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"Baby Gauge" Railroad.

Pacific Coast Borax Company.

By Randy Hees

T he 24" gauge "Baby Gage" Railroad1 was an extension of the 36" gauge Death Valley Railroad, with was itself an extension of the standard gauge Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad. The Death Valley railroad was originally proposed as a standard gauge branch of the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, but regulatory officials denied the T&T permission to extend its line due to its poor financial condition and high debt load. As a result legally independent Death Valley Railroad was built by the Pacific Coast Borax company to reach the new mines and claims just over the Greenhorn Mountains, above Death Valley. These had first been found by men working for Coleman, before he lost control of his borax empire to Smith. Development had been put off in favor of the deposits at Borate in San Bernardino County which were only 12 miles from a railhead.

The Death Valley railroad passed by the “Played Out” mine before cresting the Greenhorns and ended at the food of the Upper and Lower “Biddy McCarty” mines at (New) Ryan.2 It was originally planned to extend the Death Valley Railroad as needed to reach the other claims, eventually down Corkscrew Gulch and Furnace Creek Wash, but instead, PCB officials chose to build a new 24" gauge railroad to bring the ore to the 36" gauge railroad.

Construction began on the “ore gathering tramway” as early as December 1914, and certainly by early 1915. The route started at the DVRR ore bins, then passed over the tail track of the DVRR wye on a bridge, beneath “Poison Rock” to the Grand View Mine, about three miles. Over time it was extended first to the Lizzie J Oakley, and eventually to the Widow mine. Eventually the line reached over 5 miles in length, and as reworked and rebuilt would feature 3 long and one short tunnel as well as a number of spectacular bridges as it ran along the wall of Corkscrew Canyon.

By 1921, it was noted that most ore was coming from the Widow mine, with the tiny trains working hard to move the ore… “Filling ore bins of at Ryan with Widow trains is like trying to fill a bathtub with a spoon” Possibly in response a new larger Plymouth locomotive was added in 1923.

The mines at Ryan never “played out”, instead, they were replaced by a new higher grade ore body found near Boron California. Those ores were both cheaper to mine, closer to the standard gauge railroad. The line hauled its last borax ore in mid 1927, even as the line was now hauling tourists.

Tourist service.

As mining operations were transferred to the new mines at Boron, the PCB company started to repurpose their Death Valley facilities as a tourist center. This included the purchase of gas rail cars for both the Tonopah & Tidewater and the Death Valley Railroad, and converting company housing and dormitories at Death Valley Junction, and in Furnace Creek to hotels. At Ryan the facilities were rebranded as the “Death Valley View Hotel”. The project was promoted by Union Pacific’s tourist arm.

As part of the tourist initiative, from late 1926, until an accident in 1950 (which resulted in an “expensive claim”), the Baby Gage operated as a tourist attraction. For this five flat cars were fitted with seats in late 1926. The new ride included tours of the mines. Eventually, when the mine at Boron was converged to an open pit, some of that mines equipment was moved to Ryan as displays.

After the accident the Baby Gage was left in place, only occasionally used. Today much of the railroad is in place, but unusable. One locomotive is still on site and has been operated recently (for demonstration only.) A second locomotive and one ore car are on display at the Pacific Coast Borax museum at Furnace Creek.


Revised: December 31, 2015
1. Pacific Coast Borax officials generally used the spelling gage as part of the line’s informal name, while in Union Pacific tourist literature it is spelled gauge.
2. The original town of Ryan (frequently called Old Ryan) had been established in 1905 at the “Lila C” mine site, at the end of the Tonopah & Tidewater branch. When the Death Valley railroad was built, that town was abandoned and the buildings moved to the new townsite, initially called Denair, but renamed (new) Ryan when the post office chose to retain the name used at the previous site.

Bibliography
Myrick, David, Railroads of Nevada and Eastern California, Vol 2, Berkeley, Howell North, 1963
Chappell, Gordon, “The Borax Baby Gauge Railroad: Pacific Coast Borax Company's Two-Foot Gauge Ryan To Widow Mine Railroad”. Death Valley Reveled, The Proceedings of the Sixth Death Valley Conference on History & Prehistory, Jean Johnson ed., Bishop, CA: Community Printing and Publishing 2002
Palazzo, Robert P., Railroads of Death Valley, Charleston, Arcadia Publishing, 2011
Serpico Phil, Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, The Nevada Shortline, Palmdale, Omni Publications, 2013

Reference Material Available Online:

Maps.

The Route of the Pacific Coast Borax "Baby Gage" for Google Earth by Andrew Brandon.

Rosters.

Pacific Coast Borax: "Baby Gage" Equipment Notes compiled by Randy Hees.

Photographs.

Collected Pacific Coast Borax Company: "Baby Gage" Railroad Photographs.
Images collected from private collections, libraries and historical societies.

Video.

"Hell On Earth, A summer visit to Death Valley U.S.A. the place nobody wants". British Pathé Newsreel. July 28, 1930.

Organizations.

Death Valley Conservancy "Ryan Camp" on Facebook.

Death Valley Conservancy.

California \ Pacific Coast Borax Company: "Baby Gage" Railroad
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