Virginia & Truckee Railroad
165 F Street
N39.308114 W119.648746 (Virginia City Depot)
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 end-of-track down in Carson Canyon near the river towards the proposed depot at Carson City. Now notice 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 tale.
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 Jun 1950 when Number 27 returned equipment to Carson City.
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:
The Virginia & Truckee road number and name appears at the top of each photo with the CPR number and name below. Click on any photo to enlarge it and read more about that particular locomotives history.
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. At that time two steam engines were working the route, V&T 29 and ex-Feather River Short Line number 8, with hopes of extending the line to Carson City once again. After working on the V&T until November 2008 number 8 was moved to Gold Hill for storage, even after passing an FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) inspection, due to a dispute between the V&T and the Gold Hill Historical Society who owned the locomotive. Maintaining operational steam locomotives in these times is a marvel. Sure enough, V&T number 29 was replaced by a diesel pulling short excursion trains between Virginia City and Gold Hill when 29 was put out of service in 2001 by an FRA order. Requiring extensive overhaul it did not re-appear for service until 2008.
In September 2005 the Nevada Commission for the Reconstruction of the Virginia & Truckee Railway announced it would construct tracks stretching 18 miles from Gold Hill reaching Carson City by the year 2009 for a total cost of US$40 million. Construction was to be carried out in 4 phases:
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 US$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.
Carson City residents approved a 1/8 cent sales tax increase to raise US$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 US$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 US1.4 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 US$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.
October of 2008 saw the completion of Tunnel Two and the first passenger train in 70 years was pulled through the tunnel by one of the Gray's V&T engines to the cheers of those onboard. With the vote due in November on the 1/8 cent sales tax increase free rides were offered to the public to promote the new railway. Meanwhile work continued on the railway as the foundations for the bridge over Highway 50 were commenced.
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 in one night with track laid over it. Planning and negotiations carried out with the Grays resulted in 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?