Monday, April 13, 2015
TRACKING THE T & T
The Tonopah, Death Valley
and Bridgeport Loop Tour: Stage 2
Railroads are fascinating constructs. They appear as solid and permanent as a hydroelectric dam or a high-rise office building. Their power seems indomitable as you race next to one on a highway paralleling the tracks. The mournful cry of a distant whistle at dusk can tug at the emotional, romantic wanderlust in many, but in a fracas involving a locomotive and a truck or car or cow or human, there will always be a winner it will always be the same one. Yep, railroads are permanent and powerful fixtures on the landscape.
Or are they?
US 95 runs north south splitting the state of Nevada. The desert terrain includes subtle rises and falls punctuated by uplifted ridges of ancient rock. With a careful eying of the territory to the east and west of the route one will find man-made ridges and fills that run counter to the dry washes and low-lying hills that define the desert floor. These routes have gentle curves and gradual slopes. Pausing along the highways to walk one, it is a short time before you run across a derelict spike, rusting in the high desert sun.
Railroads are anything but permanent. Short lines were constructed from the mill to the timber stand or from the crusher to the mine or from the refinery to the oil field. When the timber or the ore of the oil played out – or when a world war prompted a repurposing of steel – the tracks were pulled leaving little more than a man made slug’s trail to melt back into the landscape.
Along US 95, Goldfield is a near-abandoned settlement that owes its existence to both the rich veins of silver and gold found there and the railroad that moved ore out and goods, machinery and people in. The grand hotel suggests that the economy was lively at one time. The boards across her windows indicate that her time has passed.
A Dodge Brothers truck’s carcass helps us to carbon date those glory years.
And like a ship ashore, an aging “crummy” indicates that, although the tracks are long gone, rails once serviced this community.
This day’s trip had two purposes. I needed to arrive at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley to meet up with friends, but I also wanted to walk a stretch of the Tonopah and Tidewater Short line that Dad had worked in the thirties. Time being my enemy, when I reached Beatty, I opted for a quick jaunt through town before deadheading it into the park.
While the Tonopah and Tidewater never made it to Tonopah, a mural on the side of a cinderblock building indicated it had made it here.
Four miles west of town on NV 374, the BLM has posted a sign inviting me to visit Rhyolite, less than two miles off my route.
Skeletons of buildings make Goldfield, back up the road, seem like a still-thriving community.
At the top of the hill, cordoned off with a cyclone fence stands the impressive hulk of what used to a depot.
The Spanish-style architecture suggests that this building wasn’t simply tilted up in a day or two. Rather, it was to be a bustling hub of industry and culture.
Across the way rests a caboose that didn’t make it out of town before the mine played out.
Back down the hill about three hundred yards, a tiny museum perches with a distant view of the highway that leads west to Death Valley. Stopping in, I ask the curator if the station supported the T & T. “No,” he said. “Originally, that was the Bullfrog and Goldfield. I don’t know much about the Tonopah and Tidewater, but I’ll be they can tell you a lot back at the museum in Beatty.”
“My father worked on the T&T with a buddy named Ralphie Fairbanks back in the late 30s,” I said to the young woman at the counter of the museum back in Beatty after my hello. “Can you direct me to any information about the old route. I’d like to walk a bit of it.”
She pulled a volume from a shelf, opening it to a page with a map. As I poured over it, an older-than-me gentleman, who’d been nursing a Styrofoam cup of coffee at a table in the back asked: “Did you know Ralphie Fairbanks?”
“No,” I replied. “My Dad grew up in Barstow – Baker, actually – and he and his best buddy, a guy named Ralphie Fairbanks, went skinny-dipping in the Barstow High School pool the day before its grand opening, loaded talc into boxcars and eventually spent time working as gandydancers on the T&T…”
“Well, hell,” the gent said. “I used to work for Ralphie Fairbanks when I was a kid, before he became a (Nye) county commissioner. What’d you say your name was?”
As it all turned out, I wouldn’t be walking in Dad’s footsteps this trip. He and Ralphie, living in Baker, had probably worked for the T&T out of Ludlow, California – too far south for me this time around. The grade to Rhyolite had been assumed by what would become the T&T, but the tracks of the old Bullfrog and Goldfield spur were pulled out in the 20s.
I did purchase a copy of the book wherein one finds the T&T route map. In it also, I found a picture of Dad’s buddy Ralphie, standing with some of his many siblings beneath the shadow of his grandfather, area pioneer and patriarch, Ralph “Dad” Fairbanks. I could not determine which kid in the shot was Ralphie, and wish now that I’d asked the gent in the museum for a hint.
Serpico, Phil. Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad: Nevada Short Line. Omni Publications, Palmdale, CA. © 2013. $60.00.
The little museum at Beatty: http://www.beattymuseum.org/ (Little museums are such great places to stop and visit with the locals.)
© 2015Church of the Open Road Press