Laying the Tracks for Nevada’s Future
Nevada’s state seal predicts railroad’s importance.
BY WENDELL HUFFMAN
The Great Seal of the State of Nevada dates from Nevada’s constitutional convention of 1863-1864. Among symbols representing agriculture, mining and other industries, is a train. In December 1863, the convention committee responsible for the seal described the train on the seal as “approaching, very slowly.” This was an understatement to say the least, and the statement may even have been a joke. At the time, the Central Pacific—the railroad closest to Nevada and the one that would eventually connect Nevada with the world—had barely 10 miles of track on the ground.
Yet, by putting that train on the seal those early politicians illustrated just how much the new state wanted a railroad. The Sierra Nevada posed a nearly absolute barrier to Nevada’s future development, with its passes closed by snow for several months each winter. A railroad was seen as essential to providing year-round communication between Nevada and the world.
Nevada finally achieved statehood in October 1864, but it would be three more long years before the Central Pacific even reached the state line, and six months more before trains were operating between Sacramento and Reno. Yet by the end of 1868 the railroad extended nearly the whole way across the state, and in early May 1869 the Central Pacific connected with the Union Pacific in northern Utah. Because the Central Pacific Railroad provided Nevada’s first rail link to the world beyond the Sierra Nevada and the deserts to the east, and because it became the artery to which subsequent railroads were linked, it is arguably Nevada’s most significant railroad.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
The dream of a transcontinental railroad dates back to the 1830s and 1840s. Efforts to build such a railroad failed all through the 1850s as there was no agreement on its route or the organization of the capital to build it. The Civil War motivated Abraham Lincoln and Congress to do what was necessary to bind the West Coast to the Union with iron rails, and at the same time, the secession of the Southern states simplified the discussion of the railroad’s route. While a general path had already been found for a Pacific railroad on a central route—bypassing the Sierra either to the north or south—the discovery of The Comstock Lode justified the development of a route directly through the central Sierra Nevada. The combination of federal incentives to build the Pacific railroad and the heavy Comstock commerce resulted in the Central Pacific Railroad.
There is no doubt that the Central Pacific fulfilled the aspirations held for it by early Nevadans. However, the railroad proved to be much more. As an inducement to build the Pacific railroad, the federal government granted to the company every other section of land for 20 miles on each side of the track. Altogether, the Central Pacific received about 7 million acres.
It was expected that the sale of this land—made valuable by the access the railroad provided—would reimburse the company for the expense of building the road. However, little of the land in Nevada and Utah proved attractive to settlers, and by 1880 the Central Pacific had sold just 295,886 acres. At an average sale price of $3.77 per acre, this yielded barely enough to pay for 18 miles of railroad at the average cost of $64,000 per mile. Nevertheless, most of the unsold railroad land was subsequently leased by the company for livestock grazing and mining, enlarging both of those industries. Moreover, until about 1900, property taxes paid by the Central Pacific on its land and railroad provided more than 60 percent of the income of the state’s rural counties. To this day, roughly half of the taxable land in Nevada was originally part of that land grant. Ultimately, placing that land in private hands benefitted the state of Nevada far more than it did the railroad company. Furthermore, in accepting that land, the Central Pacific agreed to carry mail and government freight at about half the regular rate. When the reduced-rate requirement was finally eliminated in December 1945, the government calculated that the railroad had saved it more than $900 million in transportation charges.
Thus, while the train on the state’s seal represented merely a dream at the time the seal was adopted, it became a symbol for the industry, which made Nevada a success. It was perhaps in his understanding of this significance that Nevada historian James W. Hulse wrote, “Nevada owes more to its railroads than it does to its mines.”