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Join us at the 10th
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is a new publication highlighting the history and legends
California and Nevada.
on the logo for
of the Saline
and the Salt Tram
In the early 1900’s salt was still used as a preservative
for foods. The SalineValley had plenty of
salt, so a tram was built to carry the salt over the InyoMountains, to the OwensValley, and off to
market by rail. Work began on the tramway in 1910 and was completed
in 1913. Gondola cars carrying 800 pounds of salt, traveled at a
rate of 20 tons per hour over those mountains. A total of 30,000
tons of high grade salt was carried over the tramway on and off
through the early 1930’s.
The main salt
tram summit control station straddles the crest of the Inyo
Mountains. It once was totally enclosed with metal siding.
The salt tram consisted of a series of tramways, 13.5 miles
long.A unique crossover
system allowed the gondolas to go from one tramway to the other
without stopping. Electricity was provided by the Edison Power Plant
located in CottonwoodCanyonin the Sierra NevadaMountainson the western
side of OwensValley.
towers seen from the Swansea Grade on the west side of the
Inyo Mountains. No two towers are exactly alike.
Before the salt could be transported on the tramway, it had
to be harvested from the SalineValleylake bed. Fresh
water was pumped from a large spring into shallow ponds that were
built on the lake bed. The hot sun baked down on the brine solution
in the ponds.As the
water evaporated, the salt crystals that remained were raked into
piles. The salt was then shoveled into wooden railway cars that were
pulled into a large storage hopper, where tramway gondolas
automatically were loaded with salt. The unique system was capable
of filling 56 gondolas per hour, or 20-24 tons per hour. As many as
40 - 60 men were employed at the salt tram, enduring summer
temperatures which could reach as high as 120 degrees.
Following it’s trek over the InyoMountains,gondolas ended up at OwensLake, northwest of Swansea.Here the salt was dried, screened, and prepped before
railroad shipment. The first buckets of salt reached the Owens Lake railhead on July 2, 1913. “The
World’s Purest Salt” was endlessly transported over the tramway
for seven years.
The high cost of the construction of the great tramway over
the InyoMountains,prevented salt mining from being a profitable venture,
unfortunately. Ownership changed hands on and off until the
depression hit and the gondolas stopped forever. The remains of the
towers can be seen here and there as you travel the Swansea Grade
down the east side of the the control station into Daisy
Canyon and the Saline Valley salt flats.
Summit Control Station and Power House can be seen at the top of DaisyCanyonnorthwest of Cerro Gordo ghost town.The control operator’s house has been restored, and is a
pleasant spot for modern backcountry travelers to pause for a picnic
and ponder over the construction of the great salt tramway in the
Electric Crew Comes to SalineValley
In the 1920’s two men, Charley J. Southey and William A.
Kemp, worked on electrical lines that were needed for the salt
operations. In July, they ran across a prospector in Big Pine who
advised them how to survive working in the hot summer sun. Work was
when temperatures peaked, so they were told to head for SalineValleyearly in the
morning, around , and not quit
for lunch, just grab a donut or sandwich that could be eaten quickly
while continuing to work.Charley
and Bill heeded the old prospectors advice and worked their eight
hour shifts straight through until
The living area at SalineValleyin those days,
was supplied with a six inch pipe that brought water in from HunterSprings to flow into a
big bathtub. The men would wet their shirts before they put them on,
then wet blankets and hang from the ridgepole of their tent to keep
On the tram was a refrigerator car that was kept cool with
ice. Fresh meat and vegetables came in twice a week. Dried beans,
cereals, and other staples kept the men satiated in between time.The cook was noted as being very good, and the men talked of
wonderful meals including such innovative dishes as cantaloupe pie.
The living quarters were near fresh water from HunterCreek, so water was
never a problem.
When Charley and Bill first arrived to work, salt was not
being transported out of Saline. Machinery for the salt operations
had broken down and was being worked on, but the tram itself was
running. Electricity was being put in the valley to replace the
gasoline engines that strained to work in the summer heat. Valves
were known to burn and gears would run dry. Bill Kemp remembered
that much of the equipment the salt company used had rawhide gears
that failed often and needed to be replaced.
Charley and Bill went to SalineValleywith a mule team
by way of Waucoba, and came out on the tram. Once the tram started
running, they would ride from the valley up to Station 7, the first
station above SalineValley.From there they had to walk back down to their work place.
The equipment they used for their work was hauled on the tram also,
and snaked backed down by hand to where they could use it. The sides
of the mountain were way to steep for the teams of mules.
One trip into Saline by truck was nothing but trouble. At
Bunker Hill Mine, near Willow springs, all the
rubber was lost off of the wheels and chains were broken. They were
stranded until word was gotten out to a man named Laney who came in
and helped them unload. Everything was then teamed down into the
Valley. At Willow Springs, the men remembered grapes growing there,
and enjoyed them by the handful before heading down into SalineValley. Everyone walked
into Saline except William Kemp and the mule skinner.William played the banjo and sang, as they traveled by the
light of the moon at night when temperatures were more comfortable.
The gondolas, or buckets of the salt tram were comfortable
for the men to ride in. Two men at a time could sit inside, facing
each other. The bottom of the buckets had drain holes on them and a
line of salt could be seen on the ground beneath the tram line. when
Charley and Bill rode the tram in 1920 there were no lids on the
buckets, but in it’s early days there were.
The ride on the tram must have been daunting. As they
traversed over DaisyCanyon, the men could
see cars lying on the canyon floor. They would look up ahead and
wonder when the next bucket would break loose, and come back to
smack them. One afternoon, after a hard day’s work, Charley and
Bill were coming back down to Saline Valley, and chose to hike up to
Station 7 and ride a bucket back to camp. Charley was in the bucket
below Bill Kemp when the power went off. Time lingered forever.
Another man, by the name of Bill Southey, and others hadn’t loaded
up yet, so took hand lines and threw them over the cable and walked
down to the stranded bucket. Other hand lines were added on as they
needed them. Bill Kemp was about 125 feet above the ground when they
arrived at the bucket, and he came down hand-over hand on the double
line. Charley was about 300 feet off the ground by the time they got
to him. His hands slipped and he burned his hands and legs, but
somehow made it down. The tram remained out of operation until
sometime that night, so the men were glad they were not left hanging
there the entire time.
The vast beds of pure grade salt in SalineValleywere passed over
by miners as they rushed through the valley seeking their fortunes
in the yellow ore they would eventually find in the nearby
mountains. Even in the 1920’s as William Kemp and Charley Southey
put in electrical lines for salt operations, and automated vehicles
were beginning to replace mules and wagons, prospectors still combed
the hills. William Kemp remembered them in this story told in his
“While we were in the Valley, there were two young chaps
from Keeler who borrowed or bought a burro and started across the
mountains. The burro (evidently carrying their food and water) got
away from them but they kept coming without it. One of them--a young
chap 20 or 21 years old--made it to our camp in Saline. By the time
he got there his tongue was so thick from thirst that he couldn’t
talk. He kept pointing back the way he had come, trying to tell us
that there was another fellow back there.
It just happened that when this fellow from Keeler came into
camp, two men who had a claim in the Ubehebe’s were at our camp in
SalineValley. Right away they
got a couple of horses from the Indians and an Indian went along
with them. I remember they took canned tomatoes and canned pears
with them, plus water. That’s all they took.
They found the other poor chap. He had all the skin wore off
his fingers trying to get out of a conglomerate wash. He as still
alive and they brought him in and revived him. I don’t know what
became of him--they must have sent him out on the tram.
The two men who had the claim in the Ubehebe’s would hike
out to OwensValley about once a
month or so. They would pick out their high grade ore and put it n
packs on their backs and start out from there and hike into HunterCanyon. All they would
bring along would be raisins and cheese, plus their canteens of
water and a wet cloth on their heads under their hats. They’d stay
all day in HunterCanyon--they walked
only on moonlight nights--and then hike out to Keeler. From there
they would come up to Lone Pine and Independence and peddle their
ore. They would buy that groceries they needed and hike back into
their claim over the same route. These remarkable young men, thy
packed out 40 pounds of ore each. The 80 pounds of ore had to be
rich enough to buy them groceries for the next month.”
To The Remote And Mysterious SalineValley -
William Jack Mann "aka Shortfuse"
Legends of InyoCounty--The
by Fred S. Cook
With Charley J. Southey And William A. Kemp about
their experiences on the Saline Valley Salt Tram.
November 4, 1972
and transcribed by David W. Hill
of Carol Forrey (after a chance meeting at the Mojave Chevron
following one of our many adventures.)