~ THE S.P. NARROW GAUGE OPERATIONS ~
A SHORT HISTORY
~ Updated Thursday, October 27, 2022 ~
The S.P.'s "stepchild" was first conceived back in 1880 by one William Sharon, who had risen from "Virginia City Agent" for the Bank of California to United States Senator and 1/3 owner of the V&T Railroad itself. It was his winning persuasion that convinced moneybags Darius Ogden Mills, bank president and major owner of the V&T to build a narrow gauge railroad south to service the many new mining camps that , according to Mal Ferrell, "were sure to spring up like double eagles on a faro table."
And so the Carson and Colorado Railroad Company was incorporated on May 10 of 1880.
By early spring of 1883, the railroad had already been extended over 7,138 foot high Mt. Montgomery Pass and on into Laws, where a station was constructed to service the nearby mining supply and farming community of Bishop Creek. ( Now simply Bishop.)
Construction south of Laws went at a rapid pace, with some 400 workers spiking down three-quarters of a mile of track per day! And by July of 1883, the trackage between Hawley, on the shore of Owens Lake had been spiked down, completing some 293 miles from its point of origin at Mound House Nevada.
Upon the line's completion, on July 12, 1883 an "Inauguration Special" was run the entire length of the road. Aboard the special were Henry Yerrington, Darius Mills, and William Sharon plus other officials of the C&C. After riding through the desert heat from Mound House to Hawley, Mills is quoted as stating: "Gentlemen, either we built this line 300 miles too long, or 300 years too soon."
To the chagrin of the locals populating the small towns in the Owens Valley, the railroad was constructed on the East side of the valley, whereas the towns were all located to the west. This was probably due to economics as many small streams emanated from the eastern slope of the Sierras which would have required bridges and trestles to cross. Sticking to the east side reduced this problem dramatically.
Following gold strikes in Tonopah and Goldfield in 1904, the Southern Pacific got real interested in the line. They broad gauged the line from Mound House to Sodaville Junction, bypassing the old division point of Hawthorne, then tried in vain to purchase the V&T. Failing at that, they sent a huge crew to Hazen, Nevada to build a 28 mile connection with the C&C at Fort Churchill, which was completed in September of 1905. This cut off the V&T from the Tonopah and Goldfield traffic, and within two months, the post office at Mound House was officially closed.
Earlier that year, the SP had formed the Nevada & California Railroad Company to take over all the lines extending from Hazen to Mojave. Including the C&C. The N&C issued its first timetable on 1/1/06.
Between 1908 and 1910, the SP's "Jawbone Branch" was constructed from Mojave to Keeler. Much of the freight carried by this broad gauge line, as well as the Narrow Gauge N&C, would be used to construct the huge Los Angeles Aqueduct system. Thus as it turned out, the railroad carried the pipeline that would eventually rob the Owens Valley of its water, and the narrow gauge of its farm traffic.
The N&C was sold, briefly, to the Central Pacific Railroad on March of 1912. After that time most of the equipment would wear the familiar markings of the "Southern Pacific." A very few photos showing the cars in C.P. markings exist, but in 1945 the CP was absorbed by the SP.
Although passenger service was scheduled on the narrow gauge, with those neat little "Combine Cars" being used in "Mixed Train Daily" service, by the close of 1925 when US Highway #395 was paved, which serviced the towns along the way, the automobile took its toll and passenger service was discontinued. By 1943, the narrow gauge had become an isolated 70.4 mile road linking Laws with Keeler. Once again to quote Mal Ferrell's description: "Imagine if you will, a three foot gauge mainline running 70 miles through the desert on 35 pound rail, serving no town with a population of over 300 souls, nor one with even a retail store. This same narrow gauge is operated by steam power, has no physical connection with any other railroad, and its wooden equipment dates from the 1880's and 1890's. Add in a desolate and remote locale, harp switch stands on stub switches, a friendly crew and you have a glimpse of the Southern Pacific's Owens Valley Line after WWII."
We highly recommend that anyone interested in modeling the Espee's Narrow Gauge operation take a trip down Hiway 395 to the Owens Valley, as there is still much to see. All three 10 Wheelers are still intact; #8 in downtown Sparks Nevada; #9 at the Laws Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum which also has a number of pieces of SPNG rolling stock on the property including 20k capacity Boxcars #7 (currently lettered C&C) and #132; and 40k capacity boxcar #17 and a couple others not sitting on trucks. Also at Laws is Caboose #401, several stock cars and gondolas; the "Gallows" Turntable, and a complete Oil and Water facility.
Engine #18 resides in a small "museum" at Independence,
California, and is currently in operating condition! Having been seen alive and
well at Laws, (for a special running..); On the Durango and Silverton where she
was put into service for most of one season, serving to familiarize their
engine crews with the operation oil burning locomotives! (The D&S, like many
places out here in the West, has had to re-equip several of their "K" Class
steam locomotives for burning oil because of the inherent danger of coal
cinders and wildfires..)