Historic Railroad

By Larry Crouse, AKA Lifeguard Larry

The steam engine freed man from ancient physical limitations in a most revolutionary way. So it is only natural that it affected all his endeavors, emotions, thoughts. His art, his science, his history, his commerce. I could have chosen any of these words for the title of this section but romance gives me the greatest freedom to observe as I please.
I’ll begin by narrowing my scope. The two most powerful uses of the engine were in the ship and the train. I’ll focus on the latter.

There are several sources of information which I wish to recommend as basic;

Six books…
Jawbone; Sunset on the Lone Pine by Phil Serpico
Railroads of Nevada & Eastern California, Vols 1, 2, and 3 by David F. Myrick,
Best of all, according to NAPA DAVE who should know,
Slim Princess in the Sunset 1940-1960 – an invaluable source of rare photos and hard to find details. The author has done an enormous amount of research. His bibliography alone is worth the price of admission. And
Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge by Mallory Hope Ferrell
…cover the history of rails in our area in admirable and encyclopedic fashion.

Three others…
The Story of Inyo by W. A. Chalfant
The Water Seekers by Remi Nadeau
Water and Power by William L. Karhl
…describe the building of the L.A. Aqueduct. A story for the ages.

And here’s a great article about trains and art and passion.

Finally, there’s a new book on the silver mines of Owens valley and vicinity by Remi Nadeau – great, great grandson and namesake of the great mule-team freighter (who also wrote “The Water Seekers” – listed above – and many other books). Nadeau has degrees in history from Stanford and UC Santa Barbara in addition to his very special family history. The book is titled The Silver Seekers

Trains have been used in many films. Mostly in chase scenes or as background for intrigue and adventure – such as in Sinister Journey, Three Godfathers, and two of my favorites in which Agatha Christie first uses a steam train in Murder on the Orient Express and then a steam boat in Death on the Nile. But I’ve only seen one which truly captures the steam train – the thrill and danger of that powerful beast, the dirt and noise and heat, the roads, bridges and tunnels, the life of those who ran it. La Bete Humaine, Jean Renoir’s great 1938 classic.

The West was settled rapidly between 1865 and 1890, mostly by ranchers and miners with the aid of horses and trains. Their stories became the stuff of legends and the movies – from their beginnings in the first decade of the 20th century – told them over and over again. Cowboys and ranchers, Indians and sheepman, miners and desperado’s, sheriffs and killers. And train robberies, derailments, romances. Every weekend all of America went to watch them…and in rural areas that way of life lived on until the coming of television and the Interstate highway system in the 1950’s. Some of the films were great, most were not, but you can learn a great deal about that lost world from all of them. Our own C&C is featured in Hopalong Cassidy’s “Sinister Journey” of 1948 (packaged with four other from the same era in a modern DVD), Gene Autry’s “The Blazing Sun” from 1950 (unavailable as far as I can tell), John Wayne’s Flame of Barbary Coast of 1945 which received 2 Academy Award nominations, and Roy Rogers Saga of Death Valley of 1939 (also starring Gabby Hayes).

There is one sequence in “Sinister Journey” which really struck me. Hoppy and his sidekicks are just finishing a long trek across country when they pause to let a train pass. One of the sidekicks comments “Wouldn’t it have been great to have made this trip in the comfort of one of those cars”. The film was set in the last years of the nineteenth century and that says it all; either you traveled in comfort on a train or in real discomfort on or behind a horse. But that world was gone by 1948, when the film was made. Most of the C&C rolling stock was about 50 years old…and it showed. What had been true in 1898 was absolutely not true in 1948. Why rattle around on a 50 year old train when you could travel comfortably in a modern car?

In a class by itself was Erich von Stroheim’s great silent classic of 1925 Greed. This is not about American history but parts were shot in the Owens Valley and it is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. Originally 8 hours long it was edited down to 2 by an angry studio. All that remains of the train footage is a single wonderful still of Engine #15 pulling into Keeler (which we have courtesy of Chris Langley of the Lone Pine Film History Museum).



Above: Carson City V&T repairs shops in 1914 (SP coll).
Below: Keeler repair shops in 1954 (Bill Poole).

Engine #9 Narrow gauge Keeler 01-1953

Keeler once had an engine house but it burned in 1946


Economically, the contrast couldn’t be greater. The V&T, built to exploit the riches of the Comstock, was much, much stronger during its heyday. But there’s more to the story than money. Carson & Colorado and Virginia & Truckee both lasted about 80 years – kept alive during their latter days by the largess of their owners and the love of their communities and personnel. There’s something about these old engines and isolated routes that inspires people, commands their loyalty.