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The Death Valley Baby Gauge

The Death Valley Baby Gauge

By Bob Jaussaud

The story of the Baby Gauge is intricately interwoven with the evolution of DeathValley into a tourist destination. In 1907 the Pacific Coast Borax Company (PCB) established its operations at the Lila C Mine (the original site of Ryan, seven miles southwest of Death Valley Junction). By 1914, the Lila C was played out and PCB determined to develop more claims near the western edge of Death Valley. The 17 mile long narrow gauge Death Valley Railroad was constructed around the north end of the Greenwater Mountains to connect the Biddy-McCarty Mine with the main T&T line at Death Valley Junction. Eventually the original Ryan buildings were dismantled and moved to the Biddy-McCarty and this site became known as New Ryan (what we know of today as the town of Ryan).

Besides the Biddy-McCarty, there were several other good borax claims in the New Ryan vicinity that PCB wanted to access. They originally planned to extend the Death Valley Railroad but that idea was discarded in favor of building a smaller two foot gauge railroad from New Ryan to the Grand View Mine and eventually on to the Widow Mine. This “Baby Gauge” railroad began operation in 1915 as a work train to haul ore to New Ryan. There, the ore was transferred to the Death Valley Railroad which hauled it to Death Valley Junction and the T&T Railroad. With this system in place PCB’s Death Valley operation was assured well into the future, or so they thought.

By 1928 the PCB claims at Kramer (Boron) had proved to be rich and extensive. Plus, being much closer to railroad terminals in Barstow and Mojave, the borax from there was much less expensive to get to market. Economics dictated that PCB move their borax operation to Kramer, but they wanted to keep their Death Valley mines as a backup. What to do?

For years it was acknowledged that PCB had developed a winter garden spot in Death Valley. The solution for PCB to stay involved in Death Valley became obvious.They would continue mining in Death Valley by… mining tourists. The big “U” shaped PCB Field Headquarters building at Death Valley Junction was converted into the Amargosa Hotel. An old mill at Furnace Creek was made into the Furnace Creek Inn. Furnace Creek Ranch became a resort and the buildings at New Ryan became the Desert View Hotel. The T&T Railroad offered Pullman cars to Death Valley Junction and the Death Valley Railroad bought a Brill gasoline motor rail coach to ferry passengers between Death Valley Junction and New Ryan. And the Baby Gauge? Well it became a spectacular tourist ride and attraction. Tourists were carried for seven to ten miles on open flat cars behind gasoline powered Plymouth locomotives.

Everything changes, however. By the 1930s auto tourism was flourishing and people chose to drive their own cars rather than ride

the train to Death Valley. The Desert View Hotel at Ryan was a victim of the automobile and closed in 1930. The Death Valley Railroad, another victim of the automobile, ceased operation in 1931.The Death Valley Railroad engine Number 2 was moved to Furnace Creek and remains on permanent display. The T&T Railroad kept running through the depression but 1940 saw its last train. The tracks were needed for the World War II efforts and were removed in 1942. The Baby Gauge, to the delight of tourists, continued operation. It was usually powered by small gasoline locomotives but electric locomotives were also used. Sadly, an expensive injury settlement brought an end to the Baby Gauge. The last known photograph of tourists riding the Baby Gauge is dated 1956.

In 1958, the Long Beach Press-Telegram published an article by Glenna Thomas about the Baby Gauge that read in part:

“The famous Baby Gauge Railroad at Ryan Borax Mine in Death Valley began a half century ago as a work train. It hauled men and equipment to the mine and borax oreback to Ryan at the narrow gauge Death Valley Railroad terminal.

The mine closed down in 1927 and for a while the little Dinky train was silent. Then it began its second life as a tourist attraction, making regular runs several times a day with loads of tourists. Bob Gardinier, a big, red-headed Scotchman, was engineer and guide. He pointed out every item worth note and stopped frequently for passengers to take pictures. Finally, these runs were also discontinued and the famous Baby Gauge became a ghost, standing idle on its 24-inch track at Ryan, now a ghost town occupied only by a watchman.”

How fun it would have been to ride the little “Dinky” railroad as it chugged over trestles, through tunnels and squealed around turns on the precipitous cliffs of the Greenwater Mountains in Death Valley! Alas, in our litigious society it is not feasible now… but the little Plymouth engine is still hiding in a tunnel at Ryan and the tracks and trestles leading to the Widow Mine remain, so maybe?   ~ Joeso

DV Brill Car ceased operation in 1931
Baby Gauge hauling ore
Baby Train ad from Los Angeles Evening Excpress 20 Dec 1929
Baby Gauge 1941 from Pomona Public Library
Baby Gauge electric engine