How The Train Made Nevada
Nevada and railroads go back to before the state was established. The Territorial Legislators were so determined to have the transcontinental railroad cross Nevada that they granted railroads the right to build their east-west tracks in 1861, even though the railroad hadn’t yet entered the territory.
By 1864, the year of Nevada's statehood, the State Seal design featured a locomotive puffing its way across a stone viaduct, and in 1866 the seal was officially adopted. The Central Pacific Railroad entered Nevada two years later. It is apparent that early-day Nevada leaders expected the railroad to have a significant impact on the new state.
Nevada owes as much to the railroading as it does to mining and agriculture. The state’s biggest cities today, Las Vegas, Reno and Elko, as well as Sparks, Winnemucca, Caliente, Lovelock, Ely, Tonopah, Goldfield, Hawthorne and others, all began as stops on the transcontinental railroad or division points for localized routes.
In the 19th century rail travel was the fastest, most reliable way to get from one town to the next, to move goods from place to place and ferry cattle and other produce to market. Rails were built to connect northern and southern portions of the state as well as east to west. Many of Nevada railroads were short lines that carried gold and silver ore from the mines to the mills for processing and transferred the refined product to bigger railroads connecting to cities elsewhere.
The Virginia and Truckee Railroad, known as the Queen of the Short Lines, was built in 1869 to transport silver ore from Virginia City’s Comstock Lode to the mills on the Carson River, an otherwise rough journey down a steep wagon road. Thus the mining of silver became economical and rewarded the V&T’s stockholders with dividends as high as $100,000 a month during the era of the Big Bonanza.
After the silver played out toward the end of the 19th century, Virginia City’s fortunes declined and the V&T began to focus on passengers and freight. Losing money consistently, the railroad hung on for a few decades, but finally was abandoned in 1950. The steam locomotives and rolling stock were sold to Paramount Studios, which in actuality saved much of the equipment from the scrap heap.
Another railroad established to transport ore from the mines was the Nevada Northern Railroad in Ely. But in this case, it was copper. At the turn of the 20th century, the nation was getting wired for electricity and telephones, and copper was in high demand. The mineral was mined in Ruth and refined in McGill, and thanks to the Nevada Northern ore trains, America entered the Industrial Age.
Meanwhile, in southeastern Nevada the ranching community of Caliente became a division point and home of maintenance yards for the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad line extending north from Las Vegas. Caliente was larger than Las Vegas in 1910, but damage to the track from flooding, drastic fires in the 1920s and other problems caused a drop in population, and Caliente became the small rural town it is today.
A decade later, the building of Hoover Dam helped create a bustling economy for Las Vegas, the sleepy desert town established in 1905 by the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. The dam’s construction (1931-1935) would not have been ahead of schedule without the materials and equipment transported by the Union Pacific’s Boulder Branch Line from Boulder City to the dam site in Black Canyon.
The dam employed more than 20,000 jobless men during the Great Depression and brought much-needed power to the Southwestern U.S. and water storage and flood relief for farmers and ranchers. At the time it was the world’s largest dam and considered to be an engineering marvel.
In the 21st century, railroads continue to fascinate young and old alike. The sight of an old steam locomotive huffing its way down the track and the blare of a diesel engine as it leaves the station can thrill even the most modern of us. Nevada boasts several train museums filled with memorabilia, historic rolling stock and history from the state’s many railroads.
Visitors can ride on restored rail cars at four museums, the Nevada State Railroad Museums in Carson City and Boulder City, the Virginia & Truckee Railway in Carson City and Virginia City, and the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely. Nevadans welcome visitors to experience the state’s fascinating railroading history.
Trains Keep a Rollin’
NevadaMagazine.com March/April 2010 Issue
Story by Matthew B Brown
In the hierarchy of Nevada lore, railroads rank right up there with ghost towns and wild horses. Not that this truth needed reinforcement, but it was never more apparent than on a perfect summer evening last August, when the Virginia & Truckee Railroad woke up from a seven-decade slumber to again transport passengers from Virginia City to Carson City...Read More