May – June 2018
Nevada State Railroad Museum staff and volunteers
Rolling Through the Years
How the Nevada State Railroad Museum Cares for its Collections.
BY CHRISTOPHER DE WITT
The Nevada State Railroad Museum (NSRM) in Carson City has a significant collection of Nevada-related restored and unrestored rolling stock—a term that refers to any vehicle used on a railroad. The majority of the cars—passenger and freight—are of wood construction and most have a Virginia and Truckee Railroad heritage. The museum’s collection of wooden cars rivals that of any other in U.S.
What happens to pieces that come into the museum’s collection is generally conservation, preservation, or restoration. The question of which of those acts happens is a key piece of the museum’s purpose, and it’s a little-known component for many visitors.
FROM WHENCE THEY CAME
The Virginia and Truckee Railroad (V&T) began operations between Virginia City and Carson City in 1870, eventually reaching Reno in 1872. The production of ore and precious metals in the area meant the railroad was in need of much rolling stock. By the end of the 1870s, the railroad had amassed a grand fleet of passenger cars, but as the ore in Virginia City began to decline in 1874, the railroad fell on hard times. There was a short boom when silver ore was discovered in Tonopah but like many Nevada booms, this one soon ended.
By the turn of the century, wooden cars were being replaced by steel. Locomotives were bigger, more powerful, and operating at speeds wooden cars couldn’t safely handle. The V&T was never again financially fit to replace their aging fleet and so hung on to it, maintaining it, and nurturing it to the end of days for the railroad in 1950.
HOLLYWOOD COMES CALLING
In the 1930s, Westerns became one of the most popular movie genres. As movie production companies such as Paramount began to make more and more Westerns, word of a living museum of aged, authentic railroad rolling stock in Nevada got around. Paramount began to purchase this stock from the V&T between 1937-1947 and soon other studios such as MGM and RKO followed suit. Eventually the majority of the railroad ended up in Hollywood.
As the genre’s popularity waned in the late 1960s, the trains were wearing out and movie lots started to sell their collections. Some went to government entities and some to private collectors, such as Short Line Enterprises, which was comprised of four individuals who were railroad history buffs. Short Line eventually began to rent their equipment back to the studios.
BACK TO NEVADA
As pieces became available, the state began to collect the V&T rolling stock. In the late 1980s, the state purchased the collection of Nevada rolling stock from Short Line and returned it to Carson City. Other pieces came from Old Las Vegas—a tourist attraction in Henderson—from a field in Carson City, and from other collections.
By the new millennium, NSRM’s collection had grown to more than 60 pieces, but owning the collection is just one part of the story—it requires care and curation. For some pieces, covered storage is all that is provided, while some pieces are restored to a day-one appearance, and others are conserved. Museum visitors are able to view all pieces of the collection, unrestored and restored.
CONSERVE, PRESERVE, OR RESTORE?
Conservation and preservation are often mistakenly construed to mean the same thing. In the world of fine arts, conservation is the cleaning of a work of art with little or no intrusion upon the original fabric. In the world of industrial fine arts, restoration typically results in a large visual difference between where we start and where we finish with a free-for-all on the original fabric. With conservation there may or may not be intrusion upon the original fabric but the fact that work has been performed is fairly obvious. There are several reasons for these discrepancies.
It important to understand the subtle differences between the two programs and how they apply to various aspects of the museum trade. Conservation is the saving and protecting of the original fabric—the material used to create the object. Preservation is the act of prevention of injury, decay, waste, or loss. The “Mona Lisa,” for example, is conserved. The original paint that Leonardo da Vinci applied is of great significance. The “Mona Lisa” isn’t sanded and repainted every time it goes in for conservation; rather the surface is delicately cleaned. The paint that you see is the paint Da Vinci himself applied. This is a very pure skill set that most greatly honors the original fabric.
Restoration is an effort to return an artifact to a previous appearance and function. Sometimes this is accomplished by cleaning but more often by replacing materials, manipulating the structure, and reapplying finishes. Cars are typical of this approach, and are often sandblasted, welded, and given new parts. This can result in a wholesale change in the artifact’s appearance.
Neither approach is more or less right than the other, but museum professionals have to make a value judgment about an artifact in order to do it justice. In making decisions regarding artifact curation, many aspects must be examined. The social and cultural value of the artifact needs to be determined. The scarcity of the artifact is a consideration. Its appeal to the public and the issue of funding—an ever-present theme in the museum world—weighs heavily on the decision process. The ability of the artifact to teach and entertain people is taken into account, and how it fits into the institution’s purpose must be considered.
Museums have mission statements—a simple yet direct enumeration of the purposes and goals of that institution. In deciding what to collect, conserve, or restore; how to fund preservation; and how to curate and interpret a candidate, museums refer to the mission statement. Accordingly, NSRM isn’t going to accept a rock collection or an aircraft carrier, as it would not satisfy any part of the mission statement.
SIZING UP THE JOB
For those in the railroad preservation field, the days of finding a rail car or locomotive hidden away in a shed, dragging it out, and running it until it breaks are gone. The days of sand blasting rolling stock and making up a paint scheme that has no basis in historic accuracy are over also (for the most part). The railroad preservation business has matured in the last 40 years as the merits of the artifacts and the stories they tell have been recognized.
Prior to any physical work on an artifact, the museum will study it in depth and attempt to identify it, and then document the history, current condition, and the potential it offers through restoration. Sometimes there isn’t much information available and we don’t do anything, but sometimes there is a plethora of information. All documents we create are available for review in the museum historian’s office.
The current project in NSRM’s restoration shop is the conservation of the passenger car built in Sacramento that carried Governor Stanford and the golden spike to Promontory Point, Utah, in 1859. It is the only surviving piece from that lauded event. Following its time on the Central Pacific Railroad, the V&T purchased it and operated it through the majority of its useful life. Very little is known about the original appearance, therefore it will not undergo wholesale restoration to a day-one appearance. The car is being conserved; cleaned, shored up, refastened, and prepared for exhibit. The original fabric won’t be manipulated. The car will be interpreted as what it has become through the years and will tell the story of how it survived. Perhaps future generations will discover information that will allow for a complete restoration one day.
On the other hand, the museum recently completed a restoration of locomotive Glenbrook. A great deal is known about its original appearance, and it was taken back to a day-one appearance with new paint representing its original livery and new fittings patterned off of manufacturer’s drawings.
What NSRM’s next project might be is unknown. There are many pieces to draw from and all have a story to tell. The public is invited to visit the museum and contemplate what would be of merit and useful in the telling of the railroading story in Nevada.