Trails & Rails In Death Valley
Page 4

A modern note was the gasoline-electric car. She was built by the St. Louis Car Company of St. Louis, Mo., for the Electro-Motive Company, from whom PCB Company purchased her in December 1928. She was the first gas-electric railroad passenger car used in California. a handsome combination mail-baggage-passenger car, built to travel sixty miles an hour, she seated forty, and could stow away several tons of miscellaneous cargo. This attractive car was regarded by some folks as the high point reached in the evolution of Death Valley transport.
 


 

 

After PCB Company prospectors had discovered a huge deposit of borate in southern Kern County, only three miles from the main line of the Santa Fe, and boom-time mining began to fade out, the usefulness of the desert line was nearing an end. In 1932, with the nation in financial panic and business at an almost standstill, train operation over the twenty-five miles between Ludlow and Crucero was discontinued. [It didn't help that much of that trackage was also severely damaged by flood! - Ed.]

The T&T had a good roundhouse at Death Valley Junction where the road intersected the branch line to Ryan and one at Ludlow. Here living quarters were constructed for the crews at Crucero. Trains were run from Beatty to reach Crucero in the evening, leaving there at daylight so as to allow crews to switch and load in the hours of the night, during the summer months.

This arrangement lasted for eight years. Then with continued loss of traffic on truck lines and the cessation of passenger travel, on June 15th, 1940, all operations ceased. Permission was obtained from the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Railroad Commissions of California and Nevada and the last train ran over the track. The Tonopah & Tidewater was no more.
 

Some employees of this railroad had worked for it from the very start. They were a loyal little group, heat-scorched and wrinkled sons of the desert. Perhaps the most unique among them was William "Blackie" Maher, a T&T brakeman and conductor for thirty-six years. He was a sturdy man and, though small, had a heart more than big enough to hold a life-long affection for the rails. So thorough a T&T was he, that you'd have thought he owned the old road. He'd raise merry hell with the towerman at Crucero if he held up his train, though it meant that the Union Pacific streamliner was passing. A damaged or poor conditioned car didn't stand a chance to join up with Blackie's train on the T&T until it had been fixed.

In the road's last days he piloted a train of mixed freight, with one combination coach on the tail end, and seldom a passenger. Yet Blackie strutted up and down the platform at Crucero with one eye on the watch in his hand, while the lone operator-towerman loaded mail and express. At the exact time his train was due to leave, Blackie would sing out "All Aboard!" as though the platform was crowded with people. There wasn't a passenger in sight, nor had one appeared for a month.
 

The wrecking of the line started at Beatty [The BG had been abandoned and pulled up much earlier in the last 20's - Ed.] The work was in charge of Sharp & Fellows, a contracting firm from Los Angeles. There was a great hurry for the material, so the job was started in the summer of 1942. With the thermometers nearly popping their tops, contractors had a hard time keeping men on the job. It was especially difficult to get train and enginemen.

An SOS sent out for the former conductor, and Blackie Maher came back from retirement to help. The black hair was now gray and a beard had been added to the mustache. Striding around in a weather-beaten slouch hat, he looked more like an old prospector than the slick-uniformed conductor of other days. But time that had changed his looks, did nothing to his knowledge of railroading. This he soon demonstrated by the way he handled switching jobs.

The rails were being hauled into Crucero, where yard room was very cramped. Some of the stuff went east, some west and more switched out to be reloaded in the stock pile at the junction. The floaters and ex-cowboys who tried to do the switching complained continually of the heat. He [Blackie] could switch the Crucero yard blind-folded, so he was a welcome and valuable addition to the forces.
 

The rusty rails of the T&T and all track material that was usable have been taken over by the government. Brokers bought the rolling stock. Death Valley's old steam wagon and several of the twenty-mule team wagons can be seen at Furnace Creek Inn, parked at the entrance as curiosities. In that driest of climates, 279 feet below sea-level, they will probably live on for centuries.

Many of us still remember the old life in Death Valley. The men who conquered it for fifty years have gone to places where lack of adventure is compensated by an easier life. But if men should never return to the Valley, they have left behind pioneer trails that cannot vanish and a story that lives when they are gone, to fire other trail makers.
 

 

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11/11/2009