The History of the Crookedest Short Line in America, the Virginia and Truckee Railroad.
by Don Bush
"The Grosh brothers struck it rich in Washoe!
"There's a strike in the Utah Territory!"
And so it was in 1859 a sample of silver ore taken to Grass Valley California assayed as high grade. Thousands rushed east over the Sierras to the Comstock Lode and what was to become Virginia City. The ponderous granite ledge of gold and silver - named after local miner Henry "Pancake" Comstock - was one of the largest strikes ever on the American Continent. Battles over claims lead to tough mine laws still in effect today. Virginia City grew into the most opulent and exciting city in the West. The Comstock Lode, the richest place on earth, became known for its well tailored millionaires, it's opera singers, and most important, the richest and the crookedest railroad of all time, the Virginia And Truckee Railroad.
Miners and businessmen alike rushed to the shadows of Sun Mountain for their chance at the hidden riches. By 1863 the population of Virginia City was more than 20,000. The booming mining town attracted a sudden explosion of greedy, easy-money opportunists. Of these, no one was quicker to catch the monetary fox than William Sharon. Because of his financial dead aim in California, Sharon was picked in 1864 to open the Virginia City branch of the Bank of California.
Sharon had a sharp eye for financial opportunities and an insatiable lust for power. He pursued the acquisition of every mine and mill on the Comstock Lode. His plan was simple - extend cheap credit at half the going interest rate, then foreclose at the first opportunity.
Within two years Sharon, Ralston and the Bank of California had virtually every mine and mill on the Comstock under their control. But they wanted more.
The Central Pacific portion of the transcontinental Railroad was nearing the summit of the Sierra Nevadas and would soon reach The Truckee Meadows at Lake's Crossing, the future site of Reno. A rail connection from Virginia City to the Central Pacific would drastically cut the cost of hauling freight to the busy mining town. If the Bank of California could be the first to build such a Railroad they could take control of the freight business just as they had the mining and milling industries.
But Sharon and the Bank were not the first with the idea of a Railroad to Virginia City. The first charter for a Railroad was granted in November of 1861 under the name Virginia, Carson and Truckee Railroad Company. This road was to go through Eagle Valley north of Carson, through Washoe Valley and then up the Truckee River to the California border, with a spur line running down to the Capitol at Carson City. But unable to get financing, the owners had yet to lay a foot of track.
Another charter was granted in December of 1862, to the Virginia And Truckee Railroad Company, but no track had been laid under this charter either.
In May of 1867 Sharon grabbed the loose ball and incorporated the Virginia and Truckee Railroad Company with a route running from Virginia City, north along Lousetown road to the present site of Lockwood, 10 miles east of Reno, where it would connect with the Central Pacific.
Factions in Storey County and Ormsby County offered Sharon $500,000 to run the Railroad through Carson City and up Washoe Valley to connect to the Central Pacific at Lake's Crossing.
Not one to laugh at half a million dollars with no strings attached, Sharon re-charted the Railroad accordingly in March of 1868. White haired Henry M. Yerington was appointed superintendent of the new V & T. Sharon's timing was perfect as in May of that same year the Central Pacific laid the transcontinental track into Lakes Crossing, 25 miles north of Carson City.
Grading of the V & T right-of-way began in February of 1869. By September, the route was ready for rail. Henry Yerington drove a silver spike into the first rail on September 28. December saw the first train from Carson City reach Gold Hill. In January of 1870, the first official passenger train pulled into Virginia City.
The V & T route began in Virginia City, curved its way a half mile south to Gold Hill, across the famous Crown Point trestle, through more curves to American Flat, down to Moundhouse and through Brunswick Canyon into Carson City. The route made enough turns in the trip to go around in a circle seventeen times. The V & T easily earned its name as "The Crookedest Railroad In The World."
The turns were tight, many of them were more than the standard 14 degrees. The sharpest turn was an unheard of 19 degrees going into Gold Hill. The 16 mile trip took 21 miles of track. Iron rails were imported from England. Six tunnels were built on the main line, all timbered against loose rock and zinc-lined to prevent fires.
The Railroad purchased three engines from Booth Union Iron works in San Francisco and two slightly larger engines from Baldwin of Philadelphia. All five engines were 2-6-0 type Moguls. The Booth locomotives, numbers 1, 2, and 3 were named Lyon, Ormsby, and Storey. Engines 4 and 5, the Baldwin machines, were named after the terminal cities of Virginia and Carson.
But in 1870, as was so typical of the furious ups and downs of the mining industry, the gold and silver of the Comstock Lode appeared to be running out. Production was down. Prices of mine shares plummeted. The future of the newly completed Railroad did not look bright.
With low prices for mine shares, mines were easy to buy. Sharon and the Bank of California lost control of the Crown Point mine to John P. Jones and Alvinza Hayward. Soon after, John Mackay and James Fair, two mine superintendents, secretly bought the Hale and Norcross Mine.
Sharon, though frustrated at his loss of two major mines, continued the building of the V & T. In 1873, the entire run was open, from Lakes Crossing to Virginia City.
Then Jone's and Hayward's Crown Point mine hit pay dirt and Sharon was vindicated. Mine production increased steadily as did the profits of the Railroad. The Silver short line stayed busy and profitable hauling wood to the mines, ore to the mills, and consumer goods to the still thriving city.
In May of 1873, a huge body of high grade ore was discovered in Mackay and Fair's Consolidated Virginia Mine. The discovery was the largest ever on the Comstock and became known as "The Big Bonanza." John Mackay and the other owners of the Consolidated Virginia pocketed a million dollars a month in profit. The V & T was getting rich, too, making four hundred thousand dollars a month hauling freight and passengers. In today's dollars, the V & T profit was nearly ten million dollars a month.
Soon the busy V & T was operating 116 ore cars, two hundred platform cars, and 361 freight cars hauling as much as 40,000 tons of freight each month. By 1874 the V & T had 18 locomotives in service and was running 40 trains a day.
Feeder lines were build to Yerington's wood flume at the south of Kings Canyon near Carson City and to the lumber yards at Clear Creek Canyon. Thousands of cords of wood passed through the V & T every month. A typical Comstock mine could burn upward of 25 cords a day for the operation of their hoisting works and the huge Cornish water pumps needed to keep the mines free of water.
The V&T was flourishing but the face of the Comstock was changing. The owners of the Consolidated Virginia Mine and its "Big Bonanza," John Mackay, James Fair, James Flood and William O'Brien, became known as the Bonanza Kings. With their success in picking producing mines, they soon took control of the Comstock, wrenching financial power from Sharon and his associates at the Bank of California. They opened the Nevada Bank and soon locked Sharon and the Bank of California out of the financing business altogether.
The Bank of California, overburdened with bad loans on barren mines, capsized. William Ralston, manager of the bank, was fired and found dead in San Francisco Bay soon after, possibly a victim of suicide. William Sharon, still the gritty survivor, went on to become the Senator from Nevada in the Congress of the United States.
Like Sharon, the V & T continued on in spite of the odds. Reconstruction of Virginia City after the devastating fire of 1875 kept the Railroad profitable even though the mines were beginning to run out.
By 1879 it looked like the "Mighty Bonanza" was dying. The V & T hauled only 52,000 tons of ore that year, one fifth the amount of 1876. It was the beginning of hard times for the famous Silver Short Line.
Determined to keep the Railroad business alive, V & T Superintendent Yerington and the other owners of the V & T began the construction in 1880 of the narrow gauge Carson and Colorado Railroad to run from the V & T intersection at Moundhouse down into Bodie and Aurora, bustling mining towns to the south. But Bodie and Aurora soon went from boom to bust and the branch line didn't help the V & T at all.
Production in the mines of the Comstock was down, too. In 1886 the branch line to Silver City was abandoned. In 1890 the V & T stopped paying dividends. In 1901 many miles of spur track were removed and sold as scrap to help with expenses and to avoid the new tax on track.
Ore production took a slight rise in the early 1900s and boosted the V & T for a short-lived res-pit (respite) from its otherwise continual decline. Jim Butler discovered gold in Tonapah. The Tonapah Railroad was built to connect to the C & C. Soon the freight business on the narrow gauge Carson and Colorado kept the V & T busy, even though the freight had to be transferred by hand from the narrow gauge C & C to the standard gauge V & T.
In 1904, the C & C was sold to Southern Pacific. They offered to buy the V & T, too,but the price was too high. To cut the expense of manual transfer of freight, Southern Pacific standardized the C&C rails from Moundhouse to Tonapah. Soon after they ran a line north to Hazen and connected the C & C , now called the Nevada California Railroad, directly to the main line of the Central Pacific. The V & T was bypassed completely and lost all the freight from Tonapah and the mining communities to the south.
Faced with competition from the trucking industry and the depletion of the rich Comstock ore, the V & T fought frantically to stay in business. In a last ditch effort to remain afloat, tracks were ran down to Minden from Carson City and in August of 1906 the V & T opened its lines to the agricultural and cattle freight from Douglas County, south of Carson City.
In 1910, Superintendent Henry Yerington and President/owner Darius Ogden Mills, two stalwarts of the V & T, both died. The spirit of the old V & T was nearly gone. Mills' grandson, Ogden Livingston Mills, took over the Railroad and personally picked up the deficit the train was generating. But competing against improved trucks and highways proved impossible. By 1917 the majority of the ore cars had been scrapped and many of the other cars sold. The Railroad continued to decline as the automobile and truck industry expanded.
In 1922, the United Comstock Mining Company built a large cyanide mill at American Flat that still stands today, and once again the V & T experienced a short rejuvenation. But the mines in Virginia City were depleted and in 1924 the straight passenger service to Virginia City was down graded to mixed trains after 55 years of continual service. In 1926 the American Flat Mill closed and left the V & T again running on the deep and generous pockets of its owner, Ogden Mills. In 1935 The Crown Point trestle in Gold Hill, the famous symbol of the Comstock, was torn down to mine the rich ore beneath.
Soon after that, Ogden Mills, the generous owner and steadfast Railroad fan who had been supporting the V & T, also died. The V & T was placed in receivership. In 1937 there was a short spurt of money as Hollywood began buying old V & T rolling stock to use in the movies. But it wasn't enough.
In 1938 the Board of Directors of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad announced its intention to close down the Railroad. They began selling off equipment as antiques. June 4 of 1938 marked the last freight train to Virginia City. By then the trips to Virginia City were excursion trains for Railroad buffs to the Comstock Lode. In 1941 the tracks to Virginia City were finally torn out.
The V & T was barely surviving on the revenues it earned as a feeder line for the Central Pacific. In 1945 Engine #11, the "Reno" in all her brass trimmed glory, was sold to M-G-M in Hollywood. Now, with only three working engines, ten wheelers, #25, #26, and #27, the V & T was a diminutive reflection of its once glorious self.
The Board of Directors thought to delay the inevitable by modernizing the Railroad. Inquiries were made into the purchase of a diesel engine and the costs of upgrading the track. The price of the 90 ton engine required to pull the Lakeview grade was $106,000. Estimates for track and roadbed repair ranged from $400,000 to $3.1 million. The task proved impossible. In January 1949 the Virginia and Truckee Railroad applied for permission to abandon its entire line. The petition was approved in February 1950. The official end of the V & T was to be May 31, 1950.
On May 1, as though in protest to the death of the Railroad, Engine #26, while cooling in the roundhouse in Reno, mysteriously burned. It was a fitting end to the great short line.
The last official trip of the V & T, held with great pomp and circumstance, ran May 11, 1950 and marked the end to a majestic and noble era of Railroad history.
Now dead except in the movies, the V & T slept the sleep of the long forgotten.
Then in 1976, Robert Gray - a businessman and railroad buff from California - seeing the potential in the rebirth of this historic monument to man's ingenuity - brought the V & T back to life. Old right-of-ways were purchased, steam trains were renovated and the V & T entered a new life with vigor and enthusiasm as an excursion train for history and railroad fans visiting Virginia City and the once mighty Comstock Lode.
The 1990s find the Virginia & Truckee Railroad running from the "F" Street Station west of St. Mary's Church in Virginia City down to Gold Hill and the Gold Hill Depot, newly renovated by the Comstock Restoration Foundation. Possible plans for the future include extending the track past St. Mary's to the old freight depot to the north and down to Moundhouse and Carson City to the south.
The Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City boasts many finely restored original V&T engines and cars. Engine #22, The brass beauty "Inyo," , - work horse #25, - and #18, "Dayton," all reside in the beautiful facility in Nevada's Capital.
Engine #12, the "Genoa" - engine #13, the "Empire" - and engine #21, the "J.W. Bowker," all fascinate thousands of visitors a year as main attractions at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento California.
Probably the most famous V & T engine was Engine #11, the "Reno" - also known as the "Brass Betsy" or the "Brass Bound Baldwin Bantam." The "Reno" made its first movie in 1937 and is still doing so in Tucson, Arizona.
Risen like the Phoenix Bird, born again from the ashes of the past, the V & T steams on, into a bright future, once again the Crookedest Short Line in the World.