The longest and possibly most extreme high-wire act of the last century was designed and built to transport buckets of table salt cross a ten-thousand foot mountain range from a dry lake bed in Death Valley to a railroad located in the Owens Valley of California. Those fortunate enough to see it in operation called it an engineering marvel and wonder. Most tramways were built to haul gold and silver ore down the side of a mountain to a mill-site. So why all the expense and effort to mine common table salt most of which had historically been gathered from tidelands near the coast? Apparently, it was done just to prove that it could be done.
Saline Valley, at 1,000 feet above sea level, is located on the western edge of Death Valley National Park. The salt deposit was extensive and covered 16 square miles to a depth of 30 feet. The quality, at 98% pure sodium chloride, first attracted attention around 1904. But this valley, surrounded by terrain that made the bedding of rails impossible and the grading of a road for wagon long and difficult, was simply not accessible. However, these conditions, isolation and extreme topography, posed the kind of challenge that construction engineers found most engaging. And, they, in turn, ably translated their excitement into plans for a cable system design that both dazzled and convinced investors that such an enterprise could bring this product profitably to market.
A tramway is defined as, "an overhead cable system for transporting ore and mine freight". The type of vehicle used depended on the type of ore being hauled. The Saline Valley Salt Company Arial Tramway’s cables were designed to carry 280 buckets from the loading dock in Saline Valley, through two control stations on the east side of Inyo Mountain and through a control station at the summit. On the west side, buckets continue downward through a control station at about the 6,000 foot elevation then on to the terminal in Owens Valley. The system was capable of transporting over 20 tons of salt per hour. In addition to the motorized control stations, the cables passed through or over 13 rail supports on the way up and 15 on the way down. Each of these outposts was constructed of heavy timbers, metal rails and hardware which had to be transported to each site using reverse cables, horse drawn wagons and strange wheeled contraptions designed specifically for the project. One was called the "go devil" which frankly defies description. It took seventeen men to operate the system; two at the loading dock, two at the terminal and two at each station plus four line-riders and a foreman. The salt was gathered from the lake bed by Mexican laborers.
Line-riders -- I imagine riding an empty bucket down from the Inyo Mountain summit at 8,500 feet to the floor of the Saline Valley would compare favorably with Magic Mountain’s Riddler’s Revenge -- a difference of 7,500 feet or 1.4 miles of vertical distance.
The terms, "up" and "down", as used here need serious clarification. The journey began at the loading station in Saline Valley elevation 1,000 feet above sea level. From the loading platform, the buckets rose by double cables to the 8,500 foot gap near the summit of the Inyo Mountains. From the summit, the buckets began their descent by gravity to an off-loading dock in the Owens Valley at an elevation of 3,500 feet.-- total horizontal distance a little over 13 miles.
Construction started on September 1, 1911. And the first bucket arrived at the discharge terminal on July 2, 1913, a few months over schedule due to problems with determining where the off-loading station would be located. The Saline Valley Salt Company Arial Tramway was up and doing what it was designed to do -- haul buckets of salt from a desolate valley floor to a rail siding from where it would travel to many markets.
The salt harvest, simple and direct, started with the creation of a brine solution in areas of the lake bed sectioned off and flooded with water piped from nearby springs. Evaporation during summers when temperatures ranged near 120 degrees caused salt crystals to form in the brine. Gathered in piles two feet high in rows eight feet apart, the salt was allowed drain before being transported to the loading dock. A special wagon with wide wheel rims capable of hauling 500 pounds of salt was tethered to a gasoline engine by cable. The wagon was thus towed to the loading platform and the salt dumped into a waiting tramway bucket. The bucket, grabbed by the guide cable, then began its journey over the mountain and down to the Owens Valley terminal.
All of the material to build the control stations and rail supports had to be transported up the mountain by a wagon carrying up to 5,000 pounds pulled by an eight-horse hitch. From the railroad in Owens Valley it was a tough steep ten mile climb to the summit. Starting a few miles north of the railroad terminal at Keeler, a narrow but passable road was carved along the western flank of the mountain. A camp site graded a few miles north of the gap provided space for off-loading and storing materials. It took a loaded wagon one day to make a round trip to the camp and back. The teamster would leave the loaded wagon and take an empty back down to the station. The loaded wagons were teamed over to the construction site and unloaded. In addition to timbers, machinery and cables, the wagons hauled grain, hay and water for the stock kept at the mountain camp.
A trail was built on the east flank for use by construction crews. Too narrow and steep for wagons, construction materials had to be cabled down from the gap at the top of the mountain across the canyons and somehow brought to rest at the various construction sites. For the really heavy stuff like the motor and transformer for the loading station, a 55 mile wagon road was built to the north around the mountain from Big Pine, California. From Big Pine, the road extended east through Marble Canyon, very narrow in places, then south by Waucoba Springs and on to Saline Valley.
The mine operated from 1915 to 1920 attempting to make some profit for investors. Competition from salt companies in the Bay Area and falling prices after WWI, resulted in losses and caused operations to be discontinued. In 1929, repaired and readied for a new start, as luck would have it, the re-organized company ran headlong into the teeth of The Great Depression ending the final chapter of this unusual story. As some, at the time, said, "It cost a hell of a lot to build and operate and didn’t make much money but what a ride while it lasted!"
I haven’t visited Saline Valley since the 70s and failed, at that time, to appreciate the uniqueness of this remarkable mining adventure. As a result, I took few photographs none of which, in any way, give scope to what had happened here some 50 years back. I suggest that if you are interested in both current and historic photos you click on: www.owensvalleyhistory.com/saline_tramway1/page50a.html. There are a lot of other websites that include photos of the tram. Keep in mind that the story given here is much superior to others that you may find on your search through the internet. You see, I got mine from the engineer who built it.