Lineside Legacy - March, 2004

Death Valley No. 5 and the Laws Railroad Museum

On December 12, 2003, for the first time in over three years, Death Valley motor car No. 5 was outside the car barn at the Laws (California) Railroad Museum and Historical Site. While not yet under its own power, the car was pushed outside so the results of over three years of labor could be fully appreciated.
Photo: Jim Pittman/Laws Railroad Museum and Historical Site
IT SEEMS CRAZY, but many railfans have made similar journeys - in my ease, a 1040-mile round trip just to see one piece of equipment. Why would anyone do this? It was a very special piece: narrow gauge Death Valley Railroad motor car No.5, built by J.G. Brill in 1927 and now preserved at the Laws Railroad Museum and Historical Site of Laws, California. Besides the fact that it is the only narrow gauge Brill car preserved in North America, No.5 has recently undergone an extensive three-year restoration to return it to operation.

The town of Laws played a prominent role in the saga of the California narrow gauge. Construction of the three-foot gauge Carson & Colorado, known as the 'Slim Princess," began in 1880, and the railroad eventually built and operated some 300 miles of track from Mound House, Nevada, to Keeler, California. The C&C was built in part to connect the mines on the east side of the Owens Valley with the legendary Virginia & Truckee Railroad. However, it also served to haul out minerals from Owens Lake, salt from the Saline Valley, and gold, zinc and other metals from mines in southeast Nevada.

The Owens Valley had already been settled when the C&C came into the area in 1883. At that time the population centers tended to be on the west side of the valley, where water was plentiful. The railroad, however, built its line primarily to serve the mines, and in some cases the tracks ended up far from established towns. In the case of Laws, its companion town was Bishop, about four miles away. This caused some problems, as area residents had to endure a difficult one-hour trip by wagon between the two communities in the days before paved roads. To connect Bishop with Laws, the Owens River Valley Electric Railway Company was incorporated in 1910; it became known locally as the "Red Apple" because of its plans to connect to local orchards. Grading for the interurban line was completed in 1911, but the company went out of business before any rail was laid.

Southern Pacific purchased the Carson & Colorado in 1900, but retained the C&C name until 1905. After some alignment and gauge changes, a new corporation was formed in 1905 to operate the line as the Nevada & California Railway. However, from 1912 until the end of narrow gauge operations in 1960, the narrow gauge was operated as part of the Southern Pacific as the Keeler Branch; SP lettering on cars and locomotives reflected this.

Today the Laws Railroad Museum preserves the location of Laws, California, much as it existed when the Southern Pacific abandoned the Keeler Branch and ceased operations in the Owens Valley. The museum was started in 1960 when the Southern Pacific donated to Inyo County the Laws depot site complete with five original structures including the 1883 Laws depot, 1883 agents house, turntable, water tank, oil tank and water well. Also donated was a short section of track; narrow gauge 4-6-0 No.9; some freight cars and a caboose. The Bishop Museum & Historical Society was formed shortly thereafter to operate the site as an historical museum.

Not long after the founding of the Laws Railroad Museum, a local building slated for demolition was saved and moved to the site. It was the first of many. Over the years dozens of buildings and artifacts have been donated and put on display, including additional railroad equipment, tractors, automobiles, wagons, mining equipment, drilling equipment, antique cameras, horse accouterments, stoves, printing equipment, fire fighting equipment, blacksmith tools, musical instruments, antique bottles, antique medical devices and more.

We had visited both the north and south ends of the Carson & Colorado in the past, so we expected a similar dry, desert stetting at Laws. It isn't that way at all. Walking onto the museum grounds was a surprise --- green, green, green! The main museum area is grass covered and many trees provide shade. Beautiful. Jim Saylor, railroad historian and museum caretaker, is responsible for maintaining the site and is charged with keeping up the museum's track, a job that includes both laying new ties and rails and maintaining older track.

The main focus of our trip to Laws was to see and photograph Death Valley Motor No.5, which is currently being restored on the museum grounds. The first item of business was to ask about the location of the restoration project. We were directed to a purpose-built building where all work is taking place. Jim Pittman, project manager, was our gracious host and he was very, very informative about the history of the unique Brill-built motor cars and the work museum rolunteers have accomplished towards returning it to operation.

Motor No.5 did not work in the Owens Valley in regular service. Rather, it was used several hundred miles away in Death Valley. Like the Owens Valley, California's famous Death Valley was once a center for mining activity. However, by the late 1920s mining in Death Valley was on the decline, and the Pacific Coast Borax Company, which had extensive claims in the area, started a tourism business to bring in additional income. The magnificent Furnace Creek Inn, built northwest of Ryan, was the result. Motor car No.5 was constructed in 1927, the same year the Inn opened, for use on the Death Valley Railroad, a mining line owned by the borax company and whose tracks came near the Furnace Creek Inn. It is a Brill Model 55, one of only four surviving Model 55s in the United States and the only narrow gauge example left. For a few years the motor car carried passengers and less-than-carload freight through some very spectacular scenery between Death Valley Junction and Ryan. Its use was short-lived, as the Death Valley Railroad was abandoned in 1931 when Pacific Coast Borax closed the last big mine in the area.

Most of the Death Valley Railroad equipment was purchased by U.S. Potash Company and moved to its mill at Carlsbad, New Mexico, in the early 1930s. The motor car was used to transport mill workers to the job site, and it operated in New Mexico far longer than in had on the Death Valley Railroad, not being retired until after 25 years of service in 1956. The car sat abandoned in New Mexico until its eventual donation to the Laws Railroad Museum, along with other pieces from the U.S. Potash operation. It arrived in Laws on November 27, 1967. At the time it was in less than pristine condition after years of hard service.

After sitting outdoors for several years, in 1979-'80 the windows of DVRR No.5 were repaired and the glass replaced, its roof was patched and new paint was applied. This work helped preserve the interior of the car while it sat outside for another 20 years.

Several years ago the museum became interested in restoring a piece of railroad equipment. Steam locomotive No.9 was considered, but the costs involved were prohibitive. Eventually the decision was made to restore Death Valley No.5, as it would cost much less to get running than the steamer, and could move under its own power, giving the museum an operating piece of equipment to demonstrate for visitors. To that end an ISTEA grant was obtained to begin the project. In 1999 a major step was taken toward the restoration of the motor ear - a car barn was constructed. Now, with a sheltered place to work, renovation of DVRR No.5 began in earnest.

Most of the car's sheet metal was rusted through, requiring replacement. This led to the acquisition of hot riveting tools, and teaching museum volunteers the almost-lost art of hot riveting. Five thousand rivets later the body was ready for primer, and it has recently been painted in its proper dark green color. Most of the sheet metal work was straightforward, but it took a little searching to find a company that could correctly shape the car's end pieces. The steps on its left side were completely replicated; the right side steps are also new except they retain the original 1/2 round nose pieces.

With No.5's body restored, the vehicle was strong enough to be lifted so that work could begin on its underbody. The trucks were rusted solid, making their removal a little difficult. After much work, they were carefully disassembled, cleaned, reassembled and painted. With the exception of rusted nuts and bolts, as many original parts as possible were reused. A new thermoid coupling, part of the drive shaft, was replicated. Every component of the underbody was cleaned, inspected and repaired as needed.

A good deal of wood required replacement, although the dry desert air helped keep major rot to a minimum. All new oak flooring was installed. The main roof bows were in good condition and have been retained but the end bows and all the roof wood has been replicated. Following directions from an old railroader from the Illinois Railroad Museum, the roof was covered with new No.8 natural canvas and painted with the original-style linseed-oil based paint. The color? Acapulco Sand -. tan with a slight pink cast (the original shade).

The windows were all replicated, a very big job. The seats presented their own unique challenges. The cast frames were cleaned and sandblasted and wood parts replicated. A company in Los Angeles was found that could make correct springs for the seats. Matching the upholstery material was surprisingly easy, as the original seat covering is a material similar to Naugahyde and is still manufactured.

Many small parts needed replacement and several were located in the Midwest or east coast where more of the Brill cars were operated. Jim Pittman has become an expert in Brill rail car parts. This has led to an exchange of information between the groups that own other Brill motor cars, and some parts have been loaned to others as patterns. Parts that are not obtainable have to be replicated by local machinists and craftsmen. Some items have been very difficult to locate, and it may be a while before DVRR No.5 is 100 per cent complete.

No.5's original Brill gasoline engine was still in the car when it was retired, but for reliability and ease of obtaining replacement parts, a 190 h.p. Cummins diesel engine was purchased and installed. This hasn't worked out as well as the museum hoped. Several changes were necessary to adapt the diesel and some minor, but critical, engine parts have been very difficult to locate. The original Brill engine, complete with "BRILL" stamped on the valve cover, has been preserved and is now on display. As this is written, the work to the motor is nearly complete and the car is very close to moving under its own power.

When the car is operational it will need a place to run. The unused Red Apple grade is the ideal route; it is still pretty much existent and almost all of it can be used. Positive input has been received from the local and state agencies and governments, and grants have been approved, but bureaucratic processes like these take a tremendous amount of time. The Owens Valley Railway Company has been formed to rebuild and operate the Brill car, and is a separate group from the Bishop Museum & Historical Society that operates the Laws Railroad Museum. They are currently making good progress obtaining funds and the necessary permission to start construction of the 4 1/2 mile railroad. When the project gets underway, Jim Saylor's tracklaying expertise will be required as new track will have to be laid. A TEA-21 grant is funding the track work.

One obstacle to overcome is the Owens River, which will have to be crossed when the Red Apple grade is put into service. Remarkably, the modern-day successor of the Southern Pacific has stepped in to help. For one dollar the Union Pacific Railroad sold the Owens Valley Railway Company a narrow gauge wooden Southern Pacific bridge that once crossed the Owens River south of Big Pine (the line was relocated in 1927 because of construction of a reservoir; the Carson & Colorado never operated over the bridge). In a huge volunteer effort, the bridge was marked, disassembled and moved and is ready for installation on the Red Apple line.

After four years of work, it is planned that restored DVRR Brill Railcar No.5 will have an official rollout ceremony April 1,2 and 3 2004. April 1, 2004, is the 121st anniversary of the arrival of the first train in Laws, California. For those who wish to make the trip, April is off season so finding accommodations in Bishop that weekend should be easy. Email Jim Pittman at to be put on a bulk e-mail list for updates. When the DVRR Brill car is not operating, it will be displayed east of the museum where it had been on display for so many years. Donations to help complete the restoration of DVRR No.5 are appreciated. Please send contributions to: Brill Car, Owens Valley Railway Company, P0. Box 355, Bishop, CA 93515.

The museum is located 4 1/2 miles north of Bishop on Silver Canyon Road, just past the Owens River where U.S. 6 makes a sharp turn to the north. Prominent signs at the intersection note the location of the museum. The museum can be contacted by writing to: Bishop Museum & Historical Society, P.O. Box 363, Bishop CA 93515, calling 760/873-5950, or by visiting

Thanks to Jim Pittman and Jim Saylor for their help with this story. And thanks to all the volunteers who are making the restoration and operation of Death Valley Railroad No. 5 possible. To date, 98% of the labor has been volunteer. - STAN JENNINGS

More About Southern Pacific No. 9

As Stan Jennings wrote, Death Valley Railroad motor car No.5 is a good reason to visit the Laws Railroad Museum & Historical Site. Southern Pacific 4-6-0 No.9 and the restored narrow gauge cars that are displayed with it are the other reasons. No.9 was built for the Nevada-California-Oregon Railway, another of the early western narrow gauge roads. When N-C-O ceased operation in the 1920s, the 1909 Baldwin was purchased by the Southern Pacific for use on its old Carson & Colorado properties along with sister Ten Wheelers Nos.8 and 18.

As the steam era came to a close in the 1950s, the N-C-O 4-6-0s gained a degree of celebrity as the last narrow gauge steam locomotives running in the far west. All three continued in steam up until 1954, when the SP purchased a small General Electric diesel. No.9 was then put on standby status, and only used occasionally when the diesel was in Bakersfield being serviced. Engine No.8 was given to Carson City, Nevada, for display in 1955 (it is exhibited in Sparks today), and No.18 went to an Independence, California, park the same year, leaving No.9 the only steamer on the property.

No.9 continued to be used occasionally until 1959, when its boiler was condemned by an ICC inspector. The following year it was towed by the diesel to Laws and placed on display alongside the depot there, just before the abandonment of the Keeler branch. For years it was neglected and became increasingly rusted and dirty, but recent efforts by the museum have brought No.9 back to the way it looked when retired. Paint is fresh, lettering is crisp, and its headlights and class lights shine brightly. In fact, from all outward appearances, No.9 gives the illusion that it is an operable locomotive.

Complementing No.9 are the historic structures at Laws, including the rare wooden Armstrong gallows turntable. Some money left from the ISTEA grant is intended to make the turntable operational and return the water tank and oil tank to presentable condition.
-- J.T.

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