Nevada owes its birth to the Civil War, but its diapers arrived by railroad. The cross-continent span completed in 1869 was quickly augmented by a plethora of short lines that catered to the needs of the infant state. Nevada’s railroad heritage is alive today in three remnants of those lines – tourist trains that carry their passengers back to a time when the engines of commerce were powered by steam and diesel.
In Ely, the Nevada Northern Railway thunders astride its original tracks. Riders are propelled along two routes, each of which loops around the city and then out into the countryside, where the remnants of White Pine County’s copper-mining heritage occasionally poke from the sagebrush.
In Virginia City, the storied Virginia and Truckee-more familiarly known as the V&T – offers its riders a half-hour trip between Virginia City and Gold Hill. If area railroads buffs have their way, this very short line will grow considerably longer, spanning 17 miles to connect with a depot in Carson City, as it once did.
At the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, visitors can enjoy a heady dose of Silver State railroad history as they tour one of its collection of lovingly tended locomotives – including the 1875-vintage Inyo, one of the oldest operating steam engines in North America – and beautifully restored freight cars and passenger coaches. Most of the rolling stock is from the V&T, and some of it has graced both big and small screens, called into service by Hollywood filmmakers looking for the right touch of Iron Horse authenticity.
The museum has a regular schedule of steam-ups that offer an opportunity to take a jaunt around the grounds on the rolling stock. The museum also is in the process of crafting its own passenger line in Boulder City, which would follow a 12 mile round trip through Railroad Pass to the Henderson area, where riders could observe impressive views of the Las Vegas Valley from their coaches.
There is nothing like a ride aboard an authentic steam – or diesel –powered train. A vintage train charmingly clickety-clacks along the rails, the to-and-fro sway adding the occasional touch of surfing to a stroll down the aisle of the passenger cars. Under power, it rocks and rolls like an odd hybrid of winding snake and bucking bronco, its passengers left to adapt to its antique rhythms as best they can.
On excursions such as the Nevada Northern’s Wine Train, the ride approximates the experience of a more genteel age. Wine Train passengers relax and converse over gleaming white tablecloths, sipping chardonnay or merlot as the sunset sky paints itself across the horizon. Memorable, too, is watching the Fourth of July fireworks from the Ely train.
Built in 1905, the Nevada Northern served the area’s copper empire. It also carried children from McGill and Ruth to school in Ely, transported shoppers from outlying areas, and functioned as a commuter route for the miners. An impressive stone depot and extensive railyard – both of which survive – were constructed, and the railway was a going concern until the 1980s, when Kennecott Copper left Ely and presented the intact railroad to the city.
Passion and plans are equally ambitious for the Virginia and Truckee. Built to connect the mines of Virginia City with Carson City and Reno, the V&T ran from 1870 to 1950 as one of the grandest exemplars of time and place in Nevada history. Engines like the Empire, Inyo, Reno, and Genoa rumbled and whistled through the Comstock, brightly festooned with gold leaf and shiny brass.
The railroad’s present 2.8 mile route between Virginia City attracts as many as 70.000 riders annually. The railroad has been in operation since 1976, when rail fan Robert Gray acquired a section of the V&T’s long-dormant line connecting the two towns and began running tourist trains.