March 2006 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts




Mojave Expedition (11-12-05) photo gallery--Click the photo to go to the gallery



Burro Schmidt's

Tunnel Update

Burro Schmidt's "Famous Tunnel" now has a group of "friends" trying to preserve and protect the site.   

Click the photo to visit  their Website.



Click on the photo below to read more about Cerro Gordo.

Cerro Gordo now has its own Web site. Click the link below to visit.


Join us at the 10th annual Moose Anderson Days, April 29-30, 2006 at Jawbone Station.  Click the drawing for details.




The Panamint Breeze is a new publication highlighting the history and legends California and Nevada.  

Click on the logo for details.

Sketches of the Saline Valley and the Salt Tram

 by Cecile Page Vargo

          In the early 1900’s salt was still used as a preservative for foods. The Saline Valley had plenty of salt, so a tram was built to carry the salt over the Inyo Mountains, to the Owens Valley, 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 Cottonwood Canyon in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the western side of Owens Valley.

Salt tram 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 Saline Valley lake 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 Inyo Mountains,  gondolas ended up at Owens Lake, 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 Inyo Mountains,  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 today. 

View looking down the east side of the the control station into Daisy Canyon and the Saline Valley salt flats.

The Summit Control Station and Power House can be seen at the top of Daisy Canyon northwest 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 early 1900’s.

The Electric Crew Comes to Saline Valley

           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 impossible after 2 p.m. when temperatures peaked, so they were told to head for Saline Valley early in the morning, around 6 a.m, 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 2 p.m.

          The living area at Saline Valley in those days, was supplied with a six inch pipe that brought water in from Hunter Springs 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 cool.

          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 Hunter Creek, 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 Saline Valley with 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 Saline Valley.  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 Saline Valley . 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 Daisy Canyon, 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.

Prospectors Traveling Through

          The vast beds of pure grade salt in Saline Valley were 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 own words:

          “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 Saline Valley. 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 Owens Valley 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 Hunter Canyon. 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 Hunter Canyon--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.”


Guide To The Remote And Mysterious Saline Valley - Volume 4

by William Jack Mann "aka Shortfuse"

Shortfuse Publishing Company


Historic Legends of Inyo County--The Saline Valley, A Bi-Centennial Book

Edited by Fred S. Cook

California Traveler Inc.


Interview With Charley J. Southey And William A. Kemp about their experiences on the Saline Valley Salt Tram.

November 4, 1972

Interviewed and transcribed by David W. Hill

Courtesy of Carol Forrey (after a chance meeting at the Mojave Chevron following one of our many adventures.)

Thank you Carol, for sharing your family history! Copyright © 2006, All Rights Reserved.                           Powered by