The Saline Valley Salt Tram is one of the eight wonders of the world. Oh wait, that isn’t right…however if there was an eight wonders of the Mojave Desert it would surely qualify. Mainly because trying to wrap your head around the project’s construction, will cause you to repeatedly ask yourself , “I wonder how they did that.”
Borax mining began in Saline Valley in the late 1800’s by two gentlemen, Conn and Trudo. At the time the only way to get the borax out of the valley was to haul it out by wagon, via Wacoba Canyon Road. One of the wagon driver teamsters by the name of White Smith noted the large amount of salt on the dry lake bed, and began to take loads of it into Big Pine, where he would sell the salt for $20 per ton. This was pricey back in those day, but people paid, the salt that he was hauling out of Saline Valley was high quality, and in demand. After a couple of years of hauling salt, Smith abandoned the project citing expenses and difficulty with transportation.
The salt pans would go several years before any renewed mining activity would take place. In 1902, White Smith returned, along with over 70 other people; they would place claims on 1,480 acres of salt deposits. It wasn’t long before the race was on for white gold, aka: table salt.
In 1903 the Saline Valley Salt company incorporated in Arizona. They company mined the salt pan in both 1903 and 1904, but halted production in 1905 due to the death of their president. Two years later, White Smith would reappear on the scene, as the president of the company. Smith and company kept production at a stand still while trying to solve the expensive transportation costs. The stand still lasted for several years, while many options were explored; including a railroad over South Pass, a pipeline over the Inyo Mountains, and finally an aerial tramway leading directly from the salt pan, over the Inyo Mountain, and into the shipping center of Swansea.
As you likely figured at this point, the aerial tramway won, and construction began in September of 1911. It was estimated that the tram would reduce the transportation costs from $20 per ton to $4 per ton, making it much more affordable to mine in one of the west’s most remote locations.
The route that the tramway was to follow was brutal. Thirteen and a half long miles, starting at the Saline Valley Salt Pan at an elevation of 1,058 feet, traveling up rugged Daisy Canyon to 8,720 feet, and finally down to Swansea at 3,620 feet.
Construction began in Swansea first, it made the most sense since supplies had arrived via the Southern Pacific railroad. A road that was left over from the Cerro Gordo days, was reconstructed to allow for easier movement of construction supplies. Today this same road is utilized by desert travelers, and is known as the “Swansea Grade.”
Daisy Canyon proved to be the biggest challenge in the construction. This is a rugged canyon, with high and jagged cliffs. Before any construction began, a trail had to be built from the Saline Valley floor up the crest of the Inyos at 8,720 feet. The trail would be known as the “Zigzag Trail,” and was completed in 1912.
It wasn’t until July 2nd of 1913 that the first bucket of salt would make its way out of Saline Valley via the tram, but when it did, it was celebrated greatly.
The tram received its power from six Westinghouse electric motors, one was situated at each of the control stations. The tramway was able to move 20 tons of salt per hour, by utilizing 286 buckets along 27 miles of tramway cable.
The tram not only delivered salt, but it also delivered people. Many of the workers would ride the tram to and from work.
In 1913, in excess of 5,000 tons of salt was moved across the Inyos. 9 to 15 narrow gauge rail cars of processed salt was being sent to market by the middle of first quarter, 1914. This clearly wasn’t enough based on the construction costs that Saline Valley Salt Company had incurred, building the tram.
Financial difficulties forced them to lease their operation to the Owens Valley Salt Company in 1915. The deal was a 50/50 split of profits , and the product name was to be changed to “White Mountain Salt.”
Owens Valley Salt Company would operate for three years, before abandoning their lease in 1918. The tramway came to a grinding halt, just five years after construction was completed.
It wasn’t until 1929, when George Russell purchased the tramway from U.S. Steel that it would again operate. Russell had begun mining the Saline salt pan in 1920 under Taylor Milling Company, which would later go on to be the Sierra Salt Company.
Like the others before him, financial problems would arise, and the tramway would cease operation one final time in 1935.
Today there is plenty of evidence of the tramway, and the salt workings that can be seen and visited. It is all a matter of knowing where to look, and spending the time to get to them. The most interesting is the tram operators cabin and crossover station on the summit of the Inyo Mountains. Both of these structures have had extensive restoration projects take place on them. You can access these historic structures via the previously mentioned Swansea Grade, either from Swansea or the ghost town of Cerro Gordo.
From Saline Valley, visiting the salt workings is as simple as driving down a standard dirt road. To get a peek at the Daisy Canyon ruins, follow the road directly across from the salt working to the Big Silver Mine (marked on most maps). You may choose to hike Daisy Canyon for a closer look, but you will most likely wish not to upon viewing it first hand.