The International Steam Pages

Narrow Gauge Steam in California 2017

If like me (RD), you are somewhat ignorant of the railroads in this area, you will enjoy reading James Waite's account of the rise and fall of the narrow gauge here.

Thomas Schultz reports:

On Thursday, 21st September 2017, I drove from Reno, Nevada to Bishop, California, a distance of 200 miles. The route, south on US 395, included several mountain passes, two of which feature a summit in excess of 8,000 feet elevation. Believe it or not, as I drove south, I encountered heavy snow for at least 50 miles!

The trip to Bishop was made to witness the operation of Southern Pacific 18, 4-6-0, 3-foot gauge, formerly on display in a city park in Independence, California. During the past six years, Southern Pacific 18 was restored to serviceable condition at Independence by a group of volunteers. Two weeks ago, this locomotive was trucked 47 miles to a small railway museum located in Laws, California, a few miles northeast of Bishop.

Included in the pictures below is an image depicting one of the 3-foot gauge turnouts within the Laws Railroad Museum complex. Note the 'spring frog'.

The operation of Southern Pacific 18 at the Laws Railroad Museum was particularly historic in that the Laws Railroad Museum includes trackage originally part of the Carson and Colorado Railway, later Southern Pacific. Southern Pacific 18 operated through Laws on these same tracks when in regular service.

Steve Barry, New Jersey, USA organised the Friday afternoon photo runpasts as well as the night photo session.

Southern Pacific 18, 4-6-0 (BLW 37395 / 1911), originally Nevada California Oregon Railroad 12, 3-foot gauge, serviceable.
Southern Pacific 9, 4-6-0 (BLW 34035 / 1909), 3-foot gauge, originally Nevada California Oregon Railroad 9, not serviceable


Today's Carson & Colorado Railway: 

Laws Railroad Museum: 

All pictures courtesy of Thomas Schultz.


Narrow gauge along the Nevada and California border

The first locomotive in Nevada steamed across the border from California in December 1867 during the construction of the US transcontinental main line which opened in May 1869. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad, a classic US standard gauge shortline, opened the following year between Carson City, the state capital, and Virginia City the centre of the Comstock silver mining district up in the mountains and it was soon extended to join the transcontinental line at Reno. It wasn’t long before narrow gauge feeder lines started to appear.

One of the first was the Carson & Tahoe Lumber & Fluming Company’s line based at Glenbrook, on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe, a large lake which straddles the state border, is ringed by mountains and forests and lies a little to the west of Carson City. The company was founded by one Duane L. Bliss to supply pit props and other timber to the Comstock mines. Sawmills were set up at Glenbrook and a 3ft gauge railway, incorporating a Z reverse, was built eastwards as far as Spooner Summit. Here the timber was transferred to a flume, an artificial waterway, down which it was floated to a yard near Carson City from where it was carried by the V&T. The company bought two 2-6-0’s to work their railway, “Tahoe” (Baldwin 3709/1875) and “Glenbrook” (Baldwin 3712/1875).

By the turn of the century Duane Bliss decided to conserve what was left of the Tahoe forests and anyway the Comstock mines were becoming exhausted. Lake Tahoe was becoming a popular tourist destination and he closed the railway, moved the track across to the Californian shore and used it to build a new line to connect the growing resort of Tahoe City to the transcontinental railway at Truckee. He took “Glenbrook” with him but “Tahoe” was sold to the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad further west in California. 

Duane died in 1906, leaving his business interests to his descendants. Tahoe City prospered and by the 1920’s traffic was outgrowing the capacity of the little railway. In 1925 the family leased the line to the Southern Pacific, who by then ran the western part of the transcontinental route, on condition that they would convert it to standard gauge. This was achieved the following year and the railway was then sold to them. “Glenbrook” wasn’t included in the sale. The family intended that she should be put on display but this wasn’t achieved and in 1937 the Nevada County bought her as a source of spares for “Tahoe”. 

She was soon stripped and would probably have disappeared altogether had it not been for the perseverance of Miss Hope Bliss, Duane’s daughter. This delightfully named lady was in her 70’s when the Nevada County closed in 1942. She bought “Glenbrook” and presented her to the newly formed Nevada State Museum at Carson City to save her from the wartime drive for scrap steel. Many of her missing parts were “rescued” by Nevada County railwaymen to protect them from the scrapmen and followed her to the museum.

In the early 1980’s she moved to what is now the Nevada State Railroad Museum in the south of the city close to the terminus of the old Carson & Tahoe flume. She had to wait many years for its restoration but work got underway in the early 2000’s. The old boiler was capable of reuse and “Glenbrook” steamed again early in 2015, now carrying her magnificent original paint scheme once more. She’s believed to be the oldest working narrow gauge locomotive anywhere in North America but is only steamed a few times each year, the highlight being the US Independence day weekend in early July when she runs with V&T 4-4-0 no 22, also built in 1875. “Tahoe” has also survived thanks to being bought by a Hollywood film studio in 1940. She’s now an exhibit at the Nevada County Narrow Gauge museum in Nevada City.

Four of the V&T’s principal backers embarked on a major 3ft gauge expansion project in the early 1880’s. The result was the Carson & Colorado RR which opened in 1883 and ran from a junction with the V&T at Mound House, on the Carson River a little to the east of Carson City. The original plan was to reach the Colorado River but this wasn’t achieved. The new line climbed over the wild Montgomery Pass before crossing the state border and running down the Owens Valley in eastern California. Its eventual terminus was at Keeler, a desolate mining centre two hundred and ninety seven miles from Mound House. It’s said that when the promoters went on a tour of inspection one of them declared that “we either built it three hundred miles too long or three hundred years too soon”! 

The line was a financial disappointment and in 1900 was sold to the SP. Traffic looked up soon after when gold was discovered at Tonopah and Goldfield, a little to the east of the line midway to Keeler, and the independent Tonopah RR was built as a branch from Tonopah Junction to serve them. The main line was converted to standard gauge as far as the junction in 1905, as was the Tonopah RR, and the SP also built a new connection from Hazen, on the transcontinental route, to eliminate its dependence on the V&T. The 3ft gauge now began at Mina, a little to the north of the junction.

The Owens Valley used to be good farming country but the water rights were acquired by the Los Angeles city authority and after the water was diverted the valley became a desert. From the railway’s point of view the only good thing was that construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct justified building a standard gauge link from Owenyo, near Keeler, across the Mojave desert. It opened in 1910 and provided a new outlet to the south. Passenger services ended in 1938 and the line over the Montgomery Pass as far south as Benton closed completely. The next stretch through the upper reaches of the Owens Valley as far as Laws, seventy miles north of Keeler, followed in 1943. By then the railway’s original locos, all 4-4-0’s, had long gone and it was being worked by a group of six 4-6-0’s which arrived after other 3ft lines acquired by the SP became standard gauge. Three of these, SP no’s 8 (Baldwin 31445/1907), 9 (Baldwin 34035/1909) and 18 (Baldwin 37395/1911), were sufficient after Laws became the northern railhead. With their distinctive tenders they were all built for the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad which the SP acquired in 1927.

The line remained busy through the late 1940’s and 1950’s. The majority of the traffic consisted of talc from mines near Keeler. The remainder consisted of soda compounds, pumice, clay, soapstone, dolomite, ground slate, prophyllite, lead ore, melanterite, aluminium silicate and livestock. Traffic was sufficiently robust for the SP to introduce a diesel in 1954. No 9 was retained as spare engine while no 8 moved to the Nevada museum and no 18 to a museum at Independence, some miles north of Owenyo. Sadly things soon went downhill and the SP received permission to close the line early in 1960.

By then it had become the last common carrier 3ft gauge line west of the Rockies and many enthusiasts visited, especially when no 9 was in action. There was talk of starting a tourist service but this came to nothing. The last train ran on 29th April 1960 and everything was soon dismantled apart from Laws station. This was donated to the local council along with no 9 and a variety of freight stock and has been run as a museum ever since.

The diesel ended up in Mexico and was converted to standard gauge. It still exists though hasn’t worked recently and looks distinctly shabby. Another much older locomotive associated with the line is 0-4-2ST “Joe Douglass” (Porter 513/1882) from the grandly named Dayton, Sutro and Carson Valley RR. This little line was built to transport tailings from the Comstock mines to Dayton station on the Carson & Colorado, a few miles from Mound House. It closed in the late 1890’s and the locomotive moved to a reservoir construction site in southern California. When work there finished in 1904 it was abandoned for many years before being rescued for preservation and is now another prized exhibit at the Carson City museum.

As shown above, No 18 has recently been restored to working order by a group of Independence enthusiasts and returned to Laws for a steam weekend at the station in September 2017. The locomotive ran with SP box car no 17 and caboose no 401. They’ve been at Laws since 1960 and both have interesting histories. No 17 was built for the Tonopah RR in 1904 and when the Tonopah’s gauge was widened the following year was sold with three similar cars to the Lake Tahoe line. Here they ran with “Glenbrook” until the line was sold to the SP more than twenty years later. They were included in the sale and soon moved to the Carson & Colorado line. All four have survived.

The caboose was built with a clerestory roof in 1882, possibly as a combine, for the San Joaquin & Sierra Nevada RR which the SP acquired six years later. The San Joaquin line was widened in 1904 and after spending a few months running on the South Pacific Coast RR the vehicle moved to the Carson & Colorado. Its passenger bogies were replaced by freight ones in the late 1940’s and in 1952 it acquired a van-shaped roof. It appears in many photos of the line’s last years, sometimes running in a very short consist as it was this weekend.

In a spring frog the frog wing rail is held in place by springs in the assemblies at the side of the frog. The springs hold the wing rail (in this case the left hand one in the picture) against the frog point thereby closing the main line flangeway creating a smoother ride. The wheels of the train push out the wing rail, opening the flangeway to allow the wheels to pass by the frog point on the turnout side. Though it appears that in this case the springs have lost some their "push" allowing the wing rail to be gapped from the point. (Thanks to Dave West for enlightening me (RD that is) on this one.)

Rob Dickinson