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Restored railroad track between Carson City and Virginia City gives glimpse into the past.
Photo: 2010 Photographers Special
In 1870, Virginia City was a booming mining town, Carson City had a modest, but growing, population of about 3,500, and Reno had only been in existence for two years. Central to daily life in all three was the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode.
While gold outcroppings initially brought mining prospects to the region, the previously ignored silver ore was soon discovered to be valuable and quickly became the major excavation.
William Sharon, a Nevada Agent of the Bank of California who financed the building of most of the mills along the Carson River, saw the opportunity for a railway to be built connecting the ore-producing mines in Virginia City to the quartz-reduction mills along the river. Plans started in 1868, and in 1870 the Virginia and Truckee Railroad Company was officially established. While the tracks ran from Virginia City to Carson City, an extension was completed in 1872 to Reno connecting the V&T to the transcontinental Central Pacific Railroad.
As mining in Virginia City began to decline in the 1880s, the railroad focused more on transporting passengers than ore. Railroading was still a thriving enterprise, and the V&T extended its tracks to include a branch from Carson to Minden in 1905. However, after 1924, mining had virtually stopped and ever-increasing use of the automobile rendered railway travel archaic. The railroad finally closed in 1950, and the rails to Reno and Minden were removed.
In 2005, reconstruction of the line started and is nearly complete. The V&T offers several rides on steam and diesel locomotives. The Toast of the Canyon tour provides a nostalgic glimpse into the past while passengers sip locally made wine and snack on local restaurants’ hors d’oeuvres, and gaze into the valley which has remained largely unchanged since the mining era.
The tour begins at the Carson City Depot (technically in Mound House), where guests board the steam train and occupy the middle car. There is no air-conditioning on the antique cars, but an occasional breeze pours through the open windows and keeps the temperature comfortable.
Because of the time of day and direction, the best seats are on the east side of the car; here passengers are in the shade and get the best view of the canyon. Three blows of the whistle, and the train takes off. The screeching of the wheels on the track as it laboriously tugs to a start is momentarily agonizing but soon replaced by the pleasing click-clack of the train passing over the ties.
The new tracks have been placed on the original route and as the passengers look out onto the landscape—void of any manmade fixtures—it gives a glimpse of what early travelers would have seen. A train attendant tells the history of the V&T, although the intercom system could use an upgrade.
Wine is poured and appetizers given out as the train pulls to a halt, presenting a beautiful view of the valley and Carson River. While the passengers take in the splendor of the Nevada landscape and head to different cars, the engine roars past the train as it reverses course and heads back home.
Once secured, the conductor blows the whistle, allowing those aboard to hear the echo as the sound bounces off the surrounding hills. The journey back is uphill, and the train strains to get going but quickly regains its steady click-clack rhythm. The attendants, dressed in their period-appropriate attire, joke with those on board. The train pulls back into the station, and the passengers, with souvenir wine glass in hand, depart the train, blissfully content.
The entire trip is about 45 minutes, enough to give the subtle taste of a train ride but leaving those who attend wanting more. And longer excursions are available at different times of the year. The Toast of the Canyon trip is $15 and runs from late July to early September, but train rides are offered throughout the year.