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Epsom Salts Monorail Railroad Picture Collection

Submited by David A. Wright

This monorail line ran between Searles Valley (south of Trona, CA) east across the Slate Range, the southern end of Panamint Valley, up Wingate Wash and over Wingate Pass, then turning south to the east side of Brown Mt.


This monorail line ran between Searles Valley (south of Trona, CA) east across the Slate Range, the southern end of Panamint Valley, up Wingate Wash and over Wingate Pass, then turning south to the east side of Brown Mt. A bed of Epsom salts was found on desert by Thomas Wright, a Los Angeles florist. The find was on an old road between Barstow and Ballarat, west of the Owlshead Mountains. During W.W.I, Wright and interested investors prospected the find to determine the grade of the salt and extent. The deposits seemed good, so work began to develop the mine. A camp established, and a truck route was established to Randsburg. After the war, Wright considered all possible means of transport. Rails seemed to be the answer, but where to run them was perplexing. A route down Wingate Wash to Death Valley, then up the Amargosa River to tie in with the Tonopah & Tidewater was considered, but the heat of Death Valley in the summer nixed that route in favor of running a line west to Trona. A route of 28 miles to Trona Railroad was given the green light. Beginning at Magnesia Siding, the line ran east across the Searles Lake bed to climb up Layton Canyon (1,800 feet climb in 5 miles, 7% grade). Crossing Layton Pass, the line dropped down a narrow canyon to the floor of Panamint Valley (with the only road crossing on the route). Across the valley, the line climbed up Wingate Pass (10-12% grades), then ran along Wingate Wash to Crystal Hills Wash, thence southeasterly to the camp and mine. This route would not allow for a normal railroad due to the roller coaster nature of the topography. Monorails were in the public eye at time, and utilizing such for the isolated mine seemed like an ideal solution. A test model was constructed and patents applied for. Late in 1922, work began on the actual road. A central riding beam 6x8 inches in size supported by series of A-frames spaced eight feet apart consisted of the monorail "grade." It was capped with a running rail of standard 50 to 80 pound rail affixed to the beam. To the legs of the A-frames, crossboards were affixed to enable 2"x8" side rails to be attached to serve as sway stabilizers. Rolling stock consisted of rectangular steel frames mounted on two double-flanged wheels, one at each end. To balance the unit, steel supports angled down parallel to slope of A-frames, to which steps were affixed. Light 8"x8" steel rollers were attached to counteract sway induced by speeds over 15mph. Tension springs kept the rollers in contact with the wooden rails affixed to the sides of the A-frames. Coupling between cars were via salvaged couplers from scrapped Los Angeles city street cars. The load was carried by hoppers affixed on each side of the car, riding low, similar to saddle bags on mules or modern motorcycles. Locomotives were of a similar format as the rolling stock. The first locomotive was electric, used during construction. Because of its inability to pull loaded trains, a Fordson tractor engine was substituted with rigid drive. The drive tended to twist and break on curves, so refinement was made in the form of dual chain drives. In all, eight locomotives were used on the line, seven with Fordson power, later a heavier locomotive was fashioned using a Buda motor. Brakes were on locomotives only, a constant problem throughout life of monorail. Each locomotive was restricted to a maximum payload of 3,400 lbs., while trailer carloads were permitted up to 8,500 lbs. Speeds were permitted to a maximum of 35 miles per hour, but practice showed that 30 mph could be obtained on the level. The record stood at one hour for the entire 28 miles with a full load. Douglas fir was used in construction, brought by boat to San Pedro, then by rail to Mojave, then over the Southern Pacific "Jawbone" branch to Searles Station. From there Trona Railroad brought supplies down to Magnesia Siding. To service the monorail, Trona Railroad built a spur. Construction work was carried on by the American Magnesium Company, incorporated by Wright. By September 1923, approximately 16 of the 28 miles were completed. Construction was complete in 1924. In the early days, epsomite could be scraped from the ground with garden hoes. Materials then stacked aboard the locomotives and cars for transshipment to the Trona Railroad, thence to the company’s small plant at Wilmington, California. In 1924 and 1925 a force of 12-15 men were working at the mine. However, the high quality epsomite was of limited quantity. In the meantime, the A-frames began to buckle under the constant swaying of the cars. It was also found that the locomotives could not continually carry the burden and keep a steady stream of ore flowing to the plants. To rectify the situation, a larger Buda engine was attempted, but he extra weight only caused the A-frames on Searles Lake to break through the crust and tip, requiring costly repairs. Still later, an automotive engineer was hired to rig up a gas-electric locomotive that would also power the individual cars. By this time the lumber on the track began to warp in the desert heat and low humidity. The plant at Wilmington was also experienced difficulty. The slowly decreasing stream of ore was not enough to keep it running at capacity, plus the ore ran up to 50% sand, debris and other salts. Waste piles within the city limits also raised serious objections, and the city forced the company to close the plant. After the summer of 1925, mine production slowed and trips over the monorail became fewer. By June 1926 the mine shut down completely. For several years the company went through dispute, lawsuits and legal wrangles, then in April 1928 was offered for bids but no buyers. By the end of the 1930’s, the railroad was dismantled, leaving only the A-frames standing on the desert. Desert recreationalists have taken care of the rest of these over the years in campfires and souvenirs. The majority of the line falls within the confines of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center "B" Range. However, with the creation of Death Valley National Park, the epsom salts mine is now in park property and can be reached via an easement through the Fort Irwin Army Base from the Tecopa area. Magnesium Siding on the Trona Railroad can be reached via the dirt road to Trona Pinnacles. The siding is that north of the road crossing after turning onto that road from California Highway 178, and usually has rail cars parked on it to mark it. Large foundation slabs of concrete can be found in the vicinity, along with some items that seem to indicate former habitation.

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