Trails to Rails, Roads, and Skyways
The railroad comes to Nevada

In the pioneer days, men dreamed of railroads that would cross the continent. These dreams haunted men until they became realities, and so the railroads came to contribute their share in the building of the West. Laying rails over endless miles of undeveloped country was a gigantic undertaking, but it was accomplished. In fact the job was one of the most spectacular and thrilling achievements in the nation’s history. Under tremendous difficulties the Central Pacific (now known as the Southern Pacific) was pushed across mountains, down canyons, over valleys and deserts through a country where few men lived, water was scarce, and all materials had to be hauled from far distant points.

Steel rails over the Sierra Nevada Mountains—with a summit of more than 7,000 feet—crossed into Nevada for the first time on Dec. 13, 1867. The Central Pacific employed between 20,000 and 25,000 men and 5,000 to 6,000 teams to do the job. Between 500 and 600 tons of materials were used daily during the construction period.


On June 19, 1868, the Central Pacific line reached Reno in its eastward progress. Reno was nothing more than a village at the time. Wadsworth, 35 miles east and born with the coming of the railroad, was reached on July 22 that year. The country east of Wadsworth was a desert, and it afforded little that could be used in the construction of a railroad. With the exception of a few cords of stunted pine and juniper trees all the fuel had to be hauled from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There was not a coal bed anywhere along the line and there was not a tree for 500 miles that would make a board. There was no water after leaving the Truckee and Humboldt Rivers. In the mountains east of Wadsworth small springs were developed. When water was obtained it was carefully conserved and piped over miles of desert to the lines of the railroad. Most of the water used on the Nevada construction work had to be hauled in water trains to the end of the track and from there in tank wagons to the gangs working ahead.

To expedite the construction work, about 3,000 men were sent 300 miles in advance of the track to Palisade Canyon in Elko County. There, workmen were supplied by teams and wagons hauling materials over the desert. Another construction force carried the grading from Wadsworth east. Ties were hauled hundreds of miles to places where construction gangs were pushing the line eastward.

On March 5, 1869, the Central Pacific was operating trains to its rail end in Carlin, and from there the tracks were laid, with great speed, eastward. In spite of the difficulties of desert construction it was easy work compared with the obstacles encountered in the snow-covered mountains to the west. From Wadsworth to Ogden, Utah, the road was built between July 1868 and May 1869 with a force averaging 5,000 workmen. Between nine and 10 months were required to build this 555-mile section.


When the rails of the Union Pacific, building westward from Omaha, and the Central Pacific building eastward from Sacra- mento, were joined at Promontory Point, Utah, the great task of constructing a transcontinental railroad had been completed. Shortly afterward, the first train passed safely over the road and brought the eastern seaboard to the Pacific coast in less than a week of travel. That was remarkable speed in those days, and the construction job was a stupendous achievement.


Mining activities in The Comstock Lode, where Virginia City was growing rapidly, brought about the construction of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad in 1867. The line operated between Carson City, the State capital, and Virginia City, the great mining camp. Prior to the building of this road, ore was hauled by team and wagon, and lumber from the Sierras was transported by “bull team” and cart. An attempt was even made to transplant camels from their native lands to Nevada as freight carriers in those days. These camels soon disappeared from the trail and rutted roads because they were found to be unfit for the purpose in this western land.

The V&T was extended northward to Reno in 1871, and made rail connections with the Central Pacific. In 1874, as many as 36 trains daily were needed to haul the freight and carry the passengers to and from the Comstock. Peak load capacity has been recorded as 45 trains daily. In 1906 a standard gauge line was completed which extend- ed from Cobre, a small station on the Central Pacific in eastern Nevada, Ely and McGill, in White Pine County. This Nevada Northern line serves one of the largest industrial enterprises in the State-the development of huge copper deposits in the vicinity of Ruth and Ely.


When the Central Pacific built eastward through Nevada in 1868 they selected Wadsworth as the division point. In 1904, the division point was moved 30 miles west to the town of Sparks to better accommodate the east and west travel over the road. Division offices, roundhouses, and shops were built there and have remained to contribute to the prosperity of the state. Around this railroad activity has grown a city of about 5,000 people. The city has broad, paved streets, its workmen enjoy comfortable well-built homes, their children have fine schools, and the citizens worship in churches of various denominations and carry on their trade in modern business stores and establishments.

Specially designed locomotives have been developed by the Southern Pacific to haul long freight and passenger trains over the Sierra Nevada mountains where tunnels and long snow sheds have been made necessary as a part of the right-of-way line. Engine and fuel units of this type measure 120 feet in length, and have the engineer’s cab located at the extreme forward end instead of the rear of the engine unit as in nearly all other standard types of heavy locomotives. These Mallets are probably the strangest appearing but most powerful locomotive units in the entire West. Lessening discomfort from smoke and gases to engine crews while passing through the tunnels and snow sheds—which have an aggregate length of 37 miles—and to insure clear vision ahead, this type of oil burning locomotive has been found most effective.

The Western Pacific Railroad was completed in the fall of 1909, and it gave the state its second transcontinental rail line. This railroad was built largely by hand labor and teams. Formal opening of the road for passenger service took place on Aug. 22, 1910. Important towns along the route are Gerlach, Winnemucca, Elko, and Wells, and a short line connection serves Reno.

The Western Pacific makes connection with two other major railroads, the Nevada Northern at Shafter and the Union Pacific at Wells. The Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, a unit of the Union Pacific System, comprises the third transcontinental crossing the state. It serves the Grand Canyon of the Colorado on the north rim, the national parks of Utah, and the Las Vegas and Boulder Dam areas in Nevada. In 1921, the Union Pacific System assumed ownership of the line completely. Its streamliners are recognized as the last word in modern railroad rolling stock.


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