The Baby Gauge Railroad

The Baby Gauge tracks head into the distance.

On this adventure, we explored the northern end of the Greenwater Range and the old "Baby Gauge" extension of the Death Valley Railroad.

The "Baby Gage" Railroad was a 24-inch narrow gauge branch of the 36-inch narrow gauge Death Valley Railroad, which itself was a branch of the standard gauge (4 foot 8 1/2 inches in case you were wondering) Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad. Initially, the Death Valley Railroad was intended as a standard gauge branch of the T&T. However, due to the ongoing financial struggles of Francis "The Borax King" Smith and high debts on the T&T, Federal regulatory bodies refused to approve it. Thus, the Death Valley Railroad was established by the Pacific Coast Borax company to access new mining areas on the flanks of the Greenwater Range.

Do not enter the Ryan Camp townsite. It is on private property that was generously donated by the Rio Tinto Corporation to Death Valley Conservancy in 2013. See the Conservancy website for information about tours.

We intersected the Baby Gauge west of Ryan Camp where there was a wye to the Grandview Tunnel.

The tracks west of Ryan were built on the mine waste pile and in the years since the railroad was abandoned in 1950, cloudbursts and winter storms have slowly eroded channels under the rails.

The north portal of the Grandview Tunnel has a bat gate and we later found the south portal to be completely collapsed.

The east leg of the Grandview Tunnel wye with the modern concrete tunnel and bat gate.
Modern prefab concrete pipe acts as the collar of the Grandview Tunnel to prevent collapse and allow attachment of the bat gate. Further back the timbering appears to be in good condition and there is very little scaling on the bench indicating competent rock.
Near the west leg of the wye, there's a reasonably intact magazine for storing explosives.

After leaving the Grandview Tunnel junction, we headed north-northwest along the tracks. The railroad was carved into the the side of the Greenwater Range at the 3,000 foot level. It gains about 200 feet over the 3.5 miles from Ryan to the Widow Mine at its terminus. There were actually three different levels of roadbed over the years, two of them still have rails intact, and one is just the old roadbed.

Map showing the general overview of the Baby Gauge line.
The Baby Gauge is cut into the Greenwater Range at approximately the 3,000 foot level.
After about a mile the buildings of Ryan Camp come into view and the massive body of Pyramid Peak looms over the entire scene. There's a visual trick here too: the dark section of rock in the middle is not part of Pyramid Peak, but is actually the flat plateau of the Greenwater Range. This end of the range is overlain by the olivine basalt lava flows of the Funeral Formation.
Time is taking its toll on the tracks. Many boulders and small landslides cover the tracks. Looking west, the Black Mountains dominate the view. The road to Dante's View is below us directly ahead in Furnace Creek Wash.

The tracks go to the tip of a north-south ridge before making a sharp turn back to the south where they travel parallel to Furnace Creek Wash, albeit 400 feet higher than it. As they travel south the old lower roadbed and the middle tracks fork off from the upper tracks.

Furnace Creek Wash and Dante's View Road sit several hundred feet below the Baby Gauge tracks
The middle line forks off and drops down slightly as the upper line continues to climb.
The upper and middle track curve along the mountains past the waste rock piles of the Grandview Mine. Towards the middle of the photo, along the middle track, there is another switch with a straight section of track headed to the left - that is the south portal of the Grandview Tunnel. It's fully collapsed.
An old trestle on the middle tracks slowly decaying under the onslaught of years of cloudburst floods. The track that forks off and heads to the left is the south portal of the Grandview Tunnel.
The collapsed south portal of the Grandview Tunnel.
Looking north from the Grandview Mine area, you can clearly see the upper, middle, and lower Baby Gauge tracks.

Traveling further south past the old Grandview Mine, the next turn brings the Lizzie V. Oakley Mine into sight. The Lizzie operated from around 1915 until the the late 1920s and the waste rock piles remain as a testament to the amount of material removed from it.

The enormous waste rock piles at the Lizzie V. Oakley Mine.
The Lizzie V. Oakley Mine.
And old power pole with the wires still hanging from it.

At around mile 3, one last sweeping turn to the east brought us into the canyon that contains the Widow Mine. The Widow also opened around 1915 and was one of the longer running mines in the complex.

By 1928, the Pacific Coast Borax Company had tapped into significant new reserves of a borate ore known as rasorite in the Kramer District, located to the south in Boron, California. This discovery proved to be a game-changer, as rasorite was more cost-effective to mine, transport, and process than the borates found in the Death Valley area. Consequently, the Played Out mine at Ryan finally ceased operations, and the Biddy McCarthy and Lower Biddy McCarthy mines neared depletion.

Contrary to initial assessments, the Widow mine was found to contain extensive ore deposits but despite these findings, the output from Ryan could not match the production levels achieved in the Kramer District. As a result, in 1928, the Pacific Coast Borax Company shut down its mining operations at Ryan, relegating the remaining ore deposits to reserve status. This decision marked the end of any plans to extend the Death Valley Railroad through Greenwater Valley towards Monte Blanco and Corkscrew Canyon.

In December 1930, the final blow was delivered to the Ryan District when the Death Valley Railroad sought permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission to discontinue its 30-mile narrow gauge railway that connected Ryan with the Death Valley Junction. By March 1931, the railroad had permanently ceased all operations. The dismantling of the railway marked the end of an era, as both the tracks and the employees found a new beginning in Carlsbad, New Mexico. There, they contributed to the operations of the United States Potash Company's mine railroad, under the umbrella of the Pacific Coast Borax subsidiary, continuing the legacy of this historic railway in a different setting.

The End of the Line