Death Valley Railroad

The Death Valley Railroad (DVRR) was a historic 3 ft (914 mm) narrow-gauge railroad that once operated in Death Valley. Built primarily to support mining operations in the remote and harsh terrains of the Death Valley region, it played a crucial role in the economic development of the area during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The line started in Death Valley Junction, CA and followed the modern California State Route 190 down the the mining camp of Ryan.

Locomotive No 1 Engine, Death Valley Railroad
Locomotive No 1 Engine, Death Valley Railroad

Early Days and Construction

The idea of constructing a railroad in the inhospitable terrain of Death Valley emerged during the late 19th century with the discovery of various valuable mineral deposits. Initially, the isolated mining communities were heavily dependent on mule teams and wagons for transportation, which was both slow and inefficient.

In 1904, the Pacific Coast Borax Company, recognizing the need for a more efficient transportation system, began the construction of the Death Valley Railroad. The railway was intended to connect the mining towns of Ryan, near Death Valley, to the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, which served the wider region.

A map of the Death Valley Railroad running from Death Valley Junction all the way up to the mines at Ryan near Colemanite
A map of the Death Valley Railroad running from Death Valley Junction all the way up to the mines at Ryan near Colemanite

Development and Operations

The construction of the railroad faced immense challenges due to the rugged landscape, extreme weather conditions, and the scarcity of resources in the area. The laborers encountered difficulties such as intense heat, lack of water, and treacherous terrain, but despite these challenges, the construction continued.

By 1914, the DVRR was fully operational, enabling the efficient transportation of borax, gold, silver, and other minerals from the mines to the broader market. The railroad significantly reduced transportation costs and facilitated the growth of mining operations in the area.

DVRR self propelled gasoline powered Brill Car
DVRR self propelled gasoline powered Brill Car

One train ran each day delivering food and water to the workers at the Ryan mine in the mourning. The same train bought ore back late in the afternoon. After better deposits of borax were discovered at Boron, the Death Valley Railroad tried to resort to tourist operations by bringing in a Brill railcar to transport tourists to the old mines which made up Furnace Creek. A Brill car is a self propelled gasoline rail vehicle.

California State Route 190 roughly follows the route of this railroad.

Decline and Closure

Eventually, with the Great Depression of the 1930s and the increased usage of automobiles and trucks for transportation. The narrow gage D V R R ceased its operations in 1931. The tracks were removed, and much of the equipment was sold off or abandoned, marking the end of an era for the railroad and the mining communities it had served.

Although the Death Valley Railroad’s existence was relatively short-lived, it played a pivotal role in the development of the Death Valley region, contributing significantly to the growth of the mining industry and the economic prosperity of the local communities during its operation. Today, remnants of the railroad’s route can still be found in the Death Valley National Park, serving as a testament to its historical significance and the challenges faced by early industrial pioneers in this unforgiving landscape.

Death Valley Railroad Summary

NameDeath Valley Railroad
LocationNye County, Nevada
Death Valley, California
GageNarrow Gage, 3 ft (914mm)
Length25 Miles
Years of Operation1914 – 1931

Death Valley Railroad Locomotives

Heisler #2 “Francis”2-TruckStearns Manufacturing Locomotive Works1899 – 1925
Baldwin DVRR No 12-8-0Baldwin Locomotive Works
Baldwin DVRR No 22-8-0Baldwin Locomotive Works1916 –