. Though Ed only joined me after the steam wagon had replaced the mule as desert power, he was too full of the past to let a change in occupation shorten his vision.

My brother and I were running an eight mile railroad at this time, completing a childhood ambition. To attract passengers to the San Bernadino, Arrowhead & Waterman, we operated a dance hall. Ed had bought a ranch about three miles away and had the horse and buggy trade. He used to boast how he could call a dance so well, that no one within hearing distance could stop his feet. When we needed a manager Ed became that, and his strong arms, as well as his lively tongue, were necessary for the job. When fifty to seventy-five buggies full of country folk were tied up outside and two or three coaches were needed to carry the city people, we knew that we were a success. Our passenger traffic rose high on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons as the crowds assembled for the dances.

Though Ed left the past behind him and spoke but rarely about it, we all knew what he had been. He was still young, working his way into money. But now it was of Ed Stiles, the twenty-mule teamster, I thought. The mule team had opened up a lifeless patch of sand to industry. The steam wagon and finally the railroad were only progressive steps in the pioneer trail it had started. The maiden trip of the old Tonopah & Tidewater stands out in history, but what went before is too colorful to be forgotten. For the first time I realized what a complete evolution in transportation fifty years had brought about. Then I remembered my arrival and first impressions of the West.

Back in 1895, I was a clerk in a small bank in the town of Centralia, Illinois. I was twenty-five then, but not too strong; so family and friends were urging me to go West. My brother had gone out to San Bernadino five years earlier and the news of his approaching marriage decided me. Before long I found myself on board a train heading for California. The journey turned out to be quite an adventure for a small town fellow. Though always fond of trains and the idea of traveling, I had never before managed a trip like this. But soon enough, armed with the advice of my father and my mother's chicken lunch, I was ready and on the train.

Traveling economically, by the Santa Fe, I found myself in an old fashioned Pullman tourist sleeper. It was equipped with cane-bottom seats, oil lamps and a drinking water tank with a sturdy tin cup attached by an equally sturdy metal chain. Heat came from a cast iron stove located in the rear of the car. There was a hot water coil arrangement for the washrooms and all together, everything seemed tops. I inhaled coal smoke, picked cinders from my eyes and enjoyed every mile and every minute.

The train stopped at each division point for thirty to forty-five minutes to give the passengers a chance to eat at the Harvey Houses. Here you could get a fine meal for seventy-five cents. Nearly always, locomotives and crews would be changed, so I had a good chance of a visit with the enginemen. Generally I could climb up into the cab.

Most engineers in those days were able to make repairs whenever that became necessary. For some time we had been having engine trouble on one division. Finally the brakeman came through the cars announcing that we could go outside for a breath of fresh air, as the engine had to be repaired and it would require some time to do the job. The words were hardly out of his mouth, when I was down the steps and traveling fast toward the engine. The repair work was already in progress. I watched while the engineer and fireman jacked up the main rod, which was running hot, took out the taper pin and bolts and then removed the strap and front brass which had been causing the trouble. In two hours they had the parts back, everything was okay and we were rolling again.


Our train was made up as follows -- combination mail and baggage car, express car, day coach, two tourists and a standard sleeper. Of course link and pin couplers were used. Since there was no vestibule between cars, it was inconvenient to pass from one coach to another. But there was no need to move at all to stir up excitement. Plenty of life went on right about us.

A group of young musicians were among the travelers. Composed of five men and five women, the string orchestra was son filling the car with classical and popular favorites. I belonged to the brass band and orchestra at home and could play the guitar, violin cello and banjo. And soon I was doing just that -- though not all at the same time. The train moved over the land speeding at thirty miles an hour; but we scarcely noticed the outdoor life or changes in terrain, except when ordered to peer by our "news butcher."

No train like the one I rode was complete without this man. Our butcher carried a complete stock of collar buttons, shoe strings, needles and thread, candy, peanuts, soda and cigars, as well as sandwiches, fruit and colored glasses. He did a land office business also, as most of my traveling companions were tourists making their first trip to California. This butcher was a man you'd remember. Prepared for all events, he could wield a deft handkerchief to take a cinder from you eye and while you thanked him, he sold you an all powerful eye cure-all. Posted on all the sights along the way, he gave free lectures about them and had us stretching our necks at every angle to gaze at the wonders of the West.

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