A chance meeting between two mining barons took place at the Pacific Union Club in San Francisco on April 10, 1905. Relaxed in high-backed leather chairs and smoking expensive hand-wrapped cigars, they casually discussed the business of building railroads.
Francis Marion Smith had made his fortune mining borax in such isolated places as Teel’s Marsh, Fish Lake Valley in Nevada and Death Valley also Calico in the Mojave Desert. He was planning to build a railroad to bring borax from his Lila C Mine, located on the east side of Death Valley, to his refinery in Los Angeles.
Senator William Clark had made his millions in the Montana copper mines and had recently completed construction of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad (SPLA&SL) that generally followed the old wagon road connecting Salt Lake City to Southern California -- a line that would later become part of the Union Pacific network.
Clark suggested that Smith would be better advised to build a short-line from his Salt Lake railhead at Las Vegas to the Lila C Mine a mere 50 miles rather than build a new line 130 miles from the Santa Fe Railroad at Ludlow. It sounded like a good idea to Smith provided he would get preferred shipping rates. They shook hands and Clark agreed to prepare a contract for the deal that they had discussed.
On the basis of the handshake, Borax Smith (as he was known) organized his crew and ordered his field manager John Ryan to start grading a roadbed from Corn Creek back toward the Las Vegas Valley and the Salt Lake line.
The crew graded eleven miles and started constructing a connection with the Salt Lake railhead when an attorney representing Senator Clark appeared and handed Ryan a trespass notice stating that there was no agreement to allow connection to the Salt Lake line.
Smith was furious when he found out about the double-crossing Senator’s trespass notice and made his feeling widely known.
John Ryan, a tough, take-no-prisoners Irishman, was sent to New York to confront the Senator on his return from a trip to Europe. Clark barely got his feet on the dock when Ryan shoved the trespass notice under his nose and demanded an explanation. After gathering his composure, Clark admitted that he had decided to build his own rails to the Tonopah mines and that he figured Smith would be forced to ship Borax on his railroad. He also pointed out to Ryan that there was no written agreement which, unfortunately, was true.
Smith had guessed that things weren’t quite right before he ever got the notice and had started negotiations with Santa Fe for a connection at Ludlow. He lost no time in having his crew rerouted to begin building his railroad north from that point to the Lila C borax mine
Clark might have had a twinge of conscience about what he had pulled and sent a check to reimburse the Borax Company for the right-of-way that had been graded and the rails that had been delivered. Smith never acknowledged the gesture. He would get even with the Senator in the years to come.
The string of silver and gold discoveries that stretched from Tonopah south to Gold Center had acquired worldwide attention. Prospectors, merchants, gamblers and sporting women arrived from as far north as Nome, Alaska and included such notables as Wyatt Earp and his brother Virgil.
Jim Butler tells how while prospecting he awoke one morning to find that his burro had disappeared. After searching for half a day, he found the critter standing near a rock- strewn outcrop. When he got near the pile he picked up one of the rocks intending to throw it at the beast. Somehow, that rock weighed too much for its size and later proved to be laden with silver. (This is one of many stories that Butler told about his discovery.) Soon the area around Butler’s claims became infested with prospect corner posts and marked-off, city lots. They named it Tonopah.
Two years later Tom Fisher, a Shoshone Indian, came into to town with a hunk of gold that he found south of Tonopah in the Columbia Mountains. The area had been prospected a few years earlier but nothing had come of it. The district was named Grandpa at that time.
Fisher’s discovery suggested that the area deserved another look. And it didn’t take long before ore rich in gold poured out of incline shafts or tunnels to be stacked and waiting for wagons to begin the journey to mills in distance places. Renamed Goldfield it would become the richest and longest lasting gold district in the state of Nevada.
The final link in the chain of discoveries took place in 1904 by two burro-chasing prospectors at a place they named Bullfrog. Shorty Harris had been in on at least five previous camps and would go on to a start-up called Harrisburg located in the Panamint Mountains.
Shorty’s partner Ed Cross found evidence of high grade gold and they staked their claim. Shorty’s problem was that he couldn’t keep a secret. As soon as he let the word out, prospectors piled in from surrounding mining camps and located the richest claims. Another settlement located nearby, named Rhyolite, became the center of activity for the entire basin.
The race for the gold was on. Clark’s Las Vegas & Tonopah (LV&T) railroad had a head start thanks to the right-of-way that Smith’s crew had surveyed and graded. The LV&T reached Indian Springs over 43 miles before a blade got dropped to start grading the Borax road. Clark doubled his crews and a few months later the first locomotive pulled into Gold Center one-hundred and sixteen miles from Las Vegas.
Borax Smith figured that his railroad being closer to the Los Angeles market would give travelers better access to the Nevada mines and to Death Valley. He named it the Tonopah & Tidewater (T&T), a line that never reach either destination. Clark would depend on freighting ore from the gold camps while Smith would compete for that business but hauling borax would remain the primary purpose of his line
Senator Clark won the race to Goldfield and celebrated the event by pounding the final rail spike at the LV&T Goldfield Station on October 28, 1907. The LV&T now provided rail service to the major gold producing districts in Southern Nevada and was the first to give access to Rhyolite and the Bullfrog District.
Goldfield would soon be served by three railroads; two from the south and one from the north. The line from the north was composed of three separate companies extending from Tonopah to Gold Center.
The Tonopah & Tidewater finally reach Gold Center and started service on October 30, 1907. The trains would have access to Goldfield by use of the Goldfield & Bullfrog short-line from Gold Center.
The LV&T made money when competition proved in Clark’s favor. But the bank panic of 1907 caused a decline in shipping so all of the railroads lost money. Many of the mines went idle while most of the local banks were forced to close.
The LV&T continued to operate, either losing money or barely breaking even until 1918 when, for many reasons, Senator Clark’s gold seeking railroad finally had reached the end of the line. Clark would have been better served if he had honored the handshake with Smith and agreed to haul borax for him. Over the years (1907 to 1929), during which the borax mines were active, he could have made a tidy profit without investing a dime.
The demand for borax continued to make money for Smith while the little T&T with its mixed trains kept his refinery furnaces busy making soap. The Death Valley mines had a good run but production began to decline during the 20s and all of the mines became inactive in 1929.
The T&T, continued rail-service for the benefit of other southern Nevada mines, hauling freight and running a few scheduled passenger cars. The company wanted to discontinue service but the government’s railroad regulating agencies wouldn’t give their approval because of outstanding bond indebtedness. However, agreement between the company and the government was reached after the 1938 flood waters swept away large sections of the line.
All service on the Tonopah and Tidewater ended on December 31, 1939. Removal of the rails was completed by the end of 1942.
Abandoned railroads have their followers. Folks who enjoy hiking or driving next to an old railroad bed can locate old railroad crossings and stations. There are plenty of opportunities along the Tonopah and Tidewater line.
The initial headquarters and rail yards were located at Ludlow. A few building remains can be seen along Main Street.
The raised railroad berm can be seen at a number of places along Highway 127 between Baker and Death Valley Junction.
The Silver Lake Station was located at the edge of Silver Lake eight miles north of Baker. It became a commercial center for the surrounding desert mining camps. Nothing remains there now except a well and a few foundations.
In 1916, flood waters filled the Silver Lake basin forcing the company to move the tracks from the lakebed to the east side of Highway 127. The berm of the original right-of-way can still be clearly seen running along the center of the lakebed.
Nearby China Ranch and the Amargosa Canyon are worth a visit especially for hikers.
Death Valley Junction became the company headquarters after the Ludlow sector was abandoned. The remaining buildings include the famous opera house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From Death Valley Junction, the T&T line continued to Gold Center, a small settlement south of Beatty, Nevada. At Gold Center it joined the Goldfield & Bullfrog Railroad and provided train service to Rhyolite and Goldfield. Gold Center is locate south of Beatty near Airport Road (Google Earth 36, 52.415; 116, 45.952)