Driver Takes Down a 113-Year-Old Salt Tram Tower in Death Valley

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A century ago, the timber-and-iron tower had supported a tram carrying precious salt across the Inyo Mountains that had been mined from a remote valley in the California desert. More recently, it stood as an artifact in the Saline Valley, and it marked the edge of a hiking trail through the sun-baked wilderness.

But a visitor to the Death Valley National Park in California brought the 113-year-old structure down on April 19 when it was used in an effort to pull a pickup truck out of the mud, prompting the National Park Service to investigate who was responsible for the damage.

The service’s request for information from the public elicited dozens of calls and messages, a video uploaded to YouTube, and finally a confession.

A park visitor said that the damage “was done during a time of desperation while being deeply stuck in mud” and had taken full responsibility, according to a Park Service update provided on Thursday.

A video of the incident, published by Outside magazine, showed a white pickup truck, partially immersed in mud, its tires spinning in place.

The person, who was not publicly identified by the Park Service, used the tower as an anchor to try to pull the pickup out of the mud. Partially deteriorated from decades exposed to extreme high temperatures and saltwater, the tower toppled, unmooring its concrete footing from the desert floor.

The video shows that the pickup was eventually removed, apparently by winching it to another vehicle.

The 200 square miles of salt flats around Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, which straddles the border along eastern California and southwestern Nevada, are too harsh an environment for most plants and animals, yet also quite fragile, composed of delicate crystals that can be easily crushed underfoot.

The fallen tower, among four remaining of an original 20 that were built to support the tramway, was in poor condition because of periodic flooding from the nearby salt lake, according to a Park Service evaluation from October 2021.

It formed part of a 13-mile aerial tram, built by the Saline Valley Salt Company in 1911, to transport salt from the Saline Valley over the Inyo Mountains to the Owens Valley.

“I have hiked along sections of this tramway, and am amazed by the tenacity it took to build,” Mike Reynolds, superintendent of Death Valley National Park, said in a statement about the tower’s toppling.

Considered a feat of engineering, the tramway climbed over 7,000 feet at vertical grades of up to 40 degrees — at the time, the steepest angle of any tram system in the United States, according to the Park Service.

To build it, horses were used to convey a million board feet of lumber and 600 tons of iron “over rough, inaccessible, precipitous mountain country,” the Park Service said in a 1974 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. The project bankrupted the Saline Valley Salt Company.

The tramway ceased operating in 1930. By 1974, when the Park Service nominated it for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, much of the building materials had been “carted off,” according to the nomination form.

“However, many of the towers still remain, some with steel buckets still clinging to their steadfast cables high over deep canyons,” the Park Service said.

The service said that a “stabilization project” for the four towers, which was to be paid for through the Inflation Reduction Act, was planned before the tower was pulled down. It was unclear whether those funds could be used to re-anchor the tower.

The Park Service said that it was undertaking a damage assessment, and “making plans for what responsible restoration of the salt tram would look like.”

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