The discovery of gold in Goler Canyon in 1893 brought large groups of prospectors to the isolated desert area to try their luck. Within two years the Yellow Aster mine was producing at the mining camp of Randsburg nine miles to the southeast, in the Rand Mountains. Water was in short supply at the higher elevation, so the stamp mills were located next to Goler, in the wash along the valley floor, at Garlock. The ore had to be hauled from the mine down the steep grade to the mill by mule team. The nearest railroads were the A & P (the Santa Fe) which was 30 miles to the south, and the Carson Colorado narrow gauge which terminated 75 miles to the north as the crows flies, at the shores of Owens Lake.
As the Rand Mining District expanded to include Johannesburg and Red Mountain the need for a railroad became more important. In May of 1897, J.M. Beckley of Rochester New York, Albert Smith of New York City, and A. A. Daughter of Los Angeles incorporated the Randsburg Railway Company. The engineers recommended that the line start at the A& P junction known as Kramer, south of the Randsburg mining district. There would be 29 miles of route with an elevation gain of 1,150 feet. Construction contracts were awarded to Ramish and Marsh of Los Angeles. The work would begin on October 2, 1897. A train full of laborers came from Los Angeles, and ten carloads of steel rails were shipped to Kramer. In San Bernardino, the Santa Fe workshops went to work reconditioning an engine for hauling supplies.
The railroad was set to be completed by December 5th 1897. Early November, 23 miles of line were graded and 16 miles of track were in operation. A delay in shipments of supplies, and a shortage of ties postponed the opening date. However by the end of November 1897, passengers were riding the construction train over 22.5 miles to St. Elmo. A six mile stage ride completed the journey to Johannesburg from there.
As the railroad route began to actually go over the mining area, surveys showed the track would be laid directly over a prospect shaft belonging to partners Webb and Wrem. Unfortunately no one had informed Webb and Wrem of the route over their claim. Contractors, Ramesh and Marsh did not let this stop their railroad, however. They waited until the darkness of night to lay the track right over the disputed property and directly across the entrance of the shaft. Once Webb and Wrem became aware of the dilemma, they organized a gang to tear up the track. The contractors found out about the plan and met the miners with 12 armed men. Guards were hired to protect the railroad property, and trouble ceased. Christmas of 1897 all but track surfacing and ballasting were done.
Rumors & Speculations
An oil burning locomotive was brought in to replace the little construction locomotive. Newspapers claimed the new locomotive came from the Los Angeles Terminal Railway. Rumors spread that Randsburg Railway would be linked with the Los Angeles Terminal Railway through a route to Salt Lake City. The general manager of Randsburg, Albert Smith, contributed more to rumors by announcing that his railroad was completely independent with only a 25 year traffic agreement with the Santa Fe. Smith declared that the route would ultimately extend 60 miles into Armagosa Valley and tap into the Death Valley region. Others speculated that the builders would continue north to the borax mines at Searles Lake, and on to the Carson and Colorado at Keeler.
A principal stockholder, Daughtery, found himself being sued by a promoter named James Campbell. Campbell claimed he was to receive shares in the stock for services he had rendered in arranging financing and contracts for the Randsburg Railway. Although history does not tell us how this incident was resolved, the full 28 ½ miles of railroad from Kramer to Johannesburg was completed. Difficult grades and other considerations prevented the line from reaching around the hill to Randsburg. Regular trains did begin operating to Johannesburg, however, by January 5, 1898. The round trip of the Randsburg Railway did not properly connect with the Santa Fe trains at Kramer the first two weeks. January 17, 1898, two daily round trips were provided, with a train to service Barstow to Los Angeles.
The town of Barstow boomed when Beckley and associates built a 50 stamp mill on a hillside west of town under the name Randsburg-Santa Fe Reduction Company. A two thousand foot spur connected this property with the main Santa Fe line. As the milling operations began in June of 1898, ore was to be routed by the railroad directly to the ore bins of the new mill. This lasted only until February of 1899 when the 130 stamp Yellow Aster Mill opened not far from the mine at Randsburg.
Marcia Rittenhouse Wynn tells stories of the early days of the Randsburg Railroad in her book Desert Bonanza, which was published in 1963 by the Arthur H. Clark Company of Glendale. She writes of the pranksters who boarded the passenger train in Johannesburg on Halloween night, without tickets or particular destination in mind. Both conductor and engineer played along, carrying the young crowd a mile or more out on the desert before stopping the train. All concerned had to walk back along the tracks of the railroad; even the ladies with their high heels and holding their skirts up. She also tells of the small pox epidemic of the winter of 1901-02 which hit Randsburg at Christmas time. Rather than face quarantine, some patients with light cases tried to head for Los Angeles or elsewhere on the train. A notice was posted by town Doctor MacDonald that no one could leave town by railroad or stage without a signed health certificate. Each evening the doctor had to drive by horse to Johannesburg, board the train and walk down the aisle of the single coach checking for any signs of the small pox. Ladies tried to cover their faces with veils to avoid detection, but this only caused the doctor to pay even closer attention to anyone wearing any type of face covering. Persons with even the slightest indication of the smallpox were taken back to Randsburg by a light delivery wagon known as the Black Maria, and placed under quarantine after all.
On May 1, 1903, the Randsburg Railway was acquired by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe as part of their Arizona Division. Ore, supplies, and passengers continued over the rails until the economic depression of December 30, 1933 finally halted the train. By 1934 the tracks were removed. Randsburg Railways investments in road and equipment during the Santa Fe take over was close to $850,000. The little railroad didn't have to worry about operating in the red, yet its net operating profits under original company ownership were proved inadequate income for the investment.
Written by Cecile Page Vargo
Railroads of Nevada and Eastern California
Volume II: The Southern Roads
by David F. Myrick
University of Nevada Press
The Story of Early Randsburg
Mojave Desert Mining Camp
by Marcia Rittenhouse Wynn
The Arthur H. Clark Company