May 04, 2017

Photo Essay: The Ghost Railway of Eastern California

There are so many ghosts out there to see... if you just know where to look.

Some of our ghosts are catalogued in museums or preserved in ghost towns...

...and Laws is a little bit of both.

Now known as the Laws Railroad Museum, it's actually the former Bishop Station on the defunct Carson & Colorado narrow gauge railroad that took both freight and passengers from Nevada to the mining towns of Eastern California.

You can walk through its original 1883 depot and up to the ticket window...

...through the baggage room...

...and past scales and other equipment and ephemera that recall the daily activity behind the long-lost rail line.

Just beyond the platform, of course...

...where trains used to pick up and drop off supplies...

...are the original, narrow gauge tracks (36 inches between the rails, about 20 inches narrower than standard gauge).

There stands the so-called "Slim Princess," the last train to travel this route (though not original, having been built in 1909 and put into service here in 1930).

Engine #9 arrived at Laws for the last time in April 1960, upon completion of its final freight mission.

By most accounts, the railway was considered a failure, having built just half of the originally intended 600 miles of track. Narrow gauge was chosen to cut costs—but ultimately, it ended up being more expensive, costing the railroad money and making it a money-losing proposition despite the silver strike it was built in response to.

Soon after the railroad was abandoned, the town that had sprung up around Laws began to disappear...

...though it's been recreated somewhat at the Laws Railroad Museum, which has also preserved the original 1883 house used by every station agent until 1960.

Laws is one of the few areas in this section of Eastern California—known as the Owens Valley, between the Sierra Mountains and the White and Inyo mountain ranges—where you can see any track and ties that haven't been pulled up.

Elsewhere, the trestles have been dismantled, and the rails removed.

But at Laws, you can wander around the decayed, corporeal shells of box cars (including a recreated "Boxcar Village" which was used for worker housing during boom times)...

...the Carson & Colorado Caboose #1 from 1883...

...the ice house and water tank used to refill the steam locomotives, and the turntable used to change direction of a locomotive, whose turning power came from the strong arms of about four men.

This was the work of Southern Pacific Railroad, merged Carson & Colorado into its Nevada and California narrow gauge division in 1900. (Laws is named after former SPRR superintendent R.J. Laws, who died suddenly in 1904 of a heart attack brought on by the excitement of a train wreck he was in.) SPRR replaced the original, smaller turntable with this one about a decade later.

The capability to turn the trains became even more necessary when Laws became the northern terminus of the line by 1943, the stations beyond it having been abandoned, their tracks taken up, leaving less than 70 miles left of the railway, heading south to the mining town of Keeler.

The turntable doesn't turn anymore, but on special occasions, sometimes trains still run on the rails.

In the town of Independence, about 45 miles south of Laws, you'll find the Southern Pacific #18...

...restored and operated by volunteers of the non-profit Carson & Colorado Railway, who are also building a permanent home for it at the Eastern California Museum in Independence.

As you proceed south along the former rail line, finding any sign of it gets a little trickier.

In Lone Pine, the "Narrow Gauge Road" heading east tips off to the location of the former depot, which is now privately owned as a residence. (And that means no trespassing.)

In the mining town of Dolomite (named after the white sparkly rocks that contain the mineral dolomite), former home of Inyo Marble Works, all that remains is a historical marker at Dolomite Loop.

Perhaps the best-preserved stop along the old train route is its southern terminus, in a town once known as Hawley ... the ghost town of Keeler, where the RR depot still stands.

Once the center of a mining boom (zinc, silver, lead, limestone) throughout the greater Owens Valley area, the remains of the old Sierra Talc Company recall Keeler's own former mining days (which also included soda ash and borax, the town being renamed after mill owner Julius M. Keeler).

Although the 2010 census listed te town's population as 66, someone changed it on its road sign to 44.

The most interesting thing that's missing from Keeler, though, isn't the train tracks.

It's the "beach."

This was, in fact, a popular lakeside resort area where you could fish, surf, and swim—though the pool has since burned down.

And the lake? Well, that's gone, too. And Keeler bears the brunt of the dust that blows off of the lake that once was. But that's another story for another time.

You can find some amazing historic photos courtesy of Owens Valley History here and here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Decaying Rest Stop For Thirsty Adventurers
Photo Essay: The Abandoned Rail Trail to the Amargosa River Waterfall
Another Lost Civilization

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