A long abandoned railroad grade linking Mojave, CA and Lone Pine, CA is
finally being scrapped. The former Lone Pine Branch of the Southern
Pacific Railroad once ran between the two points, historically tying in
with the Southern Pacific narrow gauge Owens Valley Branch (ex Carson &
Colorado Railroad) at Owenyo, five miles northeast of Lone Pine. As of
this writing, Union Pacific (which has merged with Southern Pacific) is
pulling up rails and ties in the Indian Wells Valley near Ridgecrest, CA.

The line was built beginning in 1908 to accommodate the then under
construction Los Angeles Aqueduct being built to tap into Owens River
water fresh from the High Sierra and divert the abundant liquid to Los
Angeles far to the south. Plans were made after completion of the line
in 1911 to standard gauge the narrow gauge Owens Valley Branch, which ran
between Keeler, CA and Mina, NV, and make it a part of a system of
trackage east of the Sierra. That never happened before the "end of the
line" for the narrow gauge.

After Southern Pacific scrapped the narrow gauge Owens Valley Branch in
May 1960, the standard gauge Owenyo Branch was shortened five miles and
became the Lone Pine Branch. Trains continued to run regularly between
Mojave and Lone Pine until 1981. In 1981, a fire broke out in the one
mile long Searles Tunnel, which continued to burn stubbornly in the
wooden lined tunnel for six months. That fire caused a lot of headaches
for transportation of borax based chemicals from Trona, CA to be shipped
out, and coal for a coal fired power plant to be supplied to Trona (Trona
is supplied by the 32 mile long Trona Railway, which was built in 1910
and is still in regular service). As a stop gap measure to reduce the
bottleneck of rail transportation, Southern Pacific pulled up about 10
miles of track between Lone Pine and the old Pittsburgh-Liberty glass
plant at Bartlett, CA, on the shore of Owens Lake. These were used to
create a shoo-fly over the summit above the tunnel, the railroad laying
tracks on the historic temporary shoo-fly grade originally built to move
trains during the digging of the tunnel in 1908.

During the tunnel fire, Southern Pacific began a series of public
hearings in the region to gauge public reaction to abandoning the
northern 75 miles of track to Lone Pine. There were a number of small
shippers doing business with the railroad company, along with the
Louisiana-Pacific Lumber Company mill near Pearsonville, and the United
States Navy, which operated a spur into the China Lake Naval Weapons
Center near Ridgecrest. The bulk of the traffic came from Trona, and
Southern Pacific didn't make enough money north of there to justify
sending a train all those miles for just a few periodic shippers. After
about a year of public hearings and debate, Southern Pacific finally
decided to abandon the line north of Searles Station (junction with the
Trona Railway and immediately on the north portal of the Searles Tunnel),
but allowed the tracks to remain in place due to plans by the Lake
Minerals Company of Owens Lake to start up large scale soda ash mining on
Owens Lake.

Since 1982, when the last train operated over the line, the line has laid
dormant. Lake Minerals became entangled in government red tape over
environmental issues involving Owens Lake. Rail crossings on US395 were
paved over, then sections removed as sections of US395 was made into
divided 4-lane in the years since. Bridges and ties rotted and
deteriorated. Small sections of rail disappeared on several sidings.
The Navy spur fell into disrepair and a couple of bridges were removed.
A curved section of right of way about a third of a mile was removed in
the early 1990's to accommodate new highway construction. Two heavy
flashfloods occurring a week apart at Little Lake in 1997 ripped out
sections of track, washed away a trestle and covered about a mile of rail
under several feet of mud, debris and boulders.

In August 1998, Union Pacific contracted out the salvage of rails and
ties on the line. Salvage operations began at the north end near the
Pittsburgh-Liberty glass plant (leaving about a half mile of track to the
plant north of the 1/3rd mile removed section for highway construction)
and progressed south to Olancha. It was then that the Bureau of Land
Management stepped in and stopped the salvage operations, citing the need
for a whole new round of public comment about removal of the rails on
public land.

Salvagers moved their equipment south to Pearsonville, situated on the
Inyo and Kern County line, and have been moving south. Rails are still
in place between Olancha and a point 1/3rd of a mile south of the county
line, beyond that point southward rails, ties and ballast have been
removed to a point six miles south of Inyokern. The distance between the
two points sans rails is about 16 miles.

On the date of this writing (10/17/98), salvage operators have a power
shovel with magnetic attachment sitting six miles south of Inyokern,
which was sitting idle today. A flatbed semi-tractor and trailer with a
hydraulic grabber arm attachment was picking up rail along the grade a
short distance north of the shovel and hauled out one load while I was at
the site. At Inyokern, a bulldozer and a caterpillar tracked trailer is
sitting idle. At Pearsonville on 10/15/98 I watched a man operating a
Bobcat with a fork lift attachment stacking railroad ties into huge
stacks approximately 20' high and a couple of hundred feet long. The tie
yard covers about an a half acre.

Along the right of way, bridges and trestles are still in place, and I
have no idea of their fate. I noticed that the caterpillar tracked power
shovel made a mess out of the tops of the bridges, the tracks cutting and
splintering the structures. In places along the grade, primarily north
of Inyokern, ties are still laying in heaps along the right of way
waiting for removal. I saw no salvage operators removing ties except for
the man at Pearsonville. North of Olancha, heaps of ties and rails lay
along the right of way. The removal of ballast and the tracked power
shovel have created a soft and sandy crown on the top of the grade.
North of Olancha, the top of the grade is virgin except for impressions
of the former ties.

Presently, salvage operators have about 14 miles of track to remove
before reaching Searles Station. North of Pearsonville, there is about
35 miles of track to be removed. The BLM had scheduled the delay for
public comment until the end of September. I have no information
regarding the outcome of such.

After rails are removed, only the brush covered hump will grace the
desert, along with a few rotting structures adjacent to the former
railroad. At Lone Pine, the former station is now a private residence,
still sporting its yellow Southern Pacific colors. Nearby, buildings
that were once part of the Lone Pine rail yard now serve as Lazy A Feed
and Supply.

David A. Wright
Great Basin Research