© Text & Photos: James Waite
 
The background to this museum is that in 1883 the 3ft gauge Carson & Colorado RR was opened between Mound House, in the outskirts of Carson City in northern Nevada, and Keeler, 300 miles away to the south in eastern California.  It was promoted as a feeder line by the principal shareholders in the Virginia & Truckee RR, a standard gauge shortline built between Carson City and Virginia City which was immensely profitable at the start of the 1880’s as it provided access to a silver mining district though the silver business was slowly drying up.
 
Hopes that the C&C would be equally profitable proved ill-founded and in 1900 the railway was sold to the Southern Pacific – fortuitously for them as gold was soon found at Tonopah, not far from the Nevada/California border and a new line was soon built to connect Tonopah to the C&C.  The SP fell out with the Virginia & Truckee and in 1905 built a new standard gauge connection from Churchill, east of Mound House, to Hazen on the original 1865 transcontinental railway which they owned and so they ceased to need the old connection with the V&T.  The line was converted to standard gauge as far south as Mina, 120 miles or so away from Carson City but the remainder continued as a 3ft gauge line.  The section between Mina and Benton closed to all traffic in 1930 and passenger services were withdrawn over the remainder of the line.  Benton to Laws closed in 1943 but the remaining 70 miles from Laws to Keeler kept going until 1960 by which time this was the only common-carrier 3ft gauge railway left anywhere in the US apart from the Rio Grande and White Pass.  
 
This section ran through the Owens River Valley, once a prosperous farming district until the early 1900’s when the City of Los Angeles gained control of the river and diverted most of the water to the city via a newly-built aqueduct, leaving the valley as a more or less waterless desert.  The SP built a standard gauge branch across the Mojave desert, initially for construction traffic on the aqueduct, which connected the 3ft gauge near Keeler and provided a new outlet to the south.
 
The C&C started out with eight 4-4-0’s and they were the only new engines ever delivered to the line.  There used to be quite a lot of 3ft gauge lines in California and Nevada.  Many of them were eventually taken over by the SP and soon converted to standard gauge, and some of their locos found their way to the old C&C as the only line which they continued to operate on the 3ft gauge.  There was an influx of 4-6-0’s in 1927 when the SP took over the Nevada-California-Oregon line which ran for more than 200 miles north from Reno, also on the 1865 transcontinental line and not far from Carson City.  Four of them moved to the C&C and worked all traffic until after the 1938 closure along with two older 4-6-0’s which had arrived second hand some years earlier.  In the 1940’s three of the 4-6-0’s became surplus to requirements leaving three others, no’s. 8, 9 and 18 to handle the remaining traffic until a diesel arrived in 1954.  No’s 8 (Baldwin 31445/1907) and 18 (Baldwin 37395/1911) were withdrawn and no. 9 (Baldwin 34035/1909) was retained as spare engine.  Curiously it’s only no. 8 which has retained its old Baldwin smokebox numberplate.  No. 9 should do as well as the SP retained the old NCO numbers on both of them, but its plate must have disappeared by the 1950’s at the latest and been replaced by a painted number as photos from then show all three locos with similar plates to those which they carry now.  No. 18 was renumbered by the SP and its original plate was suitably modified.
 
All three 4-6-0’s have survived as has a considerable quantity of freight stock.  On the closure in 1960 the SP presented a large part of the Laws station site to the local community as a museum.  The place has remained almost unchanged since then.  They also gave them along no. 9 and a representative selection of wagons.  No. 8 went to a museum at Carson City and for many years has been on loan to the local council at Sparks, in the eastern outskirts of Reno where the SP used to have workshops.  No. 18 went to Independence, a town close to the old line north of Keeler.  A few years ago the loco was handed over to a preservation society based in the town and it has now been restored to working order.  This weekend saw it move temporarily to Laws to run on the 600 yards or so of track within the old station site, the first movement by any steam loco on the old line since 1960.  It has now returned to its base in Independence but all concerned are talking about running a repeat event in 2019. 
 
All in all I thought this was a very atmospheric place and definitely something of a time-warp.  Laws station isn’t complete as there is a level crossing immediately to the north of the building and this now marks the limit of the museum property.  There were once quite freight facilities beyond the level crossing.  There’s a limit to the amount of photography you can do when there only a station within which to shoot but I thought it was a worthwhile trip all the same.