If it looks familiar, it probably is. Locomotives from the Virginia & Truckee Railroad — the historic short line that once hauled silver out of the Comstock in Virginia City — have been seen in the movies and on television for decades. Chosen by Hollywood for their classic American look, V&T cars have graced film sets from 1939’s “Union Pacific” starring Barbara Stanwyck, to 2011’s “Water for Elephants” featuring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. They’ve also rolled through countless B-Westerns and television shows such as “Gunsmoke” and “Little House on the Prairie,” helping to shape public perception of the Old West.
Several ride options are available along the V&T railroad, but those interested in trains and Western history may want to consider the Sisters in History route. Offered from late May through October, the Sisters in History trip takes passengers from Carson City to Virginia City, where they can explore for about three hours before taking the train back to Carson City.
“The V&T is one of the most glamorous short line railroads in American history,” said Stephen Drew, a member of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad Historical Society and former curator of the California State Railroad Museum. “It was born of necessity in 1869, and it helped make the Comstock happen.” While the V&T’s last train ran in 1950, and the tracks subsequently were pulled up, many of its locomotives were preserved through a quirk of fate. Beginning in the 1930s, Drew explained, Hollywood began using V&T equipment in films and movies because of their classic American look, inadvertently preserving those historic pieces. Today, there are about 30 steam locomotives left in the United States built before 1880, Drew said, and seven of those are V&T locomotives.“We can thank Hollywood,” Drew said.
Credit for the V&T Railroad’s reconstruction, however, goes to northern Nevada entities. Bob Gray of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad Company rebuilt the tracks from Virginia City to Gold Hill in the 1970s; and in 2009, the Nevada Commission for the Reconstruction of the V&T Railway extended the tracks from Gold Hill to Carson City, a stretch of about 14 miles.
It’s that section of track — from Carson City to Virginia City and back — that the Sisters in History route travels.
Sisters in History route
“It’s an adventure people can’t experience anywhere else,” said Kevin Ray, project coordinator for the Nevada Commission for the Reconstruction of the V&T Railway. “It does evoke the Wild West.” Passengers embark at the railroad’s Eastgate depot in Carson City — about six miles east of downtown Carson City off U.S. 50, near the Carson City landfill. (The original V&T tracks passed through this area, continuing to downtown Carson City.) Settle into one of three passenger cars, which are pulled by steam locomotive on Saturdays and Sundays, and by diesel engine on Fridays.
The ride is slow — the train moves at 1860s-era speeds — but the 1.5-hour trip through rolling desert landscape is narrated by a staff member. Passengers will learn about the Comstock, where silver was discovered in 1859, and the V&T itself, which opened in 1870 with tracks between Carson City and Virginia City. Sites pointed out during the narration include American Flat, a once-thriving boomtown that disappeared; and the Yellow Jacket mine, where a fire in 1869 killed 37 trapped miners. Trains on this route also travel through two tunnels, including one 568-foot passage near American Flat that plunges passengers (briefly) into total darkness. Travelers disembark at the F Street depot in Virginia City; from there, it’s a short, uphill walk to the main street. Visitors have a few hours to explore the town, which is a National Historic Landmark, before returning to the train depot for the ride back to Carson City.
For many, it’s a trip back in time on a railroad that symbolizes America’s westward expansion.
“The V&T has an incredible following,” said Drew, of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad Historical Society. “People in Nevada perhaps take it for granted. But it’s a rich resource right in your backyard.”
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