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
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