Laws Railroad Museum, Bishop, California
Laws was founded when the Carson and Colorado Railroad Company, nicknamed the C&C Railroad, chose a route for its new narrow gauge railroad. The line was to link Mound House, Nevada, and the nearby Carson River with a terminus at the Colorado River, but the railroad never made it that far. Instead, the railroad line ended at Keeler, California. Laws, a few miles from Bishop, was one of many Owens Valley stops between Mound House and Keeler.
Laws was originally given the name of Bishop Creek Station, but the town's name was changed to Laws to honor R. J. Laws, a local railroad official. From 1883 until 1960, the C&C Railroad and, after 1900, the Southern Pacific Railroad operated trains and maintained the narrow gauge track that connected Mound Hill, a railroad transfer site for transporting silver ore from Nevada's silver mines, with towns in the Owens Valley and the railroad junction at Keeler.
The expected silver boom in the Owens Valley turned out to be a silver trickle. The railroad line carried silver, zinc, farming supplies and livestock through the Owens Valley in support of miners, farmers, ranchers and townspeople, but the railroad's fortunes were directly tied to the mines' prosperity, which depended on the price of silver and zinc.
Once mining operations shut down, the railroad's fate was sealed. The Southern Pacific closed Laws' depot in 1959 and people began to abandon the town. By the time the last narrow gauge locomotive made its final run in 1960, Laws was all but gone.
The Slim Princess, Locomotive No. 9
Southern Pacific Locomotive No. 9, the "Slim Princess," is the centerpiece of the Laws Railroad Museum. This locomotive, which was built in 1909, is actually the second to bear this number.
The Slim Princess ran on narrow gauge rails that were just 36 inches apart, pulling an assortment of cars. The Slim Princess and the other locomotives of the Carson & Colorado Railroad were steam-powered, which meant that local residents could earn money cutting and carrying local piñon wood to the railroad. Mule teams hauled the cut wood from the hills and mountains that rim the Owens Valley.
The steam-powered C&C trains and steamships that crossed Owens Lake carried silver ingots to Keeler. Keeler's location on the shore of Owens Lake made it a transportation hub for silver ore and, later, zinc. Owens Lake dried up in the 1920s because its water was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, adding to the economic slowdown in the Owens Valley. When the zinc mines closed, Keeler's economy went into a decline, and so did the profitability of the C&C. Passenger service on the C&C ended in 1932, but freight service on the C&C continued until 1960.
Today, visitors to the Laws Railroad Museum can climb aboard the Slim Princess and sit in one of the passenger cars. On select summer weekend days and holidays, train rides are offered from 10:30 to 2:30, depending on weather conditions. Tickets are $5 per person; children under 13 ride for free when accompanied by a paying adult. The museum puts on special events throughout the year, including a Christmas celebration and Laws Good Old Days, a family-friendly celebration of Laws' pioneer past.
Laws Depot and Loading Dock
Laws Depot and its attached loading dock were built in 1883 in anticipation of the C&C Railroad's arrival. When the town lost its rail service in 1960, many of the buildings in Laws were torn down, but the depot remained. Today this historic building houses model train displays, railroad memorabilia, tools and information about the railroad.
Buildings from all over the Owens Valley have been saved from salvage and brought to Laws. Some of them, such as the Miner's Shack, are set up the way they would have been during Laws' heyday. Others have been repurposed in order to showcase different aspects of life in Laws.
In its heyday, the town of Laws was home to a hotel, post office, pool hall, blacksmith shop, warehouses, general stores and private homes. Ranchers in the Owens Valley also used the railroad to send cattle to market and bring in supplies.
All of this vanished rapidly once the Southern Pacific decided to shut down the railroad. Local buildings that were privately owned were dismantled and the population moved away. Within a year, all that was left of Laws was the railroad agent's house, the railroad turntable, the depot itself, and water and oil tanks. Laws had become a ghost town almost overnight.
In the late 1960s, Laws was dusty and decaying, but the residents of the Owens Valley were determined to save Locomotive Number 9, the "Slim Princess," and preserve Laws. The Bishop Museum and Historical Society now operates the Laws Railroad Museum.
Mining and the Laws Railroad
The mines near Laws produced mainly silver and zinc. The silver mining boom came first, with the discovery of Nevada's Comstock Lode. Prospectors found smaller silver deposits in California, such as the Cerro Gordo mine in the hills east of Keeler. Later, zinc mining became profitable and helped keep the C&C Railroad in business.
The combination of decreasing mining operations and the transportation slowdown that accompanied Owens Lake's depletion discouraged further investment in Owens Valley mining. Although the C&C managed to stay in business until 1960, fewer and fewer people needed its services. Only a few of the towns along the Owens Valley section of the C&C line managed to survive the mining bust.
If You Go
Laws is on California Highway 6, about 4.5 miles northeast of Bishop. As you head north on Highway 395 through Bishop, stay to the right on Highway 6 instead of following 395 to the northwest. The museum will be on your right; there is a parking lot on the left side of the road.
Admission is free, but a donation of $5 per person is suggested. The Laws Railroad Museum is open all year. Special event schedules and summer weekend train ride details are posted on the museum's website.
Laws Railroad Museum Information
P. O. Box 363
Bishop, California 93515
GPS Coordinates: Latitude 37.401, Longitude 118.346
Telephone: (760) 873-5950
Open daily, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Summer hours, which run from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, are 9:30 a. m to 4:00 p. m. daily.