Desert Steamer
"From Nowhere to Nowhere" by Mike Pearsall


 "Carson & Colorado"[pdf]
by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg


 When Steam Engines Roared in Owens Valley

In the lexicon of the Old West, few names conjure-up more dreams of glory than that of the Carson & Colorado Railroad. Henry Yerington and the moneybags of the Bank of California built it; Lucius Beebe enshrined it; Carl Fallberg satirized it; while time and the Washoe winds have all but erased its path.

It has been called, and fittingly so, the "Slim Princess" owing in part to the fact that her rails were spaced a mere three feet apart. It was also said to have been built "300 miles too long or 300 years too soon." But nevertheless, it survived in part even the greatest of the Nevada short lines ... the famous and fabulously rich Virginia & Truckee. It was in fact, the V&T and her wealth that financed the Carson & Colorado, not only providing its northern connection at Mound House, Nevada, now only a memory; but its visionary plan of connecting the Carson River with the distant Colorado River and all the silver and gold towns that would spring-up between. Originated, planned, pushed, financed and built by the Virginia & Truckee Railway in the early 1880's, the Carson & Colorado was all too soon a waif, unwanted and then finally unloaded on the unsuspecting but all powerful Southern Pacific ... just two months before news of the Tonopah gold boom resounded across the great basin and over-shadowed the queen of the Comstock herself, Virginia City.

Ore from Cerro Gordo, Candelaria and Tonopah rolled over the Carson & Colorado, but never to the extent that had been hoped. Wells, Fargo & Company's express rode the rocking cars too, but the big silver and gold camps never materialized. Struggling through sagebrush, Sierra snows, across Mount Montgomery Pass and over the alkali desert, the C&C was subjected to name changes, name calling and partial standard gauging, finally ending its days as an isolated narrow gauge line in California's Owens Valley, just on the east side of the lofty Sierra Nevada. The final years saw Southern Pacific lettered on its cars, but under flaking paint could be read the names of the Nevada & California, Central Pacific and Carson & Colorado, while journal box covers and other metal parts proclaimed them to have been cast in the huge shops of the V&T at Carson. Still other cars and engines ended their days on the valley run between Laws and Keeler, after having served on the likes of the Florence & Cripple Creek, South Pacific Coast and Nevada-California-Oregon.

Following the turn of the century, the Owens Valley was robbed of its water by a distant, yet thirsty Los Angeles. With the loss of water, the ground dried up and cracked. The once rich mines had already played out and many farmers and ranchers just quit trying and left the valley. The final years saw the once grand narrow gauge making thrice-weekly runs down the desert floor, serving the needs of Zurich, Aberdeen, Kearsarge, Manzanar, Owenyo and Dolomite in its seventy mile coming and going between Keeler and Laws. Oddly enough, not one single town boasted a population in excess of 300 souls, while most could not muster more than a few dozen citizens on a July election day!

Still the Southern Pacific narrow gauge struggled through the sand in the desolate yet beautiful valley ... hauling a mixed consist of borax, talc, soda ash and whatever else its agents could drum-up to fill the wooden cars. The ranchers around Laws provided a few carloads of cattle now and then, usually in the autumn, but no longer did the three and four engine "Stock Extras" blast up Mount Montgomery Pass and out across the valley in the shadow of 14,501 foot Mount Whitney. just over the Panamints was Death Valley, which at 282 feet below sea level placed the highest and lowest points in the continental United States within the confines of Inyo County.

When the end finally came in 1960 the amazing thing was not that a part of the Old West had vanished, but that it had lasted so long. This then is the story of the Southern Pacific's Owens Valley narrow gauge. Operating in a land of barren contrasts, the slim gauge defied economics, geography and progress to become the last of her breed in the far west. Drifting across the desert sands, smoking for all who came to watch, trailing a diminutive and ancient consist, this was the Southern Pacific narrow gauge.

by Mallory Hope Ferrell (from his book "Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge")

 Water Tower
No. 18 makes a stop at the Aberdeen water tank. The tank was filled by a windmill. When there was insufficient wind, a water car would be coupled behind the tender so the engine could make it between water tanks.
(Robert Lee Beheme)

The "sagebrush and sand" country of the C&C.
(Wendell Mortimer, Jr.)

Engine No. 8 being turned on the gallows.
(Wendell Mortimer, Jr.)

Backing No. 18 off of the gallows turntable at Laws.
(Wendell Mortimer, Jr.)

 Standard & Narrow
Narrow gauge Engine No. 9 adjacent to a standard gauge "Jawbone Branch" diesel engine.
(John Hungerford)

Standard & Narrow
Narrow gauge Engine No. 9 adjacent to a standard gauge steam engine in 1951.
(W.C. Whittaker)

When locomotives needed repair they were sent by standard gauge flat car to the repair facility in Bakersfield. This is a photo of Engine No. 9 in February of 1951
(Fred Hust)

Owens River
Engine No. 8 crosses over the Owens River near Monola.
(Donald Duke)

Desert Steamer
Engine No. 9 steaming through the desert of Owens Valley in 1953.
(Wendell Mortimer, Jr.)

 "Route of the Carson & Colorado RR"

 Rolling Stock
A string of rolling stock shoved over the Owenyo turntable spur in 1946.
(Guy L. Dunscomb)

 "The Slim Princess"[pdf]
by Mallory Hope Ferrell

"Desert Run" by Mike Pearsall.

no. 18
Engine #18 steaming through Owens Valley.

Engine #18 boiling out of the terminal yard at Laws in 1946 for a dramatic portrait of action on the last narrow gage common carrier in operation anywhere west of Colorado.
[Lucius Beebe photo]

Engine #18 heading north out of Owenyo on the run to Laws.
[Lucius Beebe photo]

Lock used on the Carson and Colorado Railroad, elsewhere?
[Photos curtesy of Don Kosur]

Since the lock pictured here (from Don Kosur) is disputed as to whether or not it is really from the famed Owens Valley Carson & Colorado Narrow Gauge Railroad I am offering up the following for further reading on the subject of railroad locks.
Antique Railroad Padlocks
Railroad Collectors Association Incorporated
Railroad Locks



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This page was last updated on 04 May 2015