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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