By Vern Hee
All aboard! Now arriving, the Tonopah Tidewater Railroad Museum coming to Death Valley Junction. The ribbon cutting ceremony for the new museum was Oct. 15.
The museum is the brainchild of two ardent railroad and history buffs, John and Dorothy Slicker. John is the museum’s president and Dorothy is one of the lead artists. Together, they have dedicated the last three years of their lives to the museum honoring the line built to replace the 20-Mule Teams carrying borax in Death Valley.
Railroad construction began in 1903 and it was completed in 1907. It covered only 168 miles and touted 10 steam engines.
Like the Pony Express, which also had a short life, the railroad ran to 1939 before it was abandoned.
In Beatty, it connected to the Bullfrog Goldfield line, and although the railroad has Tonopah in its name, the tracks never actually made it to Tonopah.
Reconstruction of the museum’s railroad model will take another year before it is 90 percent complete. The model will take up most of the museum space and will be a representation on how the railroad looked in its day from Ludlow, Calif., to Rhyolite and Goldfield over 100 years ago.
“During World War II all the rails were pulled up for the war effort,” said John.
Tim Hafen, a founding father of Pahrump, said he used a lot of the ties for fence posts back in the early 60’s. “We used to drive out to Amargosa Valley in flatbed trucks and haul away all the ties. They would last for a good 20 years,” said Hafen.
Parts of the railway are in other places as well. The Pahrump Valley Museum has two houses made from railroad ties, the Bowman house and the Raycroft house.
The Slickers have been collecting trains since the early 70’s and brought their passion to Pahrump in 2000. The two are retired farmers from Bakersfield, Calif., now working to get the Tonopah Tidewater Railroad Museum up and running.
“I share my love of railroads and got my husband started in the hobby by buying him his first engine. It was way back in the 70’s. It was an old steam engine made out of brass. Then he went and had it painted original,” said Dorothy.
John said they both got the museum idea while talking to Rich Regnell, manager of Death Valley Junction. The Tonopah Tidewater, better known as the T&T line had its headquarters right at Death Valley Junction.
The Slickers were talking about doing a layout of the train and discussing the history of the T&T with Regnell, who mentioned he had an extra room to spare. “He gave us a great deal. Five years rent free, but we had to spend money to fix up the room. The room is why we got into this.
“It was actually the headquarters of the Tonopah Tidewater Railroad,” said an exuberant Dorothy Slicker.
John and Dorothy have been working on this project with around 15 supporters of the museum. They have spent close to $10,000 in donations and will be very close to finishing the model train within a year.
Steve Harter from Lowes in Henderson not only helped with the interior of the building but got the Lowes in Henderson to contribute a good portion of that $10,000. John said, “He gives us a discount on construction materials and he donates his time. If it were not for him, this project would not be.”
Another supporter of the project was Jim Marsh, owner of the Longstreet Casino in Amargosa, who donated a $1,000 to the cause.
John said in addition to the money and materials, they have been blessed with the numerous talents of local train aficionados and artists of various kinds.
John is a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. He personally has done some of the modeling, has worked on the interior of the building, made the tables for the models and laid the track. Dorothy has painted all the back drops.
Marshall Boisvert, another modeler stepped up as well.
“I made the two models of the Amargosa Opera House and Death Valley Junction. I drew it out on paper and then cut it out.”
He said he made the model as accurate as possible down to the windows and double doors. Death Valley Junction was not a kit but was totally fabricated by Boisvert.
The gauge of the railroad for the museum project will be HO scale which is 1:87 and the work will intensify now that the Chamber of Commerce has cut the ribbon.
“We have done about three days a week for a year on this project,” said Dorothy. She said one room will be dedicated to a gift shop and the other will be dedicated to the model of the train.
Any remnants of the railroad is only in museums. Even in the most remote parts the desert the track is gone. The Pahrump Valley Museum provided the Slickers with some historical information and have an exhibit with pictures and artifacts from the actual railroad.
John said there is a caboose in the Carson City Railroad Museum from the original railroad. Only pictures of the engines survived, but parts weren’t wasted.
The construction of the Hoover Dam used steam engines from the railroad. The only locomotive that survived is at Death Valley.
Ethel Messer, who works at the Shoshone Museum, said that museum has a T&T exhibit. She said her father used to work on the railroad and she consulted with the Slickers on their project.
The Shoshone Museum sits on actual train track property. The tracks ran behind the museum and the current café. Messer said if you are driving into Shoshone from Pahrump, the tracks used to cross Highway 178 and you can “see it just before getting into town.”
Amina Anderson of the Beatty Museum said they have a small display of artifacts from the Tonopah Tidewater, too. The display is made up of photos, a mail bag used on the train and a switch.
“As we got interested in the T&T it just got more interesting and more involved all the time. It is like cancer it keeps growing on you and you want to preserve it,” said John.