history of the Trona Railway begins in 1913 when the town of Trona was
established by the American Trona Corporation along the northwest shore
of the Searles Lake. The town was wholly owned by the company to
provide a base for its operations of harvesting various mineral deposits
along the dry lake bed, such as borax, potash, lime, and soda ash among
others. The isolated town was literally created in the middle of
nowhere but still drew in a large workforce, despite the fact that employees were paid with company scrip and not cash
(scrip was almost a slave-like type of payment as workers could only use it
at company-run businesses). Soon after the establishment of Trona the
company incorporated the Trona Railway on March 12, 1913 to move the
large amounts of minerals being mined and construction began on the new
line later that year on September 22, 1913.
The 30.5-mile route from Trona to Searles was completed by March of 1914, which also connected the small hamlets of Westend, Pinnacle, and Spangler. At Searles (a town south of the lake) the railroad established an interchange with the Southern Pacific, which operated a branch from Mojave Junction to Lone Pine near the Sequoia National Park. Operations on the Trona Railroad, though, did not actually begin until September 6, 1914. Initially, primary freight traffic included potash as World War I hit the nation just a few years after the line opened. The mineral is an important element in the creation of gunpowder and at the time Searles Lake was the only reliable source available anywhere in the United States. However, other minerals like those mentioned above also came into demand since they are used in the drilling industry.
Interestingly, with the boom of traffic experienced during World War I
the American Trona Corporation built a massive 25,000 square foot
industrial building in 1916 at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro to
process the potash being shipped from its mines at Trona. It was only
used for a few years after new advancements in the refinement process
yielded the building obsolete and it was sold to the U.S. Navy in 1920
for $200,000. Today, it is still under military ownership (U.S. Air
Force) and has been listed on the National Register
of Historic Places since 1982. When the Trona Railway first began
operations it primarily used 2-8-0 Consolidations built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works
purchased new in 1914. Soon after it picked up its largest steamer,
ex-Southern Pacific/Los Angeles & Salt Lake 2-8-2 Mikado #3701,
which it numbered 2701.
For railfans, however, interest in the Trona began in the early 1950s when it began to purchase new Baldwin diesel locomotives. The first of these arrived on the property in 1949, two DT-6-6-2000s #50-51. Then, between 1954 and 1986 it picked up three more AS616s listed as #52-54. The #52 was the last new locomotive the railroad ever purchased, which arrived in March of 1954. Its two siblings were bought secondhand from the SP (1960) and Rayonier, Inc. of Hoquiam, Washington (1986). From this point its roster did not change again until the 1990s, as it was apparently quite happy with its Baldwins (while traditionally troublesome to maintain Baldwins are renowned for their ability to pull heavy loads), which certainly did not disappoint railfans!
However, it did retire its two DT-6-6-2000s in 1973, selling them to the Peabody Coal Company (which scrapped them a few years later in 1977). In 1993 the Trona Railway began leasing six SD45-2s from Helm Financial Corporation (HLMX or Helm), #3001-3006, that were ex-Santa Fe units. This came in response to its retirement of its three AS616s which were acquired by Johnston Terminal of Oklahoma. In 2002 Trona again owned its own locomotives when it began purchasing a wide range of secondhand Electro-Motive units; SD40T-2s, SD40-2s, an SD40R, an SD9, and an SW1200 (it also acquired an SD40-2 in 2000). Today, these units still make up its fleet.
In the past 20 years or so the mining
operation at Trona, and the railroad, have come under several different
owners including Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation, North American
Chemical, IMC Global, to today's Searles Valley Minerals Inc.
Union Pacific, SP's successor, has also cut back its branch from
Lone Pine to just above Searles since the shortline is the only
remaining customer on the route. Today, the Trona carries a wide range
of mineral traffic including sulfuric acid, soda ash, potash, salt cake,
borax, coal, general minerals, and even has the U.S Navy as a customer.
It should be noted that for the railroad's first twenty years it
provided passenger train services but due to little demand ended this by
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