Rock formations near Pinnacles
Motorcars a.k.a. Speeders

Motorcar Operators West First Time Trona Rwy Run

A desert ride on the Trona Railway
By Wayne Parsons


Gil Dominguez, Malcom Frost and Richard Nelson at set-on.  Note IMC Chemicals plant in the background

On March 31, 2001 twenty-six cars from Motorcar Operators West make the first ever run on the Trona Railway. Trona is located northeast of Mojave and southwest of Death Valley National Park. The Trona Railway, a division of IMC Chemicals, hauls soda ash and other salt products produced in the Searles Dry Lake area. Our host Mark Bennett, Manager of Operations, approves the event after viewing a tape of a MOW run and looking over our paperwork.

Nancy Parsons doing the paper work Other people who help make today's ride a reality include IMC Chemical Company's risk manager Sally Bradley and NARCOA Insurance Coordinator Tom Norman. They worked together on necessary language additions to the standard insurance certificate. Mark Bennett spent a day back in January taking meet coordinator Wayne Parsons on a survey ride. Thanks go also to Richard Nelson and Terry Borden for doing inspections, Nancy Parsons and Janet Dominguez for doing paper work at set-on, and Glen Ford for being our Emergency Medical Technician. The weather is warm with high broken clouds. There are no winds today bringing the uncomfortable alkali dust clouds possible here.

The lineup pauses at Pinnacles.  Photo by Nancy Parsons

The MOW lineup of fourteen MT-14's, nine MT-19's, two A-4's and one M-9, set-on next to the white scale house in the Trona Rwy yard at mp 30. Following the safety meeting the group departs south at 8:50AM with Doug O'Grady leading in the hi-rail and Mark Bennett in his own MT-19 in the rear.

Three operators with us today are getting their MOW license. For Roger Begin of nearby Ridgecrest, CA this is his first event ever.

At Westend pot ash on the ground looks like snow. The discovery of borax first brought men to the dry bed of Searles Lake. In the 1870's mule teams made an eighty-mile connection with the Southern Pacific at Mojave. At the turn of the century the completion of the Randsburg Railway due south and west of Searles Lake reduced the wagon ride to about 35 miles. The present railroad was completed in September 1914 connecting the new potash plant at Trona with the SP "Jawbone Branch" at Searles. Much of today's output goes to Long Beach harbor for export to Asia.

Recently the line was refurbished with new rail. Because of the desert heat and maintenance considerations, bolted sectional rail was chosen over available ribbon rail technology. The line suffers one geographical difficulty: the trains must run loaded uphill to the junction and empty downhill back to Trona.

For the first three miles south of Trona the tracks follow the shore of Searles Dry Lake. On our left are a variety of salt ponds and access roads. In the distance pale grey-brown mountains of the Slate Range rim the dry lake. At mp 26.5 we pass the Westend plant where salt is loaded both onto railcars and trucks. A surprised yard worker jumps off his front-end loader to wave at us excitedly through the fence.

Spaceship crash at Pinnacles

American Avocet At Westend in separate alkali ponds two pairs of American Avocet birds reside. These 18-inch high Sandpiper-like long-legged waders have a light brown head and throat over a white belly and black wings with white secondaries. They use long upturned bills in a sweeping movement to feed on tiny shrimp-like crustaceans. Another place you will see the American Avocet is in the salt ponds around the Bay Area.

From Westend the tracks run straight for five miles and begin the nearly 1700 foot climb from Trona to Searles. We pick up speed and stretch out. At mp 20 we stop to view a unique rock formation called the Pinnacles. A remake of "Planet of the Apes" is wrapping up filming and dismantling sets from the angular rocks. We have just missed seeing the crashed "spaceship" among the rocks. Daniel Brookman took these photos in early March. The day is getting warmer as we leave the Pinnacles. The great condition of the Trona Railway makes for a smooth ride. We again pick up speed and stretch out on the uphill grade. The desert floor has a slight green tint as the vegetation makes the most of recent rains. Just past Navy Siding at mp 14.8 the line enters long gentle curves that continue all the way to Garden City. At mp 2 we turn on a dirt road crossing and run backwards a mile and a half to the water tank where we stop for lunch.

Garden City.  Photo by Richard Pope At Garden City mp 0.5 are a water tank and a long siding with empty hopper cars. Trona Train Master Mike Paradise joins us in the shade of the water tank. He and Mark provide interesting details about their operations. The water tank is destined for removal to a railroad museum in Barstow as soon as permits from the BLM are approved. Next to the tank in the late 30's was a small community that included a boarding house (for 30 single railroad men) and the home of Foreman Jose Orozco and his wife Sofia. Sofia had a garden and raised 200 chickens each year for the family table. Later she ran the boarding house. The family included the seven children that came to Garden City plus the six who were born later in the Trona hospital. By 1965 when Jose was killed in a car accident, only Sofia's home was left here and that burned the following year. In an oral history dictated in 1985, Sofia says the desert was good for bringing up her family and she was so glad to raise them here. Today nothing remains of the Garden City she knew.

Cab tour of # 3001 Returning to Trona at 2PM we tour the shops! Engines occupy all of the four bays. We climb up the ladder of number 3001 and tour the cab. Next to 3001 on the shop floor are a traction motor and some fans under repair. Each aisle has a little pile of dirt and debris swept up by the workers just before they left on Friday.

Following the shop tour, 15 cars switch out for an early set-off and the remaining 11 cars start out for a second run. As we run past Westend the early set-off crowd is visible on the highway with their tow vehicles going home. The hottest part of the day is past. Eleven operators settle back in their seats for an afternoon ride.

Road crossing at Navy Siding Our agreement with TRwy calls for us to be off the property at 5PM. By 3:15PM when we again approach the Pinnacles a little calculation reveals that there is only enough left time to go as far as Navy Siding and turn there. To go farther would mean possibly over staying our welcome. At the China Lake Naval Weapons Center access road the cars are turned and start down hill to Trona one by one. With the second run our total mileage today is 89.6.


Motorcars spaced out 15 seconds apart Returning to Trona on the second run


All cars are clear of the track and off the property by 4:45PM. Thank you MOW operators for making this another safe event and thank you everyone at the Trona Railroad for your hospitality!

Note: The Trona Railway was the third and final event on the 2001 Southwest Tour. The tour is held in March each year as a cooperative effort of all three western clubs. Money is raised at each run to purchase Jake Jacobson safety award pins that are distributed to shortlines with the best safety records. MOW raised $260 for pins at Trona.

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Navy Siding mp 14.8 Happy meet coordinator Wayne Parsons.  Photo by Rita Jo Pope