Virginia & Truckee 2009
Well, they've done it, almost... Now where have you heard that before? In last month's story, of course, only it referred to the Welsh Highland Railway whose track laying is now complete. In the case of the Virginia & Truckee Railway there's still a way to go from the temporary depot on Highway 50 down into the Carson River Canyon towards Carson City. Now noticed I said V&T RAILWAY, not RAILROAD. The V&T Railroad has been complete between Virginia City and Gold Hill since 1991. And therein, between the two, lies a story.
A Very Brief Virginia & Truckee History
The old Virginia & Truckee existed because two prospectors discovered gold in the mountains around Virginia City in 1859. Unfortunately for them, a slick liar named Henry Comstock tricked them into believing their discovery lay on his land thereby gaining him a piece of the action. What really lasted from this swindle though, is his name attached to the strike, the Comstock Lode.
The first prospectors to mull for gold on the Comstock kept finding a blue clay clogging their "rocker" boxes. Frustrated, they sold their claims for little profit not knowing that the blue clay contained silver.
Gold and silver mining on the Comstock evolved from scratching the surface into mining with subsurface tunnels. The soft blue clay could be dug out using just a shovel but the surrounding rock and dirt was prone to collapse so required extensive timbering to prevent cave-ins. Many mines were located on the Comstock Lode and Virginia City soon arose to service miners and the population in the area. Apparently named "Old Virginny" by a drunken miner the name evolved into Virginia City.
Like all mining towns, a connection with the outside world was required, both to bring in supplies and to take out ore for processing by the mills located in the Carson River Canyon. In the 1800s this meant a railroad which could move any commodity cheaper than wagons forced to travel over steep rough roads. The first attempt to start a railroad occurred in 1861 with the granting of a charter but not one tie was laid. A second charter also failed but in 1869 grading commenced under a third charter. By January 1870 Virginia & Truckee track connected Virginia City with Carson City, the present capitol of Nevada. By 1873 the railroad reached north from Carson City to Reno thereby connecting with the newly completed Central Pacific Railroad.
May 1873 on the Comstock brought "The Big Bonanza". A pocket of high grade ore found by the Consolidated Virginia Mine. Just one year later the V&T had 18 locomotives in service and was running 40 trains a day earning tremendous profits for the railroad.
Peak production from the Comstock was reached in 1877. The mines produced over $14,000,000 in gold and $21,000,000 in silver that year. Thereafter production decreased rapidly. By 1880 the Comstock Lode was considered to be played-out.
With railroad profits from the mining activity evaporating the V&T sought to stay alive by constructing a line south from Carson City to Minden hoping to transport cattle and agricultural freight. This line was completed in 1909, but overall, it didn't stop the downward spiral of the railroad. 1924 saw the passenger train to Virginia City reduced to a mixed train after 55 years of regular service. The Crown Point Trestle at Gold Hill was torn down to permit open-pit mining. Hollywood movie studios started to buy up the rolling stock in 1937 but the railroad ceased operations between Carson City and Virginia City in 1938. The tracks were removed in 1941. The remaining line between Reno, Carson City, and Minden ran its last train on 1 June 1950 when Number 27 returned equipment to Carson City.
In 1965 a railfan named Robert Gray noticed the old right-of-way was generally untouched and intact so he assembled and purchased the right-of-way between Gold Hill and Virginia City. With approval granted by county commissioners he commenced laying track in 1974. The first trains started operating between Virginia City and the north portal of Tunnel 4 in 1976 but it wasn't until 1987 that the tunnel was opened for traffic. A bypass was then built around collapsed Tunnel 3 using a 19-degree curve on 40,000 yards of fill, some from the collapsed tunnel. This enabled trains to reach the Gold Hill depot in 1991. By then two steam engines were working the route and there was hope of extending the line to Carson City once again. One of these engines was Feather River Shortline steam locomotive Number 8. After working on the V&T it was moved to Gold Hill for storage after passing an FRA inspection in November 2008. Maintaining operational steam locomotives in this day and age is a marvel. So, sure enough, V&T number 29 was replaced by a diesel pulling the short excursion trains between Virginia City and Gold Hill when it was put out of service in 2002 by a FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) order. Requiring extensive reworking it did not re-appear in service until 2008.
· Phase 2. From the Overman pit continue on the original grade to a new grade west of Mound House crossing Highway 50 to the top of Carson River Canyon and back onto the original grade once again - 9.7 miles;
· Phase 3. From Carson River Canyon to the east outskirts of Carson City on the original grade ending at a new terminal - 5.4 miles;
· Phase 4. New terminal construction at the Drako Way site. (Including the existing track from Gold Hill to Virginia City would add 1.8 miles for a total distance of 18.3 miles)
Also in that year, the V&T commission purchased McLeod River Railroad Number 18, a 2-8-2 Mikado steam locomotive for the sum of $420,000 to operate on the V&T. The engine was stored at McLoud, California, until April 2007 when it was trucked to Oakdale, California. There it was used by the Sierra Railroad until required by the Commission.
McLoud River Railroad 2-8-2 Mikado number 18 at Eastgate Siding - 29 Jul 2009 Scott Schrantz.
Carson City residents approved a 1/8 cent sales tax increase to raise $15 million for the re-construction project between Gold Hill and Carson City. The tax went into effect 1 Apr 2006 raising Carson City's sales tax rate to 7 1/8 percent. This money was expected to fully fund the project.
The V&T re-construction plan chugged closer to reality after track was laid between Gold Hill and American Flat in July 2006. The cost to fill the Overman Pit and lay 1.4 miles of track was $6.7 million.
The Nevada Department of Transportation donated a used railroad bridge for crossing above State Highway 50.
Land was purchased for a depot in east Carson City near Drako Way and Highway 50 for 1.4 million dollars.
Early in 2008 it was apparent that more money would be needed to complete construction so the commission placed a request for an second 1/8 cent sales tax increase before the public which were to vote on this issue later in the year.
At some point Granite Construction had donated enough used rails from the Reno Trench project to cover a distance of four miles so in April 2008 the first rails were laid on Phase 2 reaching the Frehner Pit near Mound House.
Five Southern Pacific Harriman suburban coaches destined for use on the re-constructed V&T were purchased for $25,500 from the Golden Gate Railroad Museum in San Francisco. They were put in storage at the railroad museum in Portola, California, until the V&T commission decides who would renovate them, and at what cost.
Earlier, the owners of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, Robert and his son Tom Gray, had made a bid to operate the new V&T but it was rejected by the Commission in favour of the Sierra Railroad. The owners of the Sierra Railroad now announced their railroad was for sale which leaves their operation of the V&T somewhat tentative.
The end of November came and the voters rejected the sales tax increase that was to be imposed on them. This now placed construction through the Carson River Canyon and completion of the remaining 5.4 miles to Carson City in jeopardy.
As a response it was suggested the section of already completed railway could be put into operation to gain revenue. Serious negotiations began between the Commission and the Grays to operate their equipment over the new track.
Meanwhile, the bridge over Highway 50 was installed during one night, track was laid over it, and the planning and negotiations carried out with the Grays produced a draft agreement permitting them to operate on the new track.
In July 2009, construction of a new depot just south of Highway 50 was started at a new siding named Eastgate. The Commission intended to run McLeod River Railroad number 18 on the new track so it was delivered by truck trailer to Eastgate Siding in July then moved up the new track past Gold Hill to the V&T Railroad shop in Virginia City. It turned out the loco was inoperable due to significant bearing damage caused by the Sierra Railroad people. There may also be a problem with the loading gauge in certain locations along the V&T line.
The latest announcement, as of this writing, is that the Gray's have obtained a three year contract to run their locomotive and equipment 4 days a week, Thursday to Sunday, beginning in 2010. There is an unconfirmed report they have purchased a Harriman coach, not one of the five the Commission owns, to augment next years operation.
So, the question arises, when will it be possible to purchase a ticket in
Carson City and ride from there through the Carson River Canyon, up and across Highway 50 to Mound House, through Tunnel Two, past American Flat, Gold Hill, Tunnel Four, and into Virginia City proper as the last "Banana Train" once did?
The Canadian Connection
With the Comstock Lode played-out the subsequent downturn in traffic may have encouraged V&T management to sell four of their locomotives to
Andrew Onderdonk when he came looking. Onderdonk was the construction contractor for the Fraser Canyon portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Onderdonk had been general manager on several engineering projects for Darius Ogden Mills, founder of the Bank of California, and an investor with interests in Virginia City mines and the V&T. This would certainly have given Onderdonk a connection to V&T management. Here are the four engines sold for Canadian Pacific Railway construction:
19 Dec 2003 - Madman Chains Self to Rail
28 Mar 2008 - V&T Advisory Tax Question to be on November Ballot
14 Apr 2008 - First Rails of Phase 2 are Being Installed on the V&T
4 Jun 2008 - Lyon County, Nev., to Mull Waiving V&T Fees
24 Jun 2008 - Steamed: After Seven Years, Engine 29 Back on...
9 Jul 2008 - V&T Commission to Sell Rail Cars
18 Jul 2008 - Ridin' the Rails, Old-School Style
18 Aug 2008 - Railfest Wine Train an Intoxicating Ride
9 Sep 2008 - Company Proposed to Operate V&T May be For Sale
18 Sep 2008 - Second Pullman Car for V&T Railroad Arrives in...
16 Oct 2008 - Passenger train through V&T tunnel for first time in...
22 Oct 2008 - Free V&T Tickets All Gone
30 Oct 2008 - Carson City Voters React to V&T Ride and Ballot Question
15 Nov 2008 - Construction on the V&T Railway Bridge Crossing...
20 Nov 2008 - V&T Chugs Ahead Toward Uncertain Future
6 Dec 2009 - Rides on V&T Railway Could Start Soon
9 Jan 2009 - Virginia & Truckee Train Ride Deal Still Possible
26 Jan 2009 - V&T Bridge in Mound House, Nev., Slated to be...
30 Jan 2009 - V&T Train Could Start this Summer
18 Mar 2009 - V&T Bridge Goes Up the Week of March 23 at Night
1 Apr 2009 - V&T Railway Bridge Installed Over U.S. 50 East in...
24 Apr 2009 - V&T Railroad Rides Into Carson
25 Jul 2009 - V&T Railway Progress - Eastgate Depot
29 Jul 2009 - V&T's New "Old" Locomotive Arrives
15 Aug 2009 - At Long Last, V&T Makes Inaugural Run
18 Oct 2009 - V&T Railroad to Run to Carson for 3 Years
24 Oct 2009 - V&T Nevada Day Train
Associated Web Sites
Virginia & Truckee Railroad
Official Site of the V&T Railway Reconstruction Project
Northern Nevada Railway Foundation
Friends of the Nevada State Railroad Museum
Gold Hill Historical Society
California State Railroad Museum
V&T No. 12
V&T No. 18 and No. 22
V&T No. 21
V&T No. 29
V&T Combine No. 16
Comstock History Center
Virginia City History
Virginia City Photos
Gold Hill Depot
Central Cal Rails V&T
Central Cal Rails V&T 2005
Central Cal Rails V&T Cab Ride
Central Cal Rails V&T Historic Images
Carson & Colorado Railway
Video V&T Number 29
Video V&T McLoud 18
Fourth Ward School Museum