The original station depot, first used in 1889 (all photographs by author)
Laws, California, bills itself as a railroad museum. What I found could not have been more surprising, for it was not a simple train museum, but a rebuilt railroad town where all the buildings house their own little slivers of history. Laws Railroad Museum is a treasure trove of exhibits, artifacts, and dioramas of the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s. It is a tribute to an era gone by and is a solemn marker of where the railroad tracks abruptly stop after being abandoned by Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959.
Laws is located in Inyo county, just off Highway 395. The 11 acres of land, three original buildings, and the last train ever to arrive in Laws were all donated to the museum by the Southern Pacific Railroad. The deed read: “Southern Pacific Company is pleased to donate steam locomotive No. 9 together with other rolling stock, the Laws Station building, and surrounding installations for safekeeping in behalf of generations to come.”
It’s pretty safe to say that without this donation, there would be no whisper of Laws, except perhaps in the local history books. It is in the middle of nowhere and when the railroad was abandoned, the town around it also disappeared with the exception of the station, the railroad agent’s house, and the original water tower. However, today the village has been rebuilt using buildings from the surrounding Owens Valley area that were moved to the grounds when they were slated for demolition. Others are replicas that were built for Wild West movies and then donated to Laws in an effort to preserve the history of the area — and the level of preservation is much higher than one would expect for an abandoned village in the middle of the desert.
The inside of the original train depot
The railroad museum is operated by the Bishop Museum and Historical Society and is open to the public on a daily basis. Entry to the museum is donation-based and as we threw a few bucks into the jar, we were handed a printout of the buildings and a map of the area so that we could explore at will.
The many buildings on the premises are set up with dioramas and exhibitions, and in each we found a different historical recreation of everyday life in the railroad town. There is a general store, a doctor’s office, a funeral home, a mill, and a blacksmith just to name a few — and all are stocked with the antique tools of each trade. Walking through the village it would be easy to believe that you’ve been transported back to a railroad town of the 1800s, if not for the lack of people in the buildings.
The original water tower and the oil storage still standing by the tracks
In one of those buildings we found conjoined lambs, disintegrating coyotes, and other various pieces of taxidermy that reminded us just how far the art of preservation has come since the early 1900s. There was also an incredible funeral carriage and various sizes of coffins made out of everything from wicker to beautifully carved wood. The walls were lined with old tools, ancient leather, and old saddles that were crafted painstakingly by hand and intricately embroidered.
The funeral coach, with child’s coffin inside and wicker casket underneath
The Conjoined Lambs in the funeral home
In another we found an amazing apothecary and adjoining doctor’s office, complete with antique and terrifying medical equipment and the anatomical books that were used at the turn of the 19th century. There was a dentist office, beauty parlor, schoolhouse, library, and many more exhibitions as well. When we entered the Saloon, the unlabeled bottles were more suspect than tempting, still containing some questionable brown or clear liquids.
The lovely apothecary exhibit
As we wandered from building to building, each door led us into a different area of the past and we never got tired of opening them. Not to be outdone by the buildings, the grounds outside are littered with broken machines of all types, outhouses, train parts and even an old gas station, complete with a heartbreaking shell of a beautiful old car. Everywhere we looked, there was something else to fascinate us and nothing shattered the illusion of actually being in a 19th or 20th century railroad town, except the hidden (and thankfully) modern restrooms.
The gas station of Laws
The old outhouse still stands but is not functional
The train conductor took note of the few people on the grounds and interrupted our journey by promising us a rare treat if we hopped on the train. After giving it some thought, we decided to take a break from our explorations and grab a seat on the restored train. You still have to buy a ticket in the original depot and the man we bought our ticket from was about as ancient as the railroad itself and wearing the historical cap of a station agent.
The train ride went all of about 200 feet, but it was astonishing how long they can make that ride last. It is a silly trip and you could walk faster than the train, but the detailed history of the area that the conductor gives is worth the few dollars. We were dropped off in the train barn which was the rare treat hinted at before we boarded. In the middle of the sheltered spot we glimpsed an original ambulance train car that was surprisingly miniature and is on its way to being restored back to mint condition.
The ambulance is so small but it was perfectly functional on the railroad
Decaying train cars left to the elements in Laws
The village of Laws has been designated as a Historical Site in California, but it is tucked away in the wilderness and not advertised well at all. It exists through donations, volunteerism, and the sheer tenacity of the people who keep it going. These people really love their trains, their museum, and their history, and they take exquisite care of all of it. It was an unexpected treat and it is easy to spend hours wandering and imagining what a thriving railroad town would have been like. I have to wonder how it has stayed open daily throughout the years, but I am thankful that it does. Laws is the village at the end of the line, rebuilt to remind us all of our past and how quickly life can change.
The wagon filled with old luggage and supplies still stands near the entrance
LAWS RAILROAD MUSEUM, Laws, California
One of the most important things to us here at the Atlas is to always keep traveling and discovering. Notes from the Field are first person reports from the most inspiring trips taken by the Atlas Obscura Team. Read more Notes From the Field here>