The Carson & Colorado Railroad, the first railroad line to serve Inyo County, was constructed with profits from the famed Virginia & Truckee Railroad and was built to serve the mining centers south of Nevada’s famed Comstock Lode and mines, one of the most prolific and profitable mining districts in the West. The construction of the Carson & Colorado narrow gauge line commenced at Mound House, Nevada, a station on the Virginia & Truckee east of Carson City, on March 31, 1880. By February 28, 1882, the line was completed from Mound House through Dayton, Hawthorn, and Bellville to Candelaria, Nevada; and in March 1882, construction crews began laying track from Candelaria to Montgomery Pass, 7,138 feet above sea level at the north end of the White Mountains. From the summit, the line descended through several deep cuts, filled areas, and tight curves before it approached a 247-foot long, hand-hewn tunnel. On January 20, 1883, the line was completed to Benton Station, California, and in April train service was initiated to Laws Station, located several miles east of Bishop Creek. Although officials from the Carson & Colorado had met with prominent citizens of Owens Valley prior to the railroad crossing the California-Nevada state line, and had received an offer of 40 acres and a right-of-way for a depot at Bishop Creek, they decided the east side of the valley was more suitable for construction. This route also brought the track closer to mines in the Inyo Range such as Cerro Gordo. Track was laid south from Laws along on the east side of the Owens River, reaching Hawley (later Keeler) on the eastern shore of Owens Lake in August 1883.
By the time the railroad reached Keeler the Inyo County silver boom had ended, and the Carson & Colorado line was never extended to the Colorado River as originally planned. Nonetheless, the railroad brought an end to the isolation of the Eastern Sierra by providing a link to transcontinental rail lines, despite bypassing major towns and agricultural areas in Owens Valley. Prior to completion of the Carson & Colorado, goods had been freighted to and from the Eastern Sierra and points south by Remi Nadeau’s 20-mule team wagons, but now goods were moved north by rail. Local teamsters were still busy, however, hauling goods to and from the west side of Owens Valley and to the railroad sidings and stations east of the Owens River.
In March 1900, the Southern Pacific purchased the Carson & Colorado. In April 1905, the Nevada & California Railway was organized for the purpose of standard gauging the rails between Mound House and Mina in order to bring a direct rail connection to the boomtown of Tonopah over the Southern Pacific and Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad. Mina became the new northern terminus of the narrow gauge line from Keeler. The Nevada & California lettering on the narrow gauge rolling stock was replaced by S&P in March 1912.
In February 1908, the Southern Pacific began construction of a standard gauge line from Mojave to the Owens Valley to meet the freighting needs of the City of Los Angeles during construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The line was completed to Owenyo, a depot on the narrow gauge line northeast of Lone Pine, in October 1910, and on October 18 a crowd gathered to watch the driving of the last spike during a ceremony sponsored by the Inyo Good Road Club and the citizens of Lone Pine. Owenyo served as the transfer point for cargo between standard gauge railcars on the “Owenyo Branch” and the Southern Pacific narrow gauge railroad.
As highways improved in the 1930s, sections of the narrow gauge line through the Eastern Sierra were abandoned. By 1939, the 71.33-mile segment of narrow gauge track between Laws and Keeler was all that remained of the “Slim Princess” line in Owens Valley. Steam locomotives continued to operate on the “Keeler Branch” until 1954, when they were replaced by a new General Electric 450 HP diesel engine. However, this only prolonged the life of the railroad for a few more years. In 1959, Southern Pacific petitioned to abandon the Slim Princess, and despite protests as well as offers to purchase the line as a tourist attraction, the petition was granted. Diesel engine No. 1 made the last trip between Laws and Keeler on April 29, 1960, and by January 1961 the scar of the railroad grade was the only vestige of the Slim Princess that remained. The standard gauge Owenyo Branch was cut back to Lone Pine in April 1960, and in March 1982 the 88.4-mile section of track between Lone Pine and Searles was abandoned.
Other railroads that operated in the Eastern Sierra region were constructed to haul timber and mineral commodities. The Benton & Bodie Railway was constructed to haul logs to Mono Mills and lumber to Bodie, but it never reached Benton or made a connection to other rail lines. At least one locomotive on this narrow gauge line was later pressed into service hauling soda ash on Owens Lake. The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, which never reached Tonopah or tidewater at San Diego as originally planned, was constructed by Francis M. “Borax” Smith to haul ore from the mines around Tonopah, but ended up hauling borax mined in Death Valley instead. The Death Valley narrow gauge railroad and the Ryan “baby gauge” railroad were also constructed to haul borax, and like the Tonopah & Tidewater, ended their lives transporting tourists visiting Death Valley National Monument.