The steam wagon was a result of this need and I just missed seeing her maiden trip. She was said to be the only one of her kind ever built, being designed and constructed by Daniel Best of the Best Manufacturing Co., San Leandro, Calif., for use on Death Valley. She cost $8,000.00, weighed ten tons and her submerged flue boiler carried 1550 pounds of steam. The water feed was an old fashioned plunger pump, connected to a cross-head of the engine, insuring the flow of water to the boiler. She burnt coal and the single cylinder high-speed engine, geared fifteen to one, gave powerful traction and speed over the sandy roads of four miles per hour. Her drivers were eight feet high, twenty-six and a half inches wide.
To steer this strange piece of machinery, the "engineer" had a big wheel, with which he manipulated a single leader wheel called the tiller. He stood on a platform above the boiler, the fireman sat at its base and neither benefited by any shade from the sun. The third man of the crew was called the swamper, and he acted as brakeman for the steam mule. His job was as important as that of his predecessor, but less colorful.
When the engine was first unloaded at Daggett. The entire town came out to witness the start of the desert test. Mule skinners stood around in groups, eyeing her with disgust and prophesying warningly, "That damn thing ain't gonna work." But she did work. This method proved fifty percent faster than the mule and when new, cost much less to operate. Considering she was a new experiment, she got along extremely well.
Of course she had her faults and about the worst was breaking gear cogs. These often gave way and when they did, pieces shot out like fragments of an exploding shell. On one occasion, a broken cog flew out, hit the boiler, then glancing off struck the engineer on the head hard enough to knock him down between the driving wheels and wagon trucks. He lived only because two more cogs let go in a fraction of a second, stalling the engine. But in spite of this and other imperfections, the wagon served well for several years as the second phase of Death Valley transportation.
The year 1900 --- and still the borax trade was increasing. Industry discovered more and more uses for it and demands increased rapidly. Welders, braziers, paper manufacturers wanted it. The medical profession used its antiseptic properties and asked for new supplies. Pressure for a new road into the desert was being applied towards the Pacific Coast Borax Company. [Additional mining at Borate in the Calico Mountains was also becoming exhausted early into the 1900's. - Ed.] Then too the mines in the Valley using mules to haul gold, silver and other ores to the railroad were out to better this slow means of transport. The result was the building of the Tonopah & Tidewater.
With the coming of the line in 19077, the old steam wagon was taken to Ludlow, Calif., where she was parked for some years. One day William Cahill, representative of the PCB Company, on a visit to Rhyolite, Nevada, was approached by the town's largest merchant who offered him $2,500 for the old girl. Cahill hastened to make out a bill-of-sale as twenty-dollar gold pieces were stacked up on the counter.
The old wagon was overhauled and moved to Rhyolite, where she again displace a mule-team hauling ore from the Keane Wonder Mine. On her way to the mine, she behaved valiantly; but her return trip was her downfall. Coming up Daylight Pass heavily loaded for a hard pull out of the valley, her new hogger must have neglected her. Low water cracked her crown sheet. Abandoned where she stopped, she stood on the grade for years.
During this period, vandals pretty well stripped her of everything that could be lifted. water glass, safety valve, whistle, steam gauge and other parts were stolen. Years later PCB Company decided to re-buy her as a curiosity. "Sell her?", remarked the owner, "Hell no! Take her with my compliments, but please never reveal my name in connection with that old critter!"
So she was taken to the entrance of Furnace Creek Camp, now a famous desert resort. There her enormous wheels, curious frame and boiler may be seen, resting peacefully after a stormy past.
The days of the wagon were over and then was born one of the most picturesque of railroads, the Tonopah & Tidewater. Starting at Ludlow, on the Santa Fe Railway, this line wound over sandy wastes, across the Old salt Lake Line (now the Union Pacific) at Crucero, Calif., then northward to Beatty, Nevada. It covered 169 miles of probably the worst stretch of desert in America. Typical of the methods of men working in desert conditions, without regard for summer heat, construction of the T&T was started in August of 1905, although the desert is regarded as fatal from June to October.
On December 7th, 1907, the first through run was made from Ludlow to Beatty. The train was made up of all new equipment from her engine right down to the rear Pullman. Carrying a load of miners and others, she chugged over the grease-wood and mesquite-covered desert northward to the Crucero intersection, then across sand dunes and alkali flats to the Devil's Playground. [Not quite, the 'Playground' is in Death Valley proper, the T&T went through Amargosa Valley. - Ed.]
We can only imagine the details. It was December, so perhaps the sun shone kindly on this historic pioneer train. There even might have been a breeze to ease the heat; then too, there might have been wind to dance loose sands against the windows and sides of the cars. As the trains rolled by the old Indian Spring nearing Mesquite [21.5 miles from Ludlow - Ed.], the hogger may have been blinded by silt that threw a black fog around his engine.
In this desert anything might happen. But whatever the whim of the desert, the train completed its scheduled journey. This story is not only of the unpredictable forces men had to face, but the success with which they met and conquered them. Men who operate trains soon learn to bring them through somehow.
Connected with this pike, in the memory of the old westerners, are such names as Bullfrog, Rhyolite, Tonopah, Goldfield and Beatty -- the boom towns of the gold mining days. Built before the coming of the T&T, they were live spots for many years after its arrival. Hard-rock miners in their hobnailed boots, grizzled prospectors carrying blankets and canteens, diamond-studded gamblers and the dance-hall girls all rode the desert line. Passenger trade was quite an item then, before the automobile reduced then popularity of this mode of travel. Sleepers, picked up at Ludlow and Crucero, hauled vacation crowds into Death Valley, for now it had become a winter resort [1927 and later - Ed.].
From the beginning to the end of this road, when Uncle Sam bought it to provide rail facilities for Government depots, the chief haul was borax. Thousands of carloads rolled out of the Valley bound south, as empty cars and supplied rolled in. It might have been called the Borax Railroad. a number of branches were built and at one time there were 252 miles of track belonging to this line [includes the BG trackage - Ed.]. Sixteen steam locomotives and a hundred cars and coaches operated under the banner of T&T, though some branches were owned by outsiders. Most of their locomotives were the latest, most improved types obtainable them.