Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 26, 2018

Preserved: Railroad Depot and Steam Train; Laws, California

Railroad fans must wonder how I’ve managed to write two articles about a place named the Laws Railroad Museum without a scrap of information or a single photograph of anything railroad-related. I’ll correct that now.

Laws RR Brad Nixon 1520 680

That’s a narrow gauge* train headed by Baldwin 4-6-0 steam locomotive number 9, built in 1909, works number 34035. There. Train stuff. It’s on display at the museum in Laws, California along with a welter of other railroad-, mining-, farming- and lifestyle-related artifacts, buildings and machinery.

Why Laws?

Today, Laws exists only as a museum. There is no “living” town. It faded during the middle part of the 20th century.

In 1880, mining for gold, silver and minerals was booming on the western slope of California’s White Mountains along the eastern side of the Owens Valley. The Carson & Colorado Railroad built a narrow gauge line to serve the area, which looks like this.

White Mountains Brad Nixon 680

Running south from Carson City, Nevada, it reached Keeler, California, northeast of Death Valley, a distance of about 250 miles. Along the way, it prospered the farms and settlements of the valley, not just the mines. Carson City’s at the top center, Keeler near bottom right, next to the former (now dry) Owens Lake. Laws is marked with the red flag.

Carson to Keeler map Google

The line and its trains even acquired a nickname: the Slim Princess.

The railway established a depot at Laws, California, about 180 miles south of Mound House, and a lively village quickly sprung up around it. The large depot building and its loading dock, built in 1883, still stand, and house a portion of the museum.

Laws Depot Brad Nixon 1519 680

Both the waiting room and the station office are equipped with period artifacts. Click on either photo to enlarge.

There are six pieces of rolling stock in the train after the locomotive and its tender, all of wood construction. Here are the first five, in order from front to back. Click on any photo to enlarge.

I don’t have details on the dates or provenance of those cars, and can’t attest that they all rolled on the C&C line, but some of them certainly did. If you know more, please provide details in a comment, and I’ll add them. They all have Southern Pacific numbers, in order of their appearance in the train: boxcar 7, boxcar 132, gondola 339, cattle car 166 and boxcar 17.

The caboose at the end started life as a combination passenger/baggage car for the San Joaquin & Sierra Railroad in 1883. It was later converted to a caboose.

Old RR Brad Nixon 1586 680

Visitors can climb into the caboose to get a look at the bare comforts it afforded the train crew.

Caboose interior Brad Nixon 4027 680

The original 1883 wooden water tank and a later diesel fuel tank are still in place, as well.

Water tanks Brad Nixon 1549 680

Southern Pacific acquired the line in 1900, and operated it under a variety of names until it ceased operation in 1960.

Locomotive 9 was the last steam-powered engine working on the line when it was taken out of service in 1959.

Laws RR Brad Nixon 1521 680

Visitors can climb into the cab. If you’re taller than about 5′ 8″, DUCK! The cast-iron overhead HURTS. I speak from experience. Click on photos below to enlarge.

Visiting the Laws Railroad Museum

The Laws Railroad Museum is 4.5 miles north of Bishop, California, about 300 miles north of Los Angeles via U.S. Route 395 through the Eastern Sierra. At the north end of Bishop, where 395 bends left, bear right onto U.S. Route 6 toward Tonopah. A sign directs you to the easy-to-find 11-acre museum site on Silver Canyon Road

There’s plenty of parking. As I wrote in a previous post, the museum is extensive, with buildings and exhibits devoted to all aspects of life in the former railroad depot village and the surrounding area.

Click the museum link above for current hours of operation, suggested visitor donation amount, etc.

I’m not a dedicated railroad buff, but I enjoy seeing the old gear, and the Laws Museum is well worth a visit.

*Addendum: What’s “Narrow Gauge?” 

It occurs to me that I’ve written about several narrow gauge railroads, including the Durango and Silverton in Colorado and Cumbres and Toltec in New Mexico. But I’ve never explained what “narrow gauge” is.

Most commercial railroad tracks around the world are “standard gauge.” That means the parallel steel rails are 56-1/2 inches (1435 mm) apart. (A never-proved legend links that distance to the span of Roman chariot wheels, which were one legionnaire’s “pace,” which turns out to have been 1435 mm. A thousand —  milia — paces were … one mile. I hope it’s true.)

Innumerable small, specialized or proprietary rail lines serving local routes, mines, factories and hard-to-reach areas were often narrower. A narrower “road” requires less construction, excavation and material, and can negotiate turns in a shorter radius. Narrow gauge lines were particularly well-suited to the tortuous, winding routes required to reach remote mountain areas for mining.

The Carson and Colorado line is 36 inches (914.4 mm) wide. It will already have occurred to you that a railroad car from a different line could only be transferred to a line of similar gauge. The caboose above is an example, having spent the 80 years of its lifespan on a number of different lines. It’s possible to refit a carriage with new rolling gear, but expensive. There was no “standard” narrow gauge, but 36 inches was a commonly-used span.

Two Other Laws Museum Blog Posts:

Laws Railroad Museum Overview

Replicas of 1880s 20 Mule Team Borax Wagons

Licensable, high resolution versions of many photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Map © Google, with my emendations.


  1. Interesting railroad pictures. Those water tanks look really interesting, as well as the telegraph desk with the old typewriter and phone.


    • In one way or another, almost everything on the 11 acres was interesting, depending on one’s frame of reference. You know, I grew up writing with typewriters, but they had JUST become a common item in the 1880s. They were an enormous innovation. Seeing one in that context is one tiny glimpse into a world that’s lost. Thanks for commenting.


  2. An odd little fact: I’ve always named my cars, and my current Toyota Corolla is named ‘Princess.’ She’s no slimmer than any other, but she certainly is pampered.

    I’ve always enjoyed trains, and though I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a true railfan, I have done a bit of chasing, and I’ve twice stayed in a renovated railroad bunkhouse about a hundred feet from the tracks in Matfield Green, Kansas. With two trains an hour passing by — or more — it was wonderful.

    I wonder now if any of the tracks leading to and from the central Iowa coal mines where my grandparents lived were narrow gauge. I doubt it, since my recollection is that they connected with the lines passing through surrounding towns that went on to Kansas City and Chicago.

    The Queen Wilhelmina State Park has one of the steam engines from the old railroad Arthur Stilwell built on display, as well as a very narrow gauge railroad that takes visitors on a loop around the park.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, man. Go to Wikipedia and type in “List of Iowa Railroads.” A long list, proving once again that to pursue the Railroad Buff life is a hard road. You may very well be right about your assumption. Easier to build standard gauge lines across that Iowa terrain!


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