Fire and Forge: A Desert Railroad, a Wonder Metal, and the Making of an Aerospace Blacksmith

Fire and Forge: A Desert Railroad, a Wonder Metal, and the Making of an Aerospace Blacksmith

by Kathleen L. Housley


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Fire and Forge: A Desert Railroad, a Wonder Metal, and the Making of an Aerospace Blacksmith by Kathleen L. Housley

Harry Rosenberg grew up near the hottest place on Earth-Death Valley-in a very unusual dwelling: a red caboose. His father repaired bridges for the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, which hauled ore from remote mines. During the Depression, the Rosenbergs traveled from washout to washout across a fiery land prone, paradoxically, to devastating floods of the Amargosa and Mojave Rivers. No other place on Earth was better suited to forge a curious boy into a metallurgist who would spend his life unlocking the vast potential of a difficult, new metal-titanium.

In Fire and Forge, author Kathleen L. Housley tells Rosenberg's life story-working as a miner, having a chance meeting with a geologist studying Death Valley, earning a PhD from Stanford, gaining patents for aerospace alloys, and founding a company that manufactures the purest titanium in the world.

This biography captures the essence of a man whose work as a metallurgist left an impact on the world, but it also communicates Rosenberg's love for his roots. No matter how far he traveled, no matter the number of his successes, he never really left the Mojave Desert and the Amargosa River-it still flows through his veins.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491707906
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/29/2013
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.79(d)

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Fire and Forge

A Desert Railroad, a Wonder Metal, and the Making of an Aerospace Blacksmith

By Kathleen L. Housley, Harry Rosenberg

iUniverse LLC

Copyright © 2013 Kathleen L. Housley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4917-0790-6


The Middle of Nowhere

Until he was six years old, Harry Rosenberg lived in a red caboose on the run-down T & T Railroad, which crossed the Mojave Desert to the east of Death Valley—a hard, elemental landscape across which the hot wind blew with abrasive force, funneling down the barren mountains and over the salt wastes. It was during the Great Depression, but life had always been so tough in the desert that it was difficult for things to get worse. T & T stood for the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad that ran from Beatty, Nevada, through the arid Amargosa Valley south to Ludlow, California, where it connected with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. It also intersected with the Union Pacific Railroad in a desolate spot called Crucero, meaning in Spanish a "crossing."

The T & T rail line, built by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, began operations in 1907 primarily to carry borax from the mines in the Death Valley region. The famous twenty-mule teams, capable of pulling thirty tons fully loaded, had stopped hauling ore eighteen years earlier in 1889; since then, no effective means of transportation had been found to take their place. No matter how valuable the ore, whether it was borax, talc, or lead (the only exception being gold), without a railroad, it was prohibitively expensive to ship it out of such a remote area, and many a man had gone bankrupt trying. Even with a railroad, the desert exacted a high toll in human life, particularly during the construction phase when workers quit faster than they could be hired. One journalist for the Goldfield News likened the summer working conditions to a "death pit." It was far better when the daytime temperature was 50 degrees Fahrenheit in January instead of 120 degrees in July. However, a train must run year-round, so its crews must work year-round, regardless of the weather.

The T & T came into existence in a boom time when gold strikes drew hordes of men into the Mojave Desert with the promise of easy fortunes. Industry moguls, such as Francis Marion Smith, known as the "Borax King," and William Andrews Clark, known as the "Copper King," built their own rail lines to reap even greater rewards. But just as the T & T was named after two areas it never reached—the gold fields in Nevada and the Pacific Coast—so also it never turned the huge profits Smith expected. The T & T showed a profit for only four years out of its thirty-three years of service (1907–40). Clark's rail line, running from Las Vegas to Goldfield, did even worse, ending operations in 1918.

In the preface to his book Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion, Richard E. Lingenfelter writes that "it is a land of the deluded and the self-deluding, of dreamers and con men. Even its hardest facts are tinged with aberrations." That statement is certainly true of the prospectors, the mine owners, the railroad magnates, and the thousands upon thousands of investors who ended up with worthless stock, but it was not true of the railroad workers who kept the T & T operating under grueling conditions. Nor was it true of the miners. They knew what to expect, what they were supposed to be paid, and what the risks they had to face were. They were hopeful that their jobs would continue but were ready to move on if they did not. Some of them loved the desert; most endured it. They were not romantics about the land and its history. They were not aware of how wars on other continents were affecting mineral prices in the United States or how skullduggery on Wall Street was affecting the value of gold. There were trains to be kept on schedule, leaving Crucero in the predawn glow at 4:45 a.m., arriving at Beatty in the glaring noonday light exactly at 12:05 p.m. There was borax as well as talc and lead that had to be blasted out of the earth, shoveled into ore cars, and brought down spurs to the railroad stations at Acme and Gerstley. Let others dream. There was work to be done.

At the time Harry's father (after whom he was named) began working for the T & T in 1916, the 168 miles of roadbed were so bad, derailments were a common hazard. One of the reasons was that most of the cars and engines had seen hard service elsewhere and some had no brakes. Harry describes the conditions as follows:

Imagine a barren desert of mountains, sand dunes, deep valleys—one far below sea level—and searing heat with relentless windstorms that pick up gritty dust that literally sand-blasts paint off one's car. Imagine too a secondhand railroad slicing across the salty badlands of the Mojave Desert. Secondhand meant already in gross disrepair, a state of affairs never cured, because it was simply incurable.

Another reason for the poor condition of the roadbed was sudden destructive floods. Like many desert waterways, the Amargosa River and the Mojave River flow underground and are usually bone-dry on the surface, except through canyons. But a cloudburst can summon them forth, turning them into dangerous torrents with the power to wash out tracks, sweep away bridges, and take lives. So also places with cool picturesque names, such as Silver Lake and Soda Lake, are playas that are so hard and desiccated, they can be used as airfields—that is, until there is a storm. Any rail line that dared to cross such unpredictable places in those early days was inherently unstable and in constant danger of collapse.

It doesn't rain often in the desert, but when it does, it can be a gully washer. If a bridge went out, the line had to be shut down. The great flood in 1916 put the track that crossed Silver Lake—which was normally parched—under water and grossly weakened the bed, requiring miles of track to be moved eastward. The damage from the flood in 1938 was so extensive it brought the T & T to its knees. When track was out or a trestle damaged, it meant that no trains passed and no minerals got to the railhead until the line was restored.

In the 1930s, the T & T's headquarters, main terminal, and shops were to the east of the Funeral Mountains at Death Valley Junction, which served as the Rosenbergs' legal address, but home was wherever the outfit—as the repair crew and railcars were called—was working, such as Rasor, Zabriskie, or Sperry Wash. Most of those places are gone now. Once the mines in Death Valley and the Amargosa region became unprofitable to work, there was no reason to maintain either the T & T or the little waterless sidings along the line. Beatty, Death Valley Junction, Shoshone, Tecopa, Baker, and Ludlow still exist, but other places, including Riggs, Leeland, and Val Jean have disappeared.

Val Jean was one of the loneliest spots on earth. The outfit parked there just once in my memory in 1934 when I was six. It was in deepest wilderness. There was no road to Val Jean, although our Model A Ford, being a forerunner of the Jeep in its ability to manage rough country with reliability, gave us access. There was no section crew, no water, only a siding. About eight years later, in 1942, when I was fourteen, my father and I went there on the motorcar that ran on the rails. He was taking an inventory of the rails just before they were pulled up and sent to Egypt for the war effort, the line having been abandoned. That day, we stopped for lunch at Val Jean. Aside from the railroad itself, there was virtually no evidence of human habitation. I looked around, and along with a long-lost toy, I found a bird's nest, complete with two sparrow chicks with their beaks opened wide for lunch. No telling how long they had been waiting. They were completely mummified by the infernal heat and dry air.

Until the final rail was taken up in 1942, the T & T was the center of young Harry Rosenberg's life. After the death of his mother in 1935 when he was only seven years old, he and his brother, Lloyd, went to live with their grandparents in Cronese, about five miles away from the railroad junction at Crucero, but every summer, they went back on the line to live with their father and the men of the outfit. To this day, Harry can hear in his dreams the sound of the engines blowing out steam and the heavy clank of metal on metal as sledgehammers drive in iron spikes. And he can also recall, particularly at night, a desert silence so profound that as a little child he would hear the beating of his own heart and mistake it for the sound of footfall beyond the walls of the caboose.

The family's geographical origin on his father's side was Hesse, which is now part of Germany. Peter Rosenberg was a Hessian soldier who came to America to fight for the British in the Revolutionary War. Hessian troops were hired out to other nations not as individuals but by military units under the command of their own officers. They were not actually mercenaries because in most cases they were conscripted and did not have a choice about military service. Britain hired approximately thirty thousand Hessians to augment their troops in the Colonies, thereby enriching substantially the coffers of Hesse's ruler. In the Battle of Trenton, December 26, 1776, only eight months after the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts that started the war, approximately a thousand Hessian soldiers under the command of Colonel Johann Rall were captured by the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington, Rosenberg among them. Under perilous conditions caused by severe winter weather, Washington and his troops had crossed the ice-clogged Delaware River on Christmas night, catching the British and the Hessian troops off guard. The prisoners were transported back across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania under equally perilous conditions and were sent to internment camps first in Charlottesville, Virginia, and then in York, Pennsylvania. Family lore has it that Peter escaped. In fact, there is evidence that the Americans looked the other way, allowing Hessians to escape so that the strapped Continental Congress, then located in York, did not have to pay for their upkeep. Furthermore, it was common practice for Hessian prisoners to be paroled to German farmers in Pennsylvania because there was very little danger of their crossing back to the British side, nor were they considered a physical threat to their captors. After the war ended, many chose to remain in the United States, Peter Rosenberg among them.

Peter's descendants (some of whom were silversmiths) eventually moved from York, Pennsylvania, to the small town of Robins, Iowa, near Cedar Rapids, where they were farmers. There, Harry Sr. was born on August 8, 1895, to David and Margaret Stamy Rosenberg. He had a sister, Beulah, and a brother, Solomon, nicknamed Solly. Spurred by the same desire to improve their lot that had goaded preceding generations to head west, the Rosenbergs moved to Long Beach, California, in the early 1900s where David entered the booming real estate business. At that time, Long Beach was the fastest growing city in the United States with large tracts of farmland being divided into neighborhoods and multistoried buildings being constructed in the downtown business district. Its most famous attraction was the amusement area known as the Pike, which glittered along the shore with a carousel, Ferris wheel, and roller coaster. To Midwesterners, the Pike was as much a wonder as the Pacific itself.

When Harry Sr. was old enough to work, having dropped out of school in tenth grade, he held various odd jobs, including carpenter and machinist, but he didn't like living in Long Beach, which was too crowded and confining for him. He needed more space. Unfortunately, he was a generation too late. The edge of the continent had been reached, and there was no frontier left. Only the desert offered the chance of empty land for a restless young man to explore. Harry took the chance, arriving in the Mojave on May 20, 1916, at the age of twenty looking for employment. He found it with the T & T Railroad as a carpenter on a bridge and building gang.

My father was something of a nomad who found the regimen of the city a bit hard to take. He was a crack shot with his sharp blue-gray eyes and wanted to be able to go hunting, and he could fix anything. He was of medium build, about five-eight in height, with large bones and powerful hands—very strong. He also had feet so wide he could not get shoes to fit, so he always had to cut slits in the sides to be able to wear the widest ones available. I think that the rootless life of living on the railroad doing rugged physical work suited him. He didn't really settle down in one place and call it home until after World War II when he bought land in Tecopa. By then, he was in his fifties and the T & T was history.

The gang's primary function was replacing washed-out bridges and railbed. The average rainfall in the desert is only about four to six inches, but following a cloudburst, the water cannot sink in rapidly, causing flooding. The gang had their hands full that spring and summer of 1916 because in January, an intense series of storms had swept in from the Pacific Ocean, lasting several days. To the south, Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains received torrential rains. The unusual storms flooded the normally dry Mojave River, which surged out of Afton Canyon, filling the playa lakes, including Silver Lake, and submerging the railroad track that had been laid unwisely across its heretofore dry bed. It took many months for the water to go down during which time the T & T trains had to be detoured via a giant loop: traveling north from Ludlow to Crucero on its own rails, east to Las Vegas on the Salt Lake rails, northwest to Beatty on the rails of its rival Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad, and then south to Tecopa on its own rails again. When Harry Sr. arrived, the crews were still in the process of permanently rerouting miles of track, along with moving the remaining buildings (the depot and warehouse having collapsed) to the east of Silver Lake.

The next year, Harry Sr.'s budding railroad career was interrupted by the entry of the United States into the First World War. He went to Camp Lewis in American Lake, Washington, for basic training and then after further training was sent to Scotland as a member of the US Army Signal Corps, which at that time had responsibility for aviation.

My father was selected to fly a Jenny biplane on which a machine gun was synchronized to shoot bullets between the two propeller blades powered by a big Liberty engine. Flying out of Scotland, all went well until he made his first kill—a German observation balloon. When he circled to verify the kill, he noticed the observer simply step over the side several hundred feet up. No parachute. Imagine yourself in his shoes. Yeah, he got sick. In another incident, he shot off his propeller in practice, probably because the synchronizer had failed, which severely undercut his confidence. Although he saw service in Belgium and France, these events ended his flying days; he never flew again, not even by commercial airline. One of the other stories he told me was that while in Scotland, the soldiers never had enough to eat. Right next to the aerodrome was a turnip patch, and he and some other men would sneak out at night and eat them raw. It must have been awful, but when he told me the story, he laughed about it.

During the war, the T & T came under the control of the United States Railroad Administration, as did all railroads in the nation because they were vital to national defense, carrying troops, supplies, munitions, and ordnance to eastern ports to be shipped to Europe. The T & T played a part because it was carrying not only borax but also lead (the price of which had soared threefold during the war) from the mines in Tecopa as well as from the carbonate lead mines in Death Valley. It also carried some shipments of manganese that was hauled over the sands from Owl Hole Springs in Death Valley to the remote Riggs siding. The change in control did not make a difference to the T & T's operations other than that the US Railroad Administration decided that the Las Vegas and Tonopah (William Andrew Clark's rival line) was an unnecessary duplication, and it was abandoned. The T & T returned to normal operations in March 1920 with the end of the US Railroad Administration.


Excerpted from Fire and Forge by Kathleen L. Housley, Harry Rosenberg. Copyright © 2013 Kathleen L. Housley. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction, vii,
Acknowledgments, xi,
1 The Middle of Nowhere, 3,
2 The T & T Railroad, 21,
3 Greek Tragedy, Mojave Backdrop, 47,
4 Growing Up in the Desert, 71,
5 The End of the Line, 99,
6 Working in the Hole, 123,
7 The Noonday Mines, 137,
8 Leaving the Amargosa, 181,
9 The Wonder Metal Titanium, 205,
10 In Search of Deeper Understanding, 231,
11 A Turbulent Time, 249,
12 High-Purity Titanium and the Alta Group, 265,
13 Those Who Keep Running, 283,
Appendix I: Patents, 297,
Appendix II: Publications, 299,
Selected Bibliography, 303,
Photo Credits, 311,
Endnotes, 313,
Index, 333,

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Fire and Forge: A Desert Railroad, a Wonder Metal, and the Making of an Aerospace Blacksmith 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
peaceCA More than 1 year ago
Although I did not understand all of the the technical information about metallurgy, this book demonstrates  what a person can achieve  through setting goals and hard work despite the obstacles in one's life.  Harry Rosenberg's accomplishments are to be commended and he is to be admired.