Life On the T&T–Photo Trail (circa 1920-1930)

Click on the pictures to see a larger view.

For a modern expedition along the road bed see:
"20 Mule Team" Modern Expedition

Series below begins at Ludlow CA and terminates at Beatty NV.


Ludlow — 1929
The T&T originated at Ludlow on the Santa Fe


Harry, circa 20 months; Already a big shot—that means spoiled & bratty.


Crucero > back to top
Banks of Mojave & Union Pacific crossing.In later years, this is where the trains turned around using a "Wye".



Rasor > back to top
Banks of Mojave and favorite parking spot with Mesquite 

Rasor is accessible by car and is in the Mesquite country in the heart of the Mojave Desert. But these trees of the desert have fallen on hard times in this region. In the late spring of 1938, the Union Pacific and the T&T suffered a "100 year" flood from the Mojave. To prevent future repeats, the UP diverted the course of the Mojave into Cronese valley to the West. One result was a lowering of the water table that put the Rasor region into a permanent drought at the same time it brought new life to Cronese. When this picture was taken, the water table was some 6-8 feet below the surface. Today it is two or three times that. Two large cottonwood trees commanded the landscape along with a 30 foot high 30,000 gallon water tank. Steam engines refilling here could make it all the way to Death Valley Junction.

One reason I loved Rasor is that after filling up, the steam engines would blow out their pipes and cause a miniature rain storm just to the left of the picture-artificial rain all of three times a week. Other reasons were the shade under these big cottonwoods and plentiful water. Rasor is a sandy place and one can get stuck in a conventional car, a 4x4 is safer, as it is a long walk out.

Rasor supported a section crew and track walker full time and the Outfit (see bio) occasionally. The track walker's job was to check every railroad tie for loose spikes. He got around on a hand-and-foot powered three-wheeled track walker, or velocipede. Pablo Martinez was the track walker at the time of the flood in 1938. His daughter Cholie and a friend rode some 50 miles each way to school in Yermo. Her friend went on to Barstow, an extra 10 miles each way—he was in high school. Such daily treks were not exceptional for desert folks.

The most beautiful time to visit Rasor is around Easter. If you hit a lucky year, wild flowers will be in bloom. Purple verbenas bloom everywhere in a wet year. Desert lilies too. Desert lilies flower like lilies but they grow from bulbs. Tall and stately, they were in great demand for the rare bouquet hunter. A wet year usually meant an inch or so of rain in February, perhaps more in March with warm (blooming) weather arriving in April.


Harry Sr. in Foreground

Under a
Cottonwood at Rasor


Soda Lake > back to top
Banks of Mojave, remote in early days.
No early photos are available. A spring flow here and the Mojave could flood the salty marsh in the early days—it is now diverted westward into the Cronese valleys to the West. Commercial activity has taken root here in the form of a vacation or retreat spa. Look for the ZZYZX billboard on I-15 a few miles South of Baker.

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Baker & Dad Fairbanks > back to top
Banks of Mojave and crossing for US Highway 91 (Interstate 15 today) and the T&T

Baker supported a section crew; we parked there a number of times. It is dim, but a railroad warning sign appears in the right foreground of the image. Two hand powered gas pumps are visible. The images that resemble modern gas dispensers were actually oil dispensers--many cars of that vintage used a quart or more of oil every 500 miles or so. A row of sleeping rooms appear to the rear of the awning. The figure in the center of the picture may have been Dad Fairbanks himself.

Dad Fairbanks always tried to take good care of his customers. They usually needed it. In the 1920's, Los Angeles was connected to Salt Lake City by rail and a two lane country road. One pass by a grader and an oil truck produced Highway 91 as you see it. In the view above, the pavement can be clearly seen in the foreground. The highway was moved and improved in the early 1930's but didn't become four lane until after mid century as part of the national Interstate highway program. Dad Fairbanks was well known and his family became related to the Brown and Lowe families of Shoshone. Some of their descendants still live in the Baker area. In the right background a row of rooms can be seen. They comprised the first motel in Baker. The Brown family still operated a business in Baker the last time I was through. Baker looks very different today of course.


"Big Blue" Service Station, looking Northwest from the West side of the T&T — circa 1928
Today I-15 runs just southeast. No sign of Big Blue can be found anymore.


Silver Lake > back to top
Mojave River terminus, playa lake

Silver Lake is about 10 miles North of Baker. This was a freak snow storm, a once in a decade event. Sliver Lake was also the lowest elevation along the T&T, only about 900 feet above sea level. Death Valley proper, in its Southern extremities some 50 miles to the North, lies well below sea level. Silver Lake is a playa lake with no outlet, at least not since the last ice age. It is usually dry but the flood of 1938 filled it to several feet. Motor boat races were held—talk about excitement! Silt and clay make up its dry surface. Whirl winds, AKA "dust devils" stir up fine dust funnels that disperse high in the air.

The lake bed sported an emergency landing strip with minimal lights on the airway from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. Near the beginning of World War II, a B17 on a training mission got lost one night but managed to land at Silver lake. More excitement. The crew was just a bunch of young kids. But they knew how to fly and radio for help. Thanks to "Fog", the radioman manning the runway, they found their way to safety. We were living in Death Valley Junction that very night and heard the airplane fly North and a little while later fly back South. We heard the full story the next morning and then drove down to inspect the track the plane left. On the desert, you find entertainment where you can find it.

Silver Lake is also where Jim Francis died in a car wreck in later years. Jim owned and operated the general store and Snake room in Tecopa. See Tecopa for more about the Snake room.


Harry's first snow.
Mother Nona holding him on the back deck of the caboose.


Riggs > back to top

In the wilderness / horn silver (AgCl) mining prospects near by.

Riggs siding was about 8-10 miles North of Silver Lake. A section crew was also stationed here. The "desert pavement" you see here was only a few feet above bed rock. That meant no well water. A cistern was provided for these situations and once a month or so the T&T would send a water car with a train to replenish the cisterns for crews at Evelyn, Sperry, and Riggs.

The T&T roadbed was built by muleskinners and some of their worn out scrapers and equipment was abandoned here. One of my earliest memories was of my father wringing out the clothes after rinsing with his huge hands. Clotheslines were temporary affairs. No modern conveniences here. Check that. There was one—a telephone. A crank-by-hand party line that required big dry cell batteries to operate. So how did we have a mobile phone before the day of THE mobile phone? Well, my father had this big safety belt and a pair of lineman’s spikes. He used this equipment to climb up a telephone pole and hook up the phone wire. Yes, WIRE. Just one. (The other wire from ythe phone was hooked to one of the railroad rails.) That same wire also provided for the Western Union Telegraph connection—168 miles of a single wire phone system. The wire was steel, another innovation of the times. It was zinc coated according to folklore and verified as such by Allen Miller of the research laboratory at Alta. The telegraph operator in Silver Lake was our connection to the rest of the world. Call him up, he would call your party on the Bell system, and tap you in.

Ice was delivered to our doorstep by trains that made special stops when you needed it. Mail was also a regular event. I remember Blackie the conductor, sticking his arm out the door as the train whizzed past. He would put his hand through a reed hoop shaped like a "9" with this clothespin-type fastener on it to hold our mail. He replaced what we sent with any we received and threw the hoop back to us—100 yards down the line. He never missed. Blackie also delivered spuds and other foodstuff if necessary. Usually though, we would drive to town to shop, which could be 50-100 or miles away—in a Star coupe at first, then a Model A Ford.

If you look closely at the picture above you might realize that there are no ashes under the water-heating tub. But that is consistent with just having moved here after being gone for a good spell. One or two wash days and we would be off to the next washout or weakening bridge—to return maybe years later. Camera? A Kodak pin hole box camera. Yep, no lens. It was among my mother’s effects when she passed on six and a half years after this picture was taken.

In the left background you can see the Avawatz range—I surveyed there in my younger years. The Spanish Trail used by pioneers to settle Southern California passes through the gap between the Avawatz and the low hills in the right background. The Spanish trail was used some 50-60 years before this photo. My pioneer great great grandmother, Anne Johnson, according to one version of family lore, took the Spanish trail in about 1865 on her way from Utah, and the played-out mining camps of Nevada, to homestead in Chatsworth, California. She established a lineage that led to me four generations later.


This was home, folks.


Val Jean > back to top

In deepest wilderness.

We parked here just once in my memory. No section crew, no water, only a siding. One of the loneliest spots on earth. There was no road, but our Model A Ford, a fore runner of the Jeep in where it could go, could manage rough country in ways no modern car can.

In 1942, when I accompanied my father while taking an inventory of the rails, we stopped here for lunch. I looked around and along with a long-lost childhood toy, I found a bird's nest, complete with two sparrow chicks with their beaks opened wide for lunch. No telling how long they had been waiting--they were completely mummyfied by the searing heat and dry air.

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Dumont > back to top

In deepest wilderness / sand dunes. Accessible as a side trip off state route 127 in the Southern reaches of Death Valley.


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Sperry > back to top

Sperry Wash, bank to bank across the Amargosa.

This view shows the bridge gang at work on one of the many bridges crossing the Amargosa. My father is in the foreground with a crew of four or five in the background. The white grade in the background is no illusion. Much of the T&T road bed in Sperry wash was "reinforced" by tailings from the Borax mill in Death Valley Junction. The Spanish Trail into Southern California crossed the T&T some distance South of this bridge where the Road climbed out of the wash onto the tableland. The Trail ruts were barely discernible the last time I visited, 1942.

Sperry Wash nearly stopped the T&T from ever existing. The original construction budget of $3,000,000 was exhausted just North of this crossing, sccording to family lore. The Borax company dug deep and finished the job, but the line ended in the black only four times during its thirty-five years of service. The flood of '38 led to an operating loss of $30,000. Operations ceased in 1940. The line was dismantled in '42 and sent to Egypt as part of the war effort. Some of the non functional equipment was scrapped.

The pay scale was excellent for the time and place. Laborers earned three dollars a day. But it was backbreaking hand work in often disagreeable weather. It took some ingenuity to handle heavy timbers by hand and have all repairs in such a state that trains could pass over on schedule. I don't really know how much an engine or car weighed, but they were on the order of 100-200 tons for an engine, half that for ore cars. Each set of posts and "sway braces" lining up under the road bed was called a bent. Changing out an entire bent in a day was par for the course. Every piece of timber was sawed to length by hand; the bigger pieces required two-man saws. Saws were sharpened by hand also. Early on I learned about "set" in the teeth to cut a groove wider than the saw blade so the the saw would not bind as it cut. Set was created by a special tool or more often by the whack of a hammer on the opposite sides of alternating teeth. Every bolt hole was drilled by hand with a big auger. Oh and digging the holes for the sills supporting the bent—that too was by hand, pick and shovel. Once the "repair algorithm" was established, the only thing that counted was muscles, sweat and a weak mind (or starving stomach). What a life.


Harry Sr. is the "Big Man"; his crew is in the background. View is North. Circa 1929


Acme > back to top

Banks of Amargosa / oasis in Tecopa's miniature Grand Canyon / Accessible via China Ranch. No picture available, but a house built of tufa (solidified volcanic ash) is still to be seen. Remains of gypsum mine can also be seen on the road to the ranch.

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Tecopa > back to top

Banks of Amargosa, oasis, hot springs, Mesquite / lead & talc mines

Resting Springs lies between Tecopa and the Noonday—another natural oasis in the desert. Kit Carson came upon a Paiute encampment at Resting Springs and was said to have scalped what few Braves there were. Indians in the desert lived on the edge of starvation their entire lives. Trapping rabbits, mice, rats, snakes, Chuckwalla, ground squirrels for protein; harvesting both kinds of Mesquite beans, Pinion nuts, cactus, cattail greens. Yucca fruit, bunch grass seeds. Occasionally bringing down a big horn sheep or deer in the high country could be a celebration. Agriculture, while rudimentary, was important; it included beans, squash, corn and sundlower seeds. Hunting was a most important skill developed by every Brave. Squaws were proficient in turning grains into a sort of unleavened "bread" as well as keeping the fires burning. Mental maps of water holes were passed down through the generations. They were important because that is where game could be found. But not all desert animals require water holes. The jack rabbit, for example, is so well adapted that his urine consists of crystals of uric acid. Adaptation to arid conditions takes many forms: cacti maintain huge reservoirs replenished by the rare rains and the Creosote bush has a waxy leaf to prevent water evaporation, for example.

Tecopa today is an out of the way retirement community with its abundant hot springs that do wonders for certain forms of arthritis, tendonitis and similar ailments. One can reach Tecopa from Calif. state highway 127 that begins in Baker and wends its way North to the Nevada State line North of Death Valley Junction. Its natural springs made it a stop over for the likes of Kit Carson and other explorers. It was important to the Paiutes as well and takes its name from their language. I was told Tecopa means "Water, head of canyon" in the Paiute tongue. "Pa" means water. George Ross, a Paiute old timer says otherwisw but is not sure of the origin other than being the name of the last Chief of his tribe to exercise independence. Many place names in the region contain Pa. Pahrump, Ivanpa, Tippapa, Tonopah, Weepa and the No Pa Range come to mind. This is perfectly fitting for such arid country.

The above picture shows the Noonday mine a few miles East of town. It was worked in the 1940's and lies on a faulted offset of the same ore body that supported the Gunsight earlier in the century and the War Eagle after World War II. Mines I worked in include Gerstley Borax as (surveyor's helper), Western Talc (miner) and War Eagle (miner) and Noonday, (power house operator, mechanic & electrician). Those skills are still on my resume—seriously. While working as a miner I lost much of my hearing, tinnitus, not to mention a partner to a cave in at the Western Talc.

I left the War Eagle and the Amargosa Country in 1951, never to return. I expected to, but career opportunities diverted me from Geology into Metallurgy and finally into Materials Science and industry as engineer, researcher, lab manager, market developer, enterprise founder and business owner. I still enjoy my trips back, but they have stretched out in time after my brother died.

The Snake Room in Tecopa adjoined the general store. It served two purposes: Bar and dance hall. Town meetings were held in the grammar school. The Snake Room was famous for its characters. Among them were Cross Country Mike, Short Fuse Louie and the Black Swede.

Mike was famous for his method of getting from here to there. Being a tramp miner and wino, he never owned a car. When he couldn't hitch a ride, he would just take off and walk, straight as a crow could fly, cross country. Mike was good natured and stayed out of trouble.

Short fuse Louie, another tramp miner, got his moniker for his habit of conserving fuse when blasting out a round—roughly five to ten tons of ore. And true to life, he met his end via a short fuse—leading to a half stick of dynamite—in his mouth. Suicide is always tragic, but the early days on the Amargosa had a suicide incidence far in excess of the national average. Doubtless that was due in part to the bitter and often-unstable people who tried to get away from it all by fleeing to the isolation of the desert. But the desert does not often comfort the disturbed personality. My bunk at the Western Talc mine was Louie's the year before I moved in.

The Black Swede was quite another sort. Trouble often came his way, because he knew how to handle it. My father was constable and Deputy Sheriff for many years. When a warrant came in for a real baddie on the lam from the big city cops or the FBI, my father would deputize the Black Swede. Together they made many an arrest. The Black Swede knew his way around in fast company. The Tecopa jail was no place to be. A cage of iron bars out in the open. My father had a big rail-road-car lock on the door. No sanitary facility, not even a decent bunk. Fortunately it was never occupied for long, only long enough to cool off a temper or sober up.


Noonday Mine, a few miles East of Tecopa, looking East at mid day.


Zabriski > back to top

Banks of Amargosa, opal to be found in valley sediments. But don't go prospecting expecting to get rich. Gem quality is not there, too small and too fractured. It is a great place for sunsets.

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Shoshone > back to top

Oasis deluxe and swimming hole; an extinct and eroded volcano lives near by.

The pool was six feet deep in the far end. Its water was refreshed by a six inch pipe flowing continuously from the largest natural spring in the region. View looks East.

Shoshone was another favorite spot to park. And this pool was one reason. Another reason was that the Fourth of July celebrations that always began a day early and stretched a day late, no matter the day of the week. Still another reason was the boarding house, my first memory of the restaurant concept. It was not a true restaurant. When food was ready, the cook clanged this big triangular "bell" and the town came running. Roast beef, potatoes and dessert were primary fare. I was always hungry.

Charlie Brown owned all of Shoshone and was like, rich and famous—on the local scale. A general store, a gas station, a home, a room or two for travelers, and the post office were among his assets. His business included distributing Standard Oil products and supplying diesel fuel and dynamite to the local miners. But that never went to his head. Charlie became a powerful State Senator, representing, not just Shoshone, but the whole of Inyo County ably and well. Charlie was a success story in another way. He never went past the third grade. An inspiration? You bet!

Almost everyone loved Charlie. He never cheated anyone and was forever doing something for someone. His few enemies were mostly the ne'er-do-wells full of sour grapes. If a tramp miner had an abscessed tooth, Charlie would pull it with a big pair of pliers he kept for the purpose. Charlie was a big man, well over six foot tall and well over 200 lbs. He had an unforgettable resonant voice pitched on the tenor side. Kept a Model T in running order well into the 1960s.

Charlie arrived in Amargosa country not long after the turn of the century. Word was that he bought the general store in Greenwater and moved it to Shoshone. Greenwater was another of those strikes (prospect really) that never panned out. A few green stains (from copper) in the rocks here and there was all there ever was. No shear zone to speak of, no rich dike, no pegmatite, no hydrothermal mineralization or secondary enrichment, not even any water!

Those were the days. Borax there was. And Borax was the reason the T&T came into being. But Borax is another story. See Death Valley Junction.



Gerstle > back to top

Borax Mine, Ulexite/Colmanite mixture variety, just north of Shoshone

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Evelyn > back to top

Banks of Amargosa

"Nameless siding?" (North of Eagle Mountain)

Banks of Amargosa, pseudo playa lake.

Teal and mallard flocks would stop here on there annual migrations.

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Death Valley Junction & Ash Meadows > back to top

The caboose in the distance was used for sleeping. The car in the foreground was the tool car.

Death Valley was the "home office" of the T&T. A Diesel powered mill for processing borax, then clay, was the main sight to be seen in town. At its height, perhaps 30 families and a like number of single people made their homes in Death Valley Junction. To me the big diesels were the center of attention. The operators would always run me off if they caught me, but I still managed to sneak peeks to see how they were started, though it was years before I understood the meaning of "compression ignition". The Diesels also supplied electric power to the town and to the round house where the T&T steam engines were repaired.

Imagine, kids living here had electric lights, and an out house! My greatest wish as a young lad was to live in a "stuck in house". And in summer, DVJ sported an ice-cold swimming hole. It was, still is, so dry that the "wet bulb temperature ", a fancy stand in for measuring humidity, could be in the 50-60F range when it was maybe 118F on the pool deck. The pool water was always cold, straight from a deep well. The balance between solar heating and evaporative cooling always seemed to be on the wrong side for as soon as the waters got warm enough to really enjoy a swim the algae arrived and we had to drain and clean the pool. Cleaning the pool was my first real job for real pay, summer of '41. Tony Castillo and I split the fifty cents as I recall, for the all day job.

Death Valley Junction had the most potential for social activity in the early part of the century. But it was limited. Being a company town, one had to "get permission" to do certain things. Still there was a grammar school, post office, general store, service station, motel, restaurant, butcher shop, service station, depot, sewage processing building, tennis court, town meeting hall (Korkill Hall)--now an "opera house" operated by Madam Marta Becket, owner, choreographer, and ticket taker, is one of the few remaining citizens in town, and, oh yes, a fork in the road to go with the mill dump. See NY Times, National Report, 14 Jan 2004, for more on the Becket story.

DVJ offered wondrous things for young lads to learn, not to mention mischief to get into. The population was too coarse, independent, and fluid to support a church. The only preacher I remember who tried to change that, (1940), reserved Korkill Hall and attracted only one scared little kid from a population of 100 or so townsfolk. He soon gave up.


The "OUTFIT" during switching operations in Death Valley Junction. The "model" was likely my older cousin on my father's side.


Scranton > back to top

Bentonite & other clays, site of Indian battles in the folk lore. We rarely parked there. Rabbits and Big Horn sheep nearby could have made Scranton a staging area for hunts.

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T&T Ranch > back to top

Source of produce for Death Valley Junction—in the earliest days, about a mile South of Leeland.

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Leeland > back to top

Lee's Camp to West, Paiute Mesa, Nevada, to East

Lathrop Wells Nev., lies two or three mile to the East and is the terminus for California State Highway 127 which begins at Baker and more or less parallels the T&T. From there one has the option of going North to Beatty, South to Death Valley Junction, or East to Las Vegas. Paiute Mesa, of nuclear-waste-storage controversy fame, lies to the North East and was once accessible from Lathrop Wells. The remains of an Indian encampment could be found in the Mesa "high country." A natural spring used to serve both the Paiute and Big Horn. Pinon nuts were harvested by to locals until the Government took over and closed the area off to public access.

Leeland had a well and water tank like Rasor and was also a fun place to park. It is in a sandy area, which was easy on our bare feet. Shoes were only for school or winter. Two graves lie just to the West of the T&T road bed. The one I knew about was a suicide. His name died with my father who buried him. Neither has a marker, just shallow depressions observable during my last visit. To die in the desert, often meant to lie alone for eternity.

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Carrera > back to top

We never parked there in my memory, nor do I remember the actual siding--each had its own special persomality. Still it was a "mile post". During my time, there were 168 of them--Carerra being the first one in Nevada. And each mile post started a new sequence of bridge numbers, like 98C, the third bridge in that mile. Talk on the outfit was usually with respect to 33A, 41B and so on. Each bridge had its own identifier sign—big black letters on white. Carrera would have been around mile post 158 or so.

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Beatty > back to top

Oasis and silver and gold mines in nearby Ryolite

Beatty was the end of the line as I knew it. It was also a lively town socially. Mining and ranching in the outlying and isolated districts kept the town alive in the same manner as Shoshone. It too was a fun place to park.

Beatty was also a fork in the Tonopah to Las Vegas road. One fork led into Death Valley via Rhyolite.

Like Baker, Shoshone, and Death Valley Junction, Beatty still supports local service businesses, a church, mining activity, and an outlying bawdy house. Beatty is about as close as one can get to an old-West frontier town in the US.

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