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Backcountry Explorers Old Timer Tales
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In 1891 Francis Marion Smith consolidated his mining interests into the Pacific Coast Borax Company and focused on his borax deposits just east of Calico as his primary development. Here the town of Borate was established and grew to the largest borax mine in the world producing 22,000 tons of borate.
To haul the borax to the railhead town of Daggett California, Smith used twenty-mule teams, however, transport with mules, men, and wagons was quite costly. In 1894 Smith devised a plan to replace the mules with a Best Steam Traction Tractor that the miners named “Old Dinah”. Old Dinah required constant maintenance and had major problems with deep sand and on steep grades, she slipped backward faster than she could go forward. After a one year trial, the more reliable mules were brought back into service, but they too were replaced later by a narrow gauge Borate to Daggett railroad in 1898.
Old Dinah had a second chance at life in Death Valley. In 1904 to avoid building an expensive railroad the borax company graded a 98-mile tractor road from the Death Valley mines to the railhead. On her maiden run, Dinah had a mechanical failure and had to be towed out with a mule team. Dinah was once again sidelined again.
Meanwhile, the Keane Wonder Mine on the east side of Death Valley was making several gold strikes ensuring it’s rapid growth. The demands for supplying the men and mill machinery began to exceed the hauling capacity of the Porter brothers who held the transport contract. Summertime temperatures put an extra strain on the horses. A new entrepreneur, J.L. Lane purchased Old Dinah from the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad and had it brought to Rhyolite Nevada. Lane believed he could run one trip a week between Rhyolite and The Keane Wonder Mine hauling upwards of fifty tons of supplies and equipment per trip.
Lane completed his first test run on July 31st of that year with 12 tons of cargo impressing the Keane Wonder Mine Company to the point of signing a two-year contract with Lane. After several more successful runs in mid-September, the mining company ordered an oil storage tank on site to fuel the hungry steam tractor that burned fifty gallons under load in one trip to the mine. In late October Lane ran four wagons hauling 20 tons of freight the 26 miles in 7 hours. Planning two trips per week Lane began to form the Keane Wonder Traction Company to sell shares and expand the business.
On November 13th, Mr. Lane’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when the boiler on Old Dinah burst while climbing over Daylight Pass. Lane pointed to the cause of failure being the age of equipment and the poor quality of water he had to use. With his financial resources diminished Lane’s traction engine was not used again. Old Dinah sat abandoned on Daylight Pass for many years until in 1932 when a Harry Gower and the Pacific Coast Borax Company hauled it to Furnace Creek Ranch where to this day she is a tourist attraction.
Old Dinah’s Key Statistics:
- Manufactured by Best Mfg. Co. of San Leandro, California
- Built for farming, logging, mining, and long distance hauling
- Top speed of 3-4 miles per hour.
- 110 horsepower steam engine burning crude oil.
- 28 feet long, 9 feet 7 inches wide, 17 feet 4 inches to top of the smokestack
- Weighed more than 18 tons
- 940-gallon water tank, consuming 340 gallons per hour
- Three wheel tricycle design with the front wheel being 5 feet in diameter
- Rear wheels were 8 feet in diameter and 26 inches wide
-Steered by a chain and pulley system
- Three man crew, engineer, brakeman and stoker
- Vertical boiler easier on uneven terrain with a boiler pressure of 160 psi.
- Piston-type or spool steam admission valve alternating high pressure and exhaust
- An engine capable of both forward and reverse
- Purchases price est. at $6,000-$7,000
The express lines were the communication lifeline to the outside during the early gold rush days. People in those early days depended on the express for all their mail needs since post offices would not be established for several years. Those who came to the gold country in 1850 left behind all thought of receiving any letters, except for the occasional letter brought from the last outpost by a friend who came later or once in a while from the occasional pack mule train.
The method of carrying express in the early 1850’s was by mounted messengers on a mule. There were no roads only trails through the mountains. At first, they made one or two trips per month; but as competition sprang up between rival companies speed became a great consideration, and the messengers made every effort to complete their delivery as quickly as possible. Letters, newspapers, small parcels, and gold-dust were carried by the express men.
S.W. Langton started his express from Marysville to Downieville, California in 1850. His business grew to the other camps in the area until he had a near monopoly. Letters for this region were sent to the Marysville post-office, and the messenger, armed with a list of patrons, was permitted to go the post-office and from there carry the mail over the trails for delivery. Langton had a list of thousands of miners with their locations and he charged one dollar for each letter delivered and newspapers were taken up for fifty cents. Letters were taken down to be mailed for half-price. The letters the messenger received from his patrons in the mountains he paid the postmaster in town twenty-five cents each to mail on to their final destination.
The expressmen had a hard time of it in the winter and many times were compelled to leave their mules and fight their way on foot through the snow. Snowshoes were unknown at the time, and the luckless messenger had to wade through the deep snow as best he could. Later on, the snow-shoe was introduced, and with these, and his backpack of letters, the expressman made it over the snow when it was too deep for mules.
The Langton & Co. Pioneer Express was replaced by the Wells, Fargo & Co. Express in 1866
During the winter months of January, February, and March, one of the unique methods used by the stage lines in the Sierras was to place snowshoes on their horses. This practice started in 1865 as a way for the stage to travel the deep winter snows that covered the early California trails from Marysville to Downieville without the need to wait for spring. These early horse snowshoes were invented by a Sam Wollever Who is buried at Cherokee Flat in Butte County.
As described in a New York Times article dated January 12th, 1874, the snowshoes were made of malleable iron squares, nine by nine inches with rubber riveted to the bottom of the plate to prevent snow build up. On the other side of the plate a commonly sized horseshoe with a sharp heel and toe with the corks set through holes in the center of the plate with rivets or screws. The snowshoe is fastened to the horse by a clasp with swivel screw holding the riveted horseshoe tightly under the hoof of the horse. The shoes were custom fit for each sized hoof and a team of four horses would take a man two hours to put the shoes on. Earlier shoes were also made of square wooden plates as shown in the middle photo above but were later abandoned due to the snow build up on the wood.
It was said that when the plates were first attached some horses cut themselves but soon learned to spread their feet so as not to interfere. Some would become good snow horses at once while others were incapable of learning how to navigate with the plates. The very first photo above is a picture of a snow-shoe team in action pulling a sled out of Forest City, Ca in the winter with a hotel in the background.
According to the San Fransisco Call of February 1, 1906, Horses on snowshoes were also used to haul mail in and out of Bodie, Ca. Snowshoes were used at least up to 1937 by the last teamster, Pike Solara, serving the snow Tent to Graniteville run in Nevada County, California
The pelton wheel was invented by Lester Allan Pelton (1829-1908) who is thought of as the father of hydroelectric power. Pelton was born in Vermillion Ohio and came to California in 1850. He became a fisherman on the Sacramento River for three years but then turned to the gold mines of Camptonville, Nevada City, and Grass Valley. In 1864 he became a carpenter and a millwright.
During this same time period the gold mines in the area needed high amounts of power to drive the mills that crushed the gold ore and to run the drills and to pump air into the mines. The top fed paddle water wheels typically used in flour mills were too slow and very inefficient for this purpose and a much more powerful design was needed. To increase efficiency the paddles were replaced with turbines or buckets affixed around the outside of a wheel with a nozzle used as a water jet forced into the buckets from the bottom to increase the efficiency and power output. Even so, the water splashed backward from each bucket onto the next bucket cutting down on efficiency.
Pelton had a passion for developing an even more efficient water wheel and designed some thirty plus different wheels. His final design came about quite by accident. There are two stories surrounding this development. In the first, as told by his friend Jim Hutchinson, Pelton was visiting a neighbor and watched the neighbor use a garden hose to chase a stray cow out of his garden. Pelton noticed the water was divided as it struck the cow’s nose splitting into two sprays and deflecting out the sides of the cow’s nostrils. In the second more probable story, Pelton was watching one of his spinning water turbines when the key holding the wheel onto its shaft came loose causing the wheel to become misaligned from the nozzle jet. So instead of the water jet hitting the cup in the center, the slippage caused the water to hit the edge of the cups and it was redirected out the other side of the cups instead of slowing the direct flow of water.
Pelton first tried a staggered bucket design (Figure 12) but finally settled on a split double cup design (Figure 13) which gave Pelton the most efficient wheel. His new design was first used at the Mayflower Mine in Nevada City, California in 1878. Pelton later went on to patent his turbine design in 1880.
He met with little sales success until 1883 when the Idaho Mining Company of Grass Valley arranged a competition of four different water wheel design companies to help them decide which one to purchase. Pelton’s turbine wheel won with a 90.2% efficiency compared to the next closest company’s wheel at only 76.5%. This success drove his sales to the point that in 1888 Pelton started the Pelton Water Wheel Company in San Francisco.
In 1887 a miner attached Pelton's wheel to a dynamo and produced the first hydroelectric power in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On August 27, 1889 the invention was officially patented. By 1893 the Age of Hydroelectric power was in full swing. It has proven to be one of the most efficient inventions in mining and in the production of hydroelectric power in our world.
The biggest Pelton wheel ever built was thirty feet across built by Cobb and Hesselmeyer of San Francisco. Its speed was 65 rpm @ 350 psi and a single water jet of 1 3/4 inches producing over 1000 horsepower.
Demonstration of working pelton Wheel
The Hallidie Ropeway consists of a single endless moving wire rope or cable passing around horizontal grip pulleys at each end of the tramway and is supported at intervals by towers using vertical pulleys or sheaves. To this endless ropeway aerial ore cars are secured and as the rope travels it moves the cars and their ore with it. The weight of the loaded ore cars and gravity move the ropeway down hill were the cars are emptied of their ore at the bottom. The empty cars are moved back up hill on the ropeway by the heavier ore filled cars going down hill. In this way there is no need for any type of propulsion or than gravity.
The Hallidie Tramway was invented by Andrew Smith Hallidie. Hallidie was born in London in 1836. His father, also Andrew Smith, was a black smith and inventor in Scotland and held several patents for making metal wire ropes from 1835 thru1849. The younger Smith later adopted the surname Hallidie in honor of his Uncle and Godfather, Sir Andrew Hallidie.
Both father and son came to California to work the gold mines. After no luck prospecting, Hallidie’s father returned home while Hallidie stayed and became a blacksmith. He noticed that the manila hemp rope being used to haul heavy ore buckets up from the mines wore out quickly do to weather and wear. He developed woven iron rope or cable that weighed less than hemp, didn’t absorb water, and were much stronger and lasted years instead of months. It was Hallidies wire rope that was the basis for his aerial ore cars that he later developed around 1867. Hundreds of Hallidie bridges and tramways were built around the world for the next thirty years.
In 1871 Hallidie completed plans to move street cars on rails propelled by underground cables. Hallidie had watched a horse drawn trolley and felt sorry for the horses struggling up the wet cobble stoned hill as they slipped and were dragged to their death. On August 1, 1873 a top Knob hill, Hallidie along with friends and associates, jumped on board San Fransico’s first cable car and rode down Clay Street from Jones Street to Kearny Street. Hallidie’s cable car invention was a success and repeated in several other cities. Hallidie became a wealthy and prominent citizen of San Fransisco until his death in 1900.