Iron Horses, Steel Stallions, & Concrete Colts
Nevada’s austral railways laid the tracks of American history.
BY ERIC CACHINERO
If you were to take all of the concrete used to build the Hoover (Boulder) Dam, there would be enough to create a 4-foot-wide sidewalk around the equator, or enough to build a two lane road from Seattle to Miami, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Department also estimates that the dam weighs 6.6 million tons (13,200,000,000 pounds). So how did 1930s-era civil and industrial engineers figure out how to transport approximately 13.2 billion pounds of concrete, along with millions more tons of metal and other materials? They teamed up with another type of engineer—the railroad engineer.
In total, three separate railways were constructed to transport the equipment and supplies used to build the dam. Blood was shed and mountains were moved to make way for these historic railways, and the locomotives that were used during the construction laid the tracks of American history.
But it isn’t just the railways used to build the dam that tell the great story of southern Nevada’s railroad history; it began long before the 1930s. It began at a time even before the main metropolis of the south was founded; a time when the Wild West was still wilder than ever, and when he who built the railroad built history.
Long before there was use for a mighty dam, there was a necessity to connect major cities using a high-speed method to facilitate transportation and commerce. Around the turn of the century, there was still no direct connection from the biggest metropolitan area in the southwestern U.S., Los Angeles, and the Great Basin’s largest community, Salt Lake City. This became apparent right around the same time to two men—U.S. Senator William A. Clark of Montana and the owner of the Union Pacific, Edward H. Harriman—both of whom aimed to answer the call of manifest destiny by being the first to construct such a monumental route. The move pitted the two against each other in a game of railroad chess.
In 1899, Harriman’s Union Pacific moved the first pawn, constructing rail lines from Salt Lake to Cedar City, Utah. Clark countered with his knight in 1900, by acquiring the already established Los Angeles Terminal Railway, which operated in the Pasadena area. Clark renamed the line the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad, and began plans to build the line northeast to the Nevada border. By 1901, moves were being made all across the board, with each man’s railroad claiming right-of-way, constructing grades across the southwest faster than anyone could keep up with—and it’s rumored that the chaos led to at least one fight between opposing workers.
Smack dab in the middle of the ferocious game—importance unbeknownst to a single soul at the time—was an oasis in a valley located along the Mormon Trail, home to only a couple dozen circa 1900. The acquisition of this land would play an important role in the progress for both men.
The Union Pacific got the first opportunity to buy land and water rights in the valley, but the deal fell through. The move brought forth Clark’s queen, when he would purchase the Stewart Ranch from Helen Stewart in 1902. His strategic purchase also included Las Vegas Springs—the ranch’s water source—and the Kiel Ranch—another important area in what would become the Las Vegas Valley. The purchase put Clark in the perfect position to claim right-of-way through the valley, placing his railway in a much better position than Harriman’s.
But the purchase didn’t spell checkmate for the Union Pacific just yet. Both rail lines raced across southern Nevada, and eventually met just north of what would become Las Vegas, sparking a stalemate known as the Clark-Harriman War. The war was nonviolent and short-lived, however, because the stalemate stood, with neither railway claiming a victory. The terms of the compromise allowed Clark to complete and operate the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake on tracks built by the Union Pacific, so long as they received a 50 percent share. The railroad was completed on Jan. 30, 1905, and service began shortly thereafter, with each man receiving his fair share of the profits.
Not 30 years later, the Union Pacific would once again find itself briskly building tracks across southern Nevada to help with yet another monumental achievement in American history. The U.S. Congress approved the Boulder Dam Project in December 1928, and by 1930, work on the Union Pacific Boulder City Branch was underway. The approximately 25-mile line connected Las Vegas and Boulder City, and provided a way for supplies and people to get quickly from the burgeoning Las Vegas to the government town built solely to serve the construction of the dam, Boulder City.
Once the Union Pacific line was completed and service started in 1931, the U.S. Government constructed a 10-mile railway that connected Boulder City, the dam site, and the high mix cement plant that was built on the canyon rim. Located where the Hoover Dam parking garage sits today, the high mix plant was used to store cement, sand, gravel, and other materials used in the dam’s construction, before being transported to its necessary location via rail, trucks, and buckets suspended from cables.
Six Companies, Inc.—the consortium of construction companies tasked with building the dam—constructed the third and final railway. The 19-mile line stretched to the low mix plant (same as the high mix plant but located at the bottom of the canyon) and to a gravel quarry in Arizona.
During the dam’s construction, the railways saw nearly nonstop use. They transported countless tons of materials and men. It’s estimated that the railways saved two years of construction time, solidifying once again the importance these iron horses played in the construction of the U.S.
After the dam was completed in 1936, many sections of the once-revolutionary railways became nearly useless. The Six Companies’ lines were quickly scrapped, while the Bureau of Reclamation would come to own the U.S. Government lines. The Bureau last used the Government lines in 1961, when installing power generators at the dam. In 1963, the Government lines were scrapped. The route they took from Boulder City to the dam, however, are still clearly visible, and a bicycle and hiking path now takes guests on the historic grade and through the abandoned railroad tunnels.
As for the Union Pacific line from Las Vegas to Boulder City, the line never officially died. Traffic waned for quite some time, before the section from Henderson to Boulder City was given to the State of Nevada in 1985. The Henderson section is still in service and is used to transport freight. The upper four miles became the Nevada State Railroad Museum, Boulder City, which preserves and tells the tale of southern Nevada’s remarkable railroad history.
It is estimated that the Las Vegas Valley today has a population of 2 million people, most of whom probably know nothing of the cold railroad war that was waged on the ground beneath their feet a little more than a century ago. Like many towns in Nevada, Las Vegas can trace its roots to a set of tracks; and in this case—along with that of Boulder City—the tracks are to thank for everything that came after them. And it all started because two men decided to play a game of chess with gigantic pieces of metal.