Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Salt Tramway

The first time I saw these three wooden towers – between Saline Valley Road and Salt Lake, at the south end of Saline Valley – I was confused. They're obviously made to support a lot of weight, far more than would be needed for phone or electric lines. Looking the other direction, I saw a couple more towers on the mountainside, and something that might have been the entrance to an old mine.  Oh, of course, I thought, the towers were part of a tramway to bring ore down from the mine. But that didn't quite make sense – why would the tramway extend all the way to the lake?

The real explanation was something I couldn't even imagine. The towers did hold cables for a tramway, but it wasn't for bringing ore down the mountain – it was a system for delivering salt from the evaporation ponds at the edge of the lake. Built in 1912 to 1913, it was the steepest tramway in the United States, climbing to the 8,740 foot crest of the Inyo Mountains and down the other side to a railroad terminal near Owens Lake, a distance of 13.5 miles. For a while, in 1914 or 1915, it also was used to transport copper ore from the nearby Blue Jay Mine. But salt was the main attraction in Saline Valley, and the tramway was (and still is) known simply as the Salt Tramway.

Construction of the Salt Tramway was one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted in the Death Valley area. Parts of the route are so steep that a temporary tramway had to be built to deliver lumber, food, water, and other supplies needed for construction. (Don't ask me how they delivered the supplies to build the temporary tramway.) The tramway's 286 buckets, moving at a speed of about one per minute, delivered their first load of salt in July 1913, but there were still a lot of mechanical problems to be worked out. Two years of tinkering were needed before it could operate at full capacity.

And, like a lot of ambitious projects of the time, it never made a profit. In 1920 the whole system was repossessed by the company that had financed it, and the salt ponds were abandoned. 

In 1928 the Salt Tramway started up again, and was used for five more years – until falling prices during the Great Depression made it unprofitable once again. It shut down for the last time in 1933. Some of the cables and equipment were salvaged for use in other mining operations, but most of the towers, control stations, and other structures are still there.


  1. Have you been to the top of Inyon Mt? The tram station is being restored.


  2. I've been through the Cerro Gordo area, but have never been to the summit tramway station. I do hope to get there one of these days. That's great news that it's being restored!