By Mark Bassett
Gold! Silver! We’re Rich! There were hundreds, if not thousands of gold and silver strikes across Nevada starting in 1849 at Dayton, Nevada. All of these strikes had a common thread, for the discovery to be turned into a producing mine, it needed a railroad. Because of this need, Nevada has a grand railroad history. It was the home to over 54 railroads, yes that’s right, 54 railroads! And today, only one of the 54 railroads still survives in its originality, the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely Nevada.
Of course, there is the Virginia and Truckee Railroad (V & T) at Virginia City, but it’s a recreation. The only thing left is the grade that the modern railroad follows. The track was removed decades ago, its locomotives still exist, but only one of them still runs and it’s at the Carson City Railroad Museum with other equipment from the V & T.
In Las Vegas, Dan Markoff preserves the locomotive Eureka from the Eureka and Palisades Railroad. An outstanding, beautiful example of a preserved Nevada locomotive. But unfortunately, it’s a long away from its previous home in Eureka and its track is long gone too. Today, the Eureka occasionally operates in Colorado and at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Boulder City.
So why did Nevada have so many railroads? Why did so many disappear? And why did only the Nevada Northern Railway survive?
Today, we’ve been spoiled. Order something off the internet and a massive logistical machine kicks into gear and like magic the item you ordered shows up at your doorstep. But 149 years ago, there were no interstates, no massive trucks, no airplanes and airports. If you were developing a mine, you needed transportation. Heavy machinery and supplies needed to come in and of course, you needed to ship your ore out. You had two options, horse drawn wagons or a railroad. Wagons were very inefficient and only used for very rich ores. To really develop a gold or silver strike, you needed a railroad. And because gold and silver strikes happened all over Nevada, railroads were also built all over Nevada.
Nevada’s rail history includes such legendry railroads as the Central Pacific Railroad, the transcontinental railroad that was the first railroad to enter Nevada on Friday the 13th, in December 1867. This was the start of the iron horse in Nevada. Shortly thereafter the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was constructed from Reno to the Comstock Lode in Virginia City.
As the Central Pacific pushed east across Nevada other railroads used it as a starting point. The Nevada Central Railroad built south from Battle Mountain to Austin in 1879. Outside Elko Nevada, in
1873 the Eureka and Palisade Railroad built from Palisade to Eureka Nevada, hence its name.
Some railroad had grand names like the Pioche Pacific. It was built from Pioche to Jackrabbit, but never made it any further. And the Carson and Colorado, it was supposed to join the Carson River to the Colorado River. Instead it came to a halt in the Mojave Desert, far from the Colorado River. On an inspection trip, one of its major financial backers said, “It was either built 300 miles too long or 300 years too early.”
As the 19th century drew to a close, the mines that had built Nevada had been gradually shutting down for almost 20 years. Nevada was losing population in droves. In 1900, only 42,000 people lived in Nevada. There was talk of revoking Nevada’s statehood and returning it to territorial status or merging it with another state. Things were looking very bleak in Nevada, it looked like the end of the line for the state.
Jim Butler was a rancher and part-time prospector. On a
trip through central Nevada, Butler camped at the base of a hill near a spring. Upon awaking the next morning, one of Butler’s mules had wandered away. Butler went in search of it and the legend has it, “he picked up a rock to throw at his mule and noticed it was silver ore.” The date was May 19, 1900. Butler collected samples and continued on his trip. For a variety of reason Butler didn’t file claims on his find until August 27, 1900. Butler’s discovery was huge. Other prospectors found gold and silver in nearby areas that would become the cities of Goldfield, Bullfrog and Rhyolite. These discoveries started the most exciting chapter in the Nevada’s rail history.
The discoveries appeared to be huge, and they would need
railroads to reach their full potential. Four major railroads, the Tonopah & Goldfield, Bullfrog Goldfield, Las Vegas and Tonopah, and the Tonopah and Tidewater were built to serve the area. Two of the railroads would engage in the Great Nevada Railroad Race. And while all of this excitement was going on in southern Nevada, in northern Nevada Mark Requa decided to build a railroad to service the huge copper deposits outside of Ely Nevada. He would build the Nevada Northern Railway.
Back in southern Nevada, two very stubborn individuals, Frances “Borax” Smith and Senator William A. Clark for whom Clark County was named after, both decided to build a railroad to Tonopah Nevada from southern
Nevada. Frances “Borax” Smith was behind the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad (T & T) and Senator Clark was behind the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad (L V & T). Both wanted their railroad to be first one into Tonopah.
The first decade of the new century was exciting in Nevada. It seemed wherever a prospector looked, there was a new discovery and a railroad was proposed to be built to it. The Southern Pacific Railroad bought the Carson and Colorado Railroad just before Jim Butler’s discovery and then rebuilt the railroad to standard gauge. The Tonopah and Goldfield arrived in Tonopah on July 23, 1904. Building from Goldfield the Bullfrog Goldfield was built to Beatty and Rhyolite Nevada. Goldfield was served by two railroads, but that wouldn’t stop Clark and Smith.
Smith and Clark had agreed that Smith could build from Las Vegas to Tonopah and connect to Clark’s Los Angles and Salt Lake Railroad in Las Vegas. After Smith started building, Clark had second thoughts and bought out Smith. But Smith was determined and just moved his starting point to the friendly Santa Fe Railroad in Ludlow California. Now the Great Railroad Race was on and Clark had a head start! The railroads were laying parallel track to one another. With more discoveries, it was believed that there would be enough traffic for all.
Meanwhile Senator Clark started construction on the LV & T in October 1905. A year later, rails had reached Beatty and then Rhyolite. 1907 would see the LV & T push on to Goldfield which it reached on October 24, 1907. Normally this would call for a huge Railroad Day Celebration. But instead of festivities, the country was in a financial tailspin caused by the Panic of 1907. The New York Stock Exchange lost half of its value and banks failed throughout the country, including some in Goldfield. Based on the prevailing financial situation, the LV & T does not build any further north. On the surface, it appeared that Clark had won the race.
Smith’s railroad reaches Gold Center Nevada a week later, 71 miles south of Goldfield. With the Panic in full force, Smith decides it would be fruitless, not to mention financial insanity, to continue building the T & T to its namesake Tonopah. Instead he strikes a deal with the BG and receives trackage rights into Goldfield.
Neither railroad made it to Tonopah. Clark’s railroad wins the race by a week. But there is justice. Eleven years later, the Las Vegas and Tonopah, the first railroad in, is the first to fold and be torn up. The T & T continues operating for an additional 25 years until it to, folds and is torn up.
Railroads, like anything else do die. We like to think of them as permanent but that is not the case at all. Nevada has 53 examples of railroads that did not survive. Oh sure the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) operates across northern Nevada and cuts across southern Nevada. But the UP purchased the companies that originally built those tracks. The Central Pacific, the Southern Pacific, Western Pacific and the Los Angles and Salt Lake Railroad, no longer exist.
The Panic of 1907, started a chain of events that saw cities and railroads die throughout Nevada. But there was one and only one survivor – the Nevada Northern Railway. It had been built to service the mines for a rather mundane metal – copper! The Nevada Northern Railway had survived the turbulent times after 1907, it had survived the closing of the copper mines in the 1970s, but with the closing of the mill and smelter in the 1980s, it appeared, it too had reached the end of the line and was destined to be scrapped like all of the other railroads. Yet it survived. Was it luck? A fluke? Kismet?
Actually, it was far-sighted individuals who thought that the Nevada Northern Railway could save the community after the smelter closed. They believed, that against all odds, that they could turn what was once an ore hauling railroad into a tourist attraction. When the major employer in the county was closing up shop, they asked for and received the Nevada Northern Railway.
We have a treasure that is in our backyard, it’s the Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark. People come from around the country and the world come to Ely to visit the railroad.
In 2006, the railroad received National Historic Landmark Status. This is the highest honor that the federal government can bestow on an historic site. National Historic Landmarks are so designated because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating and interpreting the heritage of the United States. Sadly, this designation comes with no financial support from the government. For this national treasure to survive, massive financial support is imperative.
This year the museum turns 32 years old and it has been quite the rodeo, to say the least. What the community received from Kennecott is a fifty-six acre complex with over seventy buildings and structures and thirty miles of track. Of course you can’t be a railroad with locomotives and cars and we got em. Four steam locomotives, thirteen diesel locomotives and over sixty pieces of antique pieces of rolling stock. And it’s the original equipment for the most part. And its old.
It’s been said that your strengths are your weakness and your weakness are your strengths. We have the originals locomotives, buildings, track and rolling stock, it has all survived. That’s our strength and that’s what contributed to our National Historic Landmark designation. Our weakness is that our newest stuff is six decades old and our oldest stuff is 144 years old. And in the case of the buildings most of them were cheaply built.
Phenomenal progress has been made, the Foundation has been very successful. Since 1996, the Foundation and raised and invested over $21,000,000 in the railroad. This money was used to add locomotives 105, 109, 204, 93, 81 and 309 to the museum collection. We have added two passengers’ cars too.
Perhaps most significantly, the Foundation has saved six buildings from collapse: the Engine House/Machine Shop Building, the McGill Depot, the Chief Engineer’s Building, the Master Mechanic/Storehouse Building, the Bus Barn Building and the Blacksmith Shop. We have kept steam locomotives 40 and 93 in service against great odds. In fact, I consider locomotive 93 the luckiest locomotive in the world. It should have been turned into razor blades, but instead it is still in service.
When the railroad was given to us, the desire was to have it become be an economic generator for the community. The railroad has lived up to that goal. Since the trains started running in 1986, the railroad has brought over $70,000,000 into the community. The railroad has found a new lease on life. It is a survivor because it has rolled with the punches and reinvented itself.
On Saturday, June 4th, the most historic train left, not only in Nevada, but in the United States will be ready for boarding at 4:15 pm, the Steptoe Valley Flyer. Pulled by locomotive 40, consisting of Baggage/Railway Post Office Car 20 and First Class Car 5, it will be waiting for passengers in front of the East Ely Depot just as it’s done for over a century. Not a recreation, not a mishmash of equipment from different railroads, but the real McCoy. At 4:30 sharp, it will whistle off, and depart from the depot on the original tracks.
Over 54 railroads were built in Nevada, and in 2016 only one is still steaming. It is doing today what its builders intended over a century ago, it is still helping to keep Ely and White Pine County a vibrant community.
Down the Tracks at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum
The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is a designated National Historic Landmark. Voted the state’s Best Rural Museum and the Best Place to Take the Kids by readers of Nevada Magazine, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum also has been featured on Modern Marvels, American Restorations and on PBS. For more information, call 775-289-2085, log onto www.NNRY.com or to get the latest news “Like” the Railway’s Facebook page.
Museum, gift shop and ticket office hours are: Mondays through Thursday 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, on Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 am to 6:30 pm, Sundays 8 am to 4 pm. We are closed on Tuesdays.
Currently, our steam-powered excursion trains operate on Fridays at 4:30 pm, Saturdays at 1:00 pm and 4:30 pm and Sundays at 9:30 am. Tickets can be purchased on line at www.nnry.com or call the ticket office at (775) 289-2085.
Volunteers are always needed at the museum. We need tour guides, narrators, concessionaires, gift shop helpers and train crew members. If you have some spare time and would be interested in helping out, give the railroad a call at (775) 289-2085. You don’t need to live in Ely to volunteer.
If you are interested in joining us in preserving the Nevada Northern Railway, memberships in the museum are available at these levels: Active $30; Contributing $50; Centennial $100; Sustaining $250; Patron $500; Friend $1000; Supporter $2,500; Benefactor $5,000 and Leader $10,000. Please contact the museum for more information.
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the museum. He can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or by first class mail at: 1100 Avenue A, PO Box 150040, East Ely, NV 89315.