Railroads & Locomotives Locomotives The oddest of oddball locomotives

The oddest of oddball locomotives

By David Lustig | November 17, 2023

There’s nothing creative desert miners couldn’t get to work

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A vintage black and white photo shows a tractor engine atop a former steam locomotive frame and wheels
Is this the oddest of oddball locomotives? A 1934 photo of Ludlow & Southern No. 2, a former steam locomotive repowered with a tractor engine, photographed at Steadman, Calif. Doug Richter, Joe Strapac collection

In seeking the oddest of oddball locomotives, today we will follow our compass to California’s Ludlow & Southern, one of many, many railroads past and present with the name of a city or a state and the addition of a compass direction. Think Kansas City Southern, Colorado & Southern, Arizona Central, Missouri Pacific, and Texas & Pacific. You get the picture.

Then there are the railroads in that same vein that few if anyone ever heard of when they existed, let alone remember today. Look no further than Ludlow & Southern, a true streak of rust that at one time connected with the Santa Fe in Ludlow, Calif., and then headed straight south about seven or eight miles to the Bagdad Chase mine at Steadman, where copper and gold had been found at the tail end of the 1890s.

For students of Golden State railroads, the name Ludlow is not an unfamiliar one. But here, in the middle of the Mojave desert, not only did the L&S terminate there, but the Tonopah & Tidewater, as well. For the T&T, Ludlow was its southern terminus as it wandered north to Nevada. The T&T stopped running in 1933.

During its operating day, a couple of secondhand steam locomotives were on the roster, including a former New York Central 4-6-0, kept busy hauling ore from the mine to Ludlow and then on the Santa Fe to Barstow for processing.

With the fortunes of the railroad tied to the mine it served, when the latter played out, the Ludlow & Southern, now with nothing to haul, basically just stopped running in or around 1916. Lying in the middle of nowhere, the track remained pretty much intact for the better part of two decades.

Long before the mine gave out, the L&S’s primary locomotive, the boiler of that ex-NYC 4-6-0 picked up secondhand through a broker became incapable of safely operating. Like everything else on the railroad, the deferred maintenance of the Ten-Wheeler led to another quandary. How to get the hopper cars from the mine to Ludlow?

Where there is a will

With no money in the coffers, Santa Fe was not about to loan the L&S a locomotive, let alone investors who had seemingly turned a deaf ear to the railroad’s problems.

It was time for creative thinking.

Besides the boiler, all the other components of the 4-6-0 were in “serviceable condition.” What if the railroad could rebuild the steamer?

Well, if the boiler was no good, get rid of it. And so, the workers did. As well as the cab, pilot, and handrails. In its place, a Holt Manufacturing Co. gasoline tractor engine was mounted on the frame and connected to the drivers by chain drive. A fuel tank was installed where the cab used to be, and rudimentary engine controls were mounted on a stand. With no need for a tender, that was dispatched to wherever old tenders go.

The logic of using a Holt engine was flawless. Holt, which had already established itself as a manufacturer of tough tractors, was headquartered in Stockton, Calif., so replacement parts, if there was money on hand, were not that far away. Holt, by the way, was later absorbed by Caterpillar.

Incredibly, the contraption worked. While it could only go a few miles per hour, with a short 8-mile trip it really wasn’t much of an inconvenience. When the railroad quit, presumably the desert, or the local scrap dealer reclaimed the makeshift locomotive.

Interestingly, many decades later, desert explorers walking the now denuded right-of-way found a flattened piece of metal just off to the side. Bending it back into as much of a shape as possible, and comparing it to photos, it turned out to be the headlight of the 4-6-0 before it was tractor-powered.

As a side note, miners still working what was left of the Bagdad Chase Mine, managed to resuscitate a motorized speeder, and with no trains on the line, would putter down the tracks to get to Ludlow for supplies and entertainment.

Today, any semblance of the railroad is gone, but the right-of-way and minor cuts through the desert are still visible.

One thought on “The oddest of oddball locomotives

  1. Not something a railfan would be expected to know, but competitors Holt Tractor Co and Best Tractor Co merged and formed Caterpillar.

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