The early twentieth-century mining booms at Tonopah, Goldfield, and Rhyolite produced major economic and social changes in the life of southern and central Nevada. They brought about a major restructuring of Nevada’s transportation system. As the new camps boomed and prospered, they soon outgrew the capacities of mule teams and freighters to meet their demands, and for the first time, railroads were enticed into this region of Nevada. The lure of rich profits from the new camps was the catalyst that created new rail lines, but the happy geographic chance that the new camps were situated in a rough north-south line made a new railroad link through Nevada possible.
Such a railroad would cost a great deal of money, though, and the traffic volumes in the early 1900s simply did not warrant the construction of a single line. As a result, the north-south line was connected little by independent railroads built from one camp to another. By the time the Bullfrog boom was well underway, this process had already begun.
The Tonopah Railroad Company completed its line from the north into Tonopah in July 1904, which connected that camp with the Southern Pacific Railroad via the Nevada & California Railway and the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. Within another year, as Tonopah and Goldfield were proven to be solid producers and Rhyolite appeared to be following their examples, various plans were laid to continue the south-bound connections. The Tonopah Railroad became the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad in late 1905, and shortly after that began construction of a line from Tonopah south to Goldfield.
With the completion of a railroad to Tonopah, which is about halfway between Carson City and Las Vegas, the northern half of the connection was completed. In the meantime, several plans for the southern half were beginning to take shape, at least on paper. “Borax” Smith had long contemplated a railroad which would connect his various borax mines in southern Nevada and southeastern California with the outside world, for the days of the famous twenty-mule team, borax wagons had long since become economically infeasible. When Senator William Clark completed his San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad in January 1905, Smith decided to connect his mines with that railroad at Las Vegas. Verbal agreements between Clark and Smith were reached, and Smith soon announced the formation of the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad.
Clark, however, was also looking at the new gold camps to the north of his railroad and slowly realized that he wanted to build his line into the interior. The agreements with Smith were thus broken, and Clark announced the formation of a rival company, the Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad. As the names implied, both these southern roads envisioned extending their lines not only to the Bullfrog District but beyond to Goldfield and Tonopah, thus tapping the potential of all three mining camps.
Clark was the first to set to do business. His engineers conducted a preliminary survey from Las Vegas to Tonopah in early 1905 and completed it in late February. The proposed line would run north towards the Bullfrog District but bypass the district itself by running through Beatty instead of Rhyolite. The route via Beatty would be comparatively flat and smooth and would avoid extensive construction costs, which would have been necessary to climb the mountains into Rhyolite. After several months of negotiations with Borax Smith, who was forced to shift his operations from Las Vegas on the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake line to Ludlow, California, where he would connect with the Santa Fe Railroad, construction on both roads began in the fall of 1905.
At about the same time, a third railroad entered the picture when John Brock, of the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad, also spotted the potential of the Bullfrog District and announced the formation of another railroad company. This one would be a nominal extension of the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad and extend those lines south from Goldfield into the Bullfrog District. It soon became apparent to all parties involved, the first railroad to complete its line would have the greatest chance of success, and a race ensued.
In January 1906, the first rails were laid on the Las Vegas & Tonopah, north of Las Vegas, and a month later, the road had been completed for twenty-four miles. Although Rhyolite was ecstatic at the prospect of being connected to three railroads, the town’s leaders also realized that the prestige and prosperity of the town would be threatened if rail connections were made at Beatty four miles to the east, rather than at the metropolis itself. Rhyolite did not want to be on a branch line of any railroad and began to take steps. After several discussions between the town and the company, an agreement was reached. The Las Vegas & Tonopah agreed to extend its line through Rhyolite rather than bypass the city, and the town in turn guaranteed to secure property rights and right of way through the town. Although this change in plans meant heavy additional construction costs–the Las Vegas & Tonopah estimated that it would cost as much to build a sixteen-mile “high line” through Rhyolite and back out of the Bullfrog Hills to the north as it would to build the entire 115 miles from Las Vegas to Beatty — the town convinced the railroad that the extra expense would pay off. If the railroad ran directly through Rhyolite and the Bullfrog Hills, numerous mines would be able to ship directly on the railroad, rather than having to pay freight expenses to have their ores hauled across the hills to Beatty. Since this meant that more mines would be able to ship their ore and that more low-grade or could be profitably shipped, the increase in freight profits for the railroad would offset the additional construction costs. Besides that, passenger traffic would be dominated by the railroad connected directly to Rhyolite, for who wanted to go to Beatty anyway? Even though the steep grade from Beatty to Rhyolite would mean that the railroad would be forced to stop each train at Beatty and hook on additional engines to negotiate the pass, the railroad was convinced.
The Rhyolite Board of Trade put the matter to a vote of the citizens, who approved the plan. The town announced that it would provide all necessary rights of ways and property rights for the railroad if it, in turn, guaranteed that the route through Rhyolite would be a through route and not just a branch line. The Las Vegas & Tonopah concurred, and plans were formalized. Doubling the pleasure of Bullfroggers, the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad, which had recently incorporated to build south from Goldfield, also announced that its terminus would be in Rhyolite. This road, however, would avoid the hilly route between Beatty and Rhyolite and would instead build to Beatty, then swing to the south around the hills and hook back to the north, entering Rhyolite from the south.
Construction on the Las Vegas & Tonopah proceeded apace through the early part of 1906. By March, fifty-three miles of track had been laid, and graders worked eighty-four miles north of Las Vegas. To the southeast, “Borax” Smith’s Tonopah and Tidewater railroad was inching out of Ludlow, but it appeared that the Las Vegas and Tonopah would win the race to the Bullfrog District. By the middle of June, it had finished its grade into Beatty, although the rails were still twenty-nine miles short of that town. The Tonopah and Tidewater had extended its rails 75 miles out from Ludlow, California, but the heat of the summer put a halt to its construction work. In the meantime, the Bullfrog-Goldfield had finally started work on its line on May 8, but initial progress had been slow.
The Las Vegas & Tonopah surveyed and laid out its rail yards at Gold Center, where the trains would be made up and where northbound trains would pick up extra engines to climb from Beatty to Rhyolite. Its future grade was surveyed through Rhyolite out to the west around the Bullfrog Hills, then back up to the north towards Mud Summit. This sixteen-mile stretch called the “high line” would constitute the most difficult part of constructing the entire line between Las Vegas and Goldfield, for after cresting the ridge at Mud Summit, the rest of the sixty-some miles was relatively flat and smooth. The surveying of this line laid to rest recurring rumors that the Las Vegas & Tonopah would stop at Rhyolite and let the Bullfrog-Goldfield handle northbound traffic.
Grading work on the “high line” between Beatty and Rhyolite began during August of 1906, and the rails, in the meantime, slowly crept up the already completed grade towards. Beatty. On October 7, 1906, the first work train pulled into Gold Center on its completed tracks, and two weeks later, the railroad was completed as far as Beatty. Clark had won his race, for he entered the Bullfrog District a full six months ahead of his competitors. Beatty, as usual, held a wild and grand Railroad Day Festival, and all Bullfroggers joined in the celebration, for their town was at last connected with the outside world.
In the middle of November, work on the laying of rails between Beatty and Rhyolite commenced, and on December 14, the first Las Vegas & Tonopah train pulled into the east end of Rhyolite. Freight shipments immediately followed the ceremonial first train, and long-awaited carloads of lumber, supplies, and mine and mill equipment arrived. The railroad’s completion freed the Bullfrog District from the exorbitant freight rates necessitated by long mule-team hauls over the desert, and a veritable building boom got underway as Rhyolite began to change from a tent city to a more permanent town. Within a week of the first train’s arrival, over one hundred cars stood on the yard tracks in Rhyolite, and more were coming in each day. As soon as the confusion was somewhat cleared, the Las Vegas & Tonopah extended its track through town before putting a halt to the laying of rails. Further construction, it announced, would await the completion of grading work in the vicinity of Goldfield.
In March of 1907, the first regular Pullman service between Los Angeles and Rhyolite was inaugurated, with daily trains. Grading workaround, Goldfield progressed, and the town of Rhyolite breathed a sigh of relief as it became evident that it would indeed be on the mainline of the railroad and not be left dangling at the end of a branch line. Then, in April, the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad finally finished its line into Beatty. Although the event was not met with nearly the degree of enthusiasm that had heralded the arrival of the Las Vegas & Tonopah, it had much more significance, for the north-south rail line through Nevada was now complete. True, passengers needed to change trains five times between Carson City and Las Vegas, but it was possible to make the trip in relative comfort and speed for the first time.
By the end of May 1907, grading of the Las Vegas & Tonopah line to Goldfield was almost complete, and work began again on the laying of the tracks. In June, the railroad slowly extended out of Rhyolite, around the Bullfrog Hills, and towards Goldfield. By the middle of August, the rails were completed through the entire Bullfrog District and were extended as far north as Bonnie Claire, a third of the way between Rhyolite and Goldfield. Construction continued despite the financial problems brought about by the Panic of 1907. On October 26, the ceremonial final spike was driven at Goldfield, marking the completion of the Las Vegas & Tonopah tine. Few citizens, however, were in a mood to celebrate.
Four days later, the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad entered Gold Center from the south and linked its tracks with the Bullfrog-Goldfield. Not surprisingly, the two railroads soon announced plans for cooperation, and Two complete southern lines thus served Goldfield and the Bullfrog District. Potential passengers and shippers could travel the Las Vegas. & Tonopah from Goldfield to Las Vegas, where connections to the west coast and the Rocky Mountains were possible, or they could take the Bullfrog-Goldfield to Beatty and switch to the Tonopah & Tidewater for the trip to Ludlow, California, with similar east-west connections at the southern terminus. Although the Las Vegas & Tonopah had been the first railroad to arrive in the district, the Tonopah & Tidewater immediately gained an advantage over its rival. The latter’s connections to the west coast were quicker and more economical. The Las Vegas & Tonopah countered by advertising that its route went “all the way” and that passengers would be spared the necessity of changing trains in Beatty.
Now that the race was over, the competing roads settled down to business–hoping that the market for hauling in supplies and equipment and hauling out ore would justify construction costs. The Las Vegas & Tonopah concentrated on improvements to its property, including the rail yards at Rhyolite and its passenger station, which was finished in June of 1908. Although events would prove that passenger traffic never warranted the construction of such a large station, the company reaped short-term benefits of publicity for being the owner of what was rightly called one of the showplaces of the southern Nevada desert.
Unfortunately, traffic volumes on all the railroads serving the Bullfrog District proved to be lighter than expected since the district never became the producer as predicted during the boom’s early years. The Las Vegas & Tonopah made a small profit during the first year of operation, but that was the last year it did. Due to its decision to utilize the “high line” to tap the mines of the Bullfrog Hills, the Las Vegas & Tonopah was saddled with heavier operating expenses than were its rivals since all northbound trains were required to stop at Beatty and add an extra engine to negotiate the climb into Rhyolite. The ore from the high line never reached the predicted levels, and thus the railroad was left with the high costs of construction, without the ensuing profits from heavy ore shipments.
Although both the Bullfrog-Goldfield and the Tonopah & Tidewater were experiencing much of the same problems, their shorter and cheaper route to the west coast helped them maintain higher shipping volumes than the Las Vegas & Tonopah was able to manage. In addition, “Borax” Smith had a monopoly upon the shipment of ores from his borax mines along the route of the Tonopah & Tidewater, which helped the revenues of that road considerably. As a final burden, the railroads were burdened with poor public relations. As soon as the railroad days celebrations were over, miners and businessmen began complaining about the high freight rates charged by all the lines. As the mines developed into very low-grade propositions, freight rates announced in previous years began to look like highway robbery. Although the miners had a small point, for the prevailing rates made many mines unprofitable, most of the Bullfrog District mines would have had to be given free shipment of their ores to stay in business. Although all the railroads lowered their rates from time to time, no one was ever satisfied. The sentiment that the railroads were making huge profits seemed to predominate from Rhyolite to Tonopah, and as a result, the property of their lines was heavily taxed. The Las Vegas & Tonopah, for example, paid taxes to Nye County amounting to $11,942.70 at the end of 1907.
To make a sad story short, the Bullfrog railroads–particularly the Las Vegas & Tonopah–declined in direct ratio to the decline of the Bullfrog District. Passenger and freight traffic fell off as mines closed, and miners left town. The exodus had a ripple effect, for a smaller population in the district meant that fewer supplies were hauled in to support the remainder. A similar story was affecting the gold camps to the north, for although both Goldfield and Tonopah far out-lived Rhyolite, mines in those northern camps had passed their peak by the 1910s and were beginning what would be a much longer period of decline. In 1911 the Tonopah and Goldfield Railroad offered to sell its line to the Las Vegas & Tonopah, thus giving the latter a direct line through most of Nevada. Senator Clark was interested, but following the death of his son on board the Titanic in April of 1912, he turned apathetic towards business affairs, and the matter was dropped.
Matters were now becoming serious, and it became evident that unless the three competing lines were somehow consolidated, that all three would fail. The smallest of the three, the Bullfrog-Goldfield, was the first to take action, but its attempt to sell itself to the Tonopah and Goldfield Railroad fell flat. The Las Vegas & Tonopah then stepped in, and the two railroads made plans to consolidate their lines. Since both roads had tracks running between Beatty and Goldfield, the decision was made to utilize each line’s best parts and abandon the remainder. Accordingly, the Las Vegas & Tonopah tracks would be used from Goldfield to a point just south of Bonnie Claire, where a shift would be made to the Bullfrog-Goldfield tracks from there south to Beatty. This move would cut maintenance costs for both lines and enable the Las Vegas & Tonopah to avoid running its trains over the costly “high line” from Beatty through the Bullfrog Hills. Through service would run through Beatty, bypassing Rhyolite completely, although a short branch line would still serve that town. However, all the track west and north of Rhyolite, which includes the section of track that ran through the present boundaries of Death Valley National Monument, was abandoned.
The plans were approved by the Railroad Commission of Nevada, despite the protests of Rhyolite citizens, and the new combined route went into effect in June of 1914. For the first time, the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad made a profit–ironically, much of it came from hauling ripped-up tracks and ties from its old roadbed north to Goldfield for salvage. However, the Las Vegas & Tonopah was not so lucky and continued to run in the red. Service over the remaining portion of the “high line” from Beatty to Rhyolite was finally discontinued in 1916, and the rails were removed.
As the years slowly passed, revenues and traffic on the Las Vegas & Tonopah continued to decline. Daily service between Las Vegas and Goldfield was maintained until February 1917, when tri-weekly service was substituted. Then, the problems brought about by World War I spelled the end of the line. Due to war shortages and efforts to economize, the Freight Traffic Committee of the U. S. Railroad Administration ordered that all perishable and merchandise traffic that formerly traveled via the Las Vegas & Tonopah would immediately be shipped only on the shorter Tonopah and Tidewater connections to the west coast. In other words, the Las Vegas & Tonopah was not allowed to haul anything but ore, and there was not much ore to be hauled. For a short while, the railroad was run by the Railroad Administration. Still, that body soon decided that the Las Vegas & Tonopah was “not considered essential or necessary to the uses of the Government” and was turned loose.
By this time, it was a moot question whether the railroad was essential to anyone, and the end soon came. The Las Vegas & Tonopah had lost money every year since 1908, but never enough to consider its lines’ abandonment. Revenues now plunged drastically, and the road was faced with bankruptcy. During World War I, the high prices paid for scrap metal stimulated Clark to salvage as much of his railroad as he could. On September 18, 1918, he applied to the Railroad Commission of Nevada for permission to cease operations. On October 31, the last train pulled off the line, and the tracks were taken up and sold. With the demise of its line, the Las Vegas & Tonopah also abandoned its passenger station in Rhyolite, and one of the last surviving structures in that dying town entered the delinquent tax list.
Following the death of the Las Vegas & Tonopah, the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad returned to its old partner, the Tonopah & Tidewater, and the two roads combined operations. For all practical purposes, the Tonopah & Tidewater operated the line for the entire distance from Ludlow to Goldfield. The Bullfrog-Goldfield had almost no rolling stock or engines left. Nevertheless, the railroad continued to operate as long as the Goldfield mines operated. As the 1910s gave way to the 1920s, those mines began to close down one after another, and revenues on the Bullfrog-Goldfield slowly and surely declined. Finally, in January of 1928, that railroad was also abandoned.
Thus the Tonopah & Tidewater, which had been the last railroad to reach the Bullfrog District, was left as the last and only railroad operating in the vicinity. As the gold mines in the region began to play out, the Tonopah & Tidewater relied more and more upon its borax mines in the vicinity for revenue. Other scattered clay, marble, and talc mines contributed enough freight to enable the railroad to operate feebly through the 1910s and the 1920s. The road became a lifeline to the scattered population of the southern Nevada desert.
But towards the latter part of the 1920s, the borax mines began to close, and the life of the Tonopah & Tidewater was threatened. The Borax Consolidated Company, the parent of the Tonopah & Tidewater, continued to operate the road at a loss, preserving the rails and stock in case of future need. Still, heavy losses year after year became too much for it to handle. In 1938, the Tonopah & Tidewater applied for permission to abandon its lines. Local patrons of the road caught the ears of their politicians, and approval of the abandonment was delayed for several years, as means were sought to keep the line operating. But those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and on June 14, 1940, the Tonopah & Tidewater ceased operations. The railroad tracks were left in place for two years in hopes that the railroad could resume, but the need for scrap metal during World War II caused them to be salvaged in 1942 and 1943. The last Bullfrog district railroad had finally died.
The demise of the railroads did not end their influence upon the transportation history of southern Nevada, for, during the early days of highway construction in that state, the old roadbed of the Las Vegas & Tonopah was designated as part of the state highway system. When the construction of U. S. Route 95 between Las Vegas and Carson City began, the first major north-south highway through the state, the road was built along the old grade of the Las Vegas & Tonopah from Las Vegas to Beatty. Today, the traveler heading north out of Las Vegas towards Beatty and Carson City will travel along the same line which carried so much hope and optimism during the days of the Bullfrog boom.
Due to the use of the old Las Vegas & Tonopah grade as a base for highway 95, all traces of the railroad bed have disappeared between Las Vegas and Beatty. However, still visible to the visitor is the old “high line” which ran from Beatty into Rhyolite and then through the Bullfrog hills to the north. This portion of the road, which was the first part of the railroad to be abandoned in 1914, winds for twelve miles through Death Valley National Monument. For most of this distance, the old grade is visible against the desert floor, and with its cuts and fills, is in relatively good condition, considering the ravages of time and weather.
With a few exceptions, today’s visitor may walk or drive on the old roadbed from Rhyolite to the Original Bullfrog Mine, up through the cuts towards Mud Summit, north to Currie’s Wells, and on north out of the Monument’s boundaries. The walk is a haunting one; for a while tracing the route on its lonely way across the desert landscape, one can almost hear the whistle and rumbles of trains gone by. Just north of Mud Summit, more concrete evidence of the past may be found in the ruins of an old section camp. Here, where the helper engines were dropped after the trains had climbed the grade up the “high line,” may be found the site of several edifices which supported the railroad. Concrete foundations, a ground cistern, and what are probably the foundations of an old water tank mark the spot. While there is not enough left at the site to make it particularly significant in itself, its location along the railroad grade makes it worthy of protection.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.
Source: Death Valley Historic Resource Study
Rhyolite – Little More than a Memory
Goldfield – Queen of the Mining Camps