Nevada Railroads In "The Silver State"

Nevada may be quite rural and isolated in most locations but they does offer several jewels, not to mention that it serves a key link in the Union Pacific's massive system (in the way of the former Southern Pacific's and Western Pacific's main lines). 

Historically, Nevada is recognized as the western component of the transcontinental railroad when the Central Pacific blazed across the northern desert in 1868 and early 1869 as it worked to reach the Union Pacific. 

The two finally met at Promontory Summit, Utah on that fateful day on May 10, 1869. 

The Silver State is also home to the historic Nevada Northern Railway (a virtually untouched excursion operation from the 19th century!) and the fabled Virginia & Truckee Railway which has been entirely rebuilt, along with help from the State of Nevada. 

Nevada has never been home to either a large number of railroads or overall mileage.

That holds true even today as Union Pacific serves nearly all of the state's rail interests with BNSF Railway being the only other system with a presence (via UP trackage rights). You may note that there are links listed throughout the article here.

These will take you to other pages here at the site related to Nevada railroads and are included here simply for your interest.

A pair of Southern Pacific SD9's run through the desert with the northbound "Mina Turn" between Mina and Luning, Nevada during August of 1984. This southern segment of the Mina Branch, originally built by the narrow-gauge Carson & Colorado around 1881, was abandoned a few years after this scene was captured. Drew Jacksich photo.

A Brief History Of Nevada Railroads

Nevada's rail history dates back to 1868 when the Central Pacific Railroad reached the state building east from Sacramento, California.

The CP, of course, was a product of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, which sought to construct a Transcontinental Railroad.

Abandoned Railroads Of Nevada

Nevada has always been a state featuring through routes and few branch lines.  The Southern Pacific (Central Pacific), Union Pacific, and Western Pacific all maintained key corridors across Nevada.

As a result, there has not been considerable loss to its rail network, aside from largely secondary Southern Pacific corridors.

One particularly notable removal, albeit is actually just bypass efforts, is the original Central Pacific grade to Ogden, Utah.

Over the years successor Southern Pacific has improved this routing by straightening curves and reducing grades.  Similar efforts were carried out on Donner Pass in California.

One especially noteworthy abandonment of a standard-gauged line is the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad.

This system ran from a connection with the Santa Fe at Ludlow, California to Goldfield, Nevada.   

It was built largely to handle borax and notable for being built across the Death Valley region.  All operations ceased in 1940 and rails were removed in 1943 for the war effort.

There is also the fabled Virginia & Truckee, "Queen Of The Short Lines."  The road was constructed just after the Civil War to handle the legendary "Comstock Lode" of silver ore.

After this traffic began slowly playing out in the latter 19th century the railroad subsisted on whatever means of local freight it could generate.  

It began a slow decline in the mid-1920's and finally ceased service after May 31, 1950.  However, a project was launched as early as the 1970s to see part of the line rebuilt.

These efforts grew further when the state of Nevada became involved in the 1990's.  The many years of dedication finally paid off when the segment from Gold Hill to Carson City reopened in 2009 as a tourist attraction.

Less known is Nevada's once-extensive narrow-gauge network, which also primarily handled the silver industry of the 19th century.  These system included the:

  • Battle Mountain & Lewis Railway

  • Carson & Colorado Railroad (largest and most successful)

  • Eureka & Palisade Railroad

  • Nevada Central Railway

  • Nevada Short Line Railway

  • Pioche & Bullionville Railroad

  • The Pioche Pacific Transportation Company

  • Tonopah Railroad

The C&C went on to become part of Southern Pacific's system while the rest were all abandoned before World War II.  Some did not even survive to see the 20th century.

The CP would be the western railroad building east while the Union Pacific headed west from Omaha, Nebraska. As many know, of course, the two railroads met at Promontory Point, Utah completing the line on May 10, 1869.

The CP would soon after become part of the Southern Pacific system. In the proceeding years the Silver State would be home to a number of celebrated western railroads.

Classic Railroads To Serve Nevada

Central Pacific

Southern Pacific

Union Pacific (While the UP would come to own all of the classic railroads that reached into Nevada, its original main line to Los Angeles clipped the state's southern region.)

Western Pacific

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (The AT&SF had a very small presence in Nevada via a branch line running to Beatty in the southwestern corner of the state.)

While Nevada is historically remembered by the operations of the UP and SP the much smaller Western Pacific also had a considerable presence through the state with its Salt Lake City-Sacramento/Bay Area main line traveling through the northern region of Nevada (it also had a branch extending to Reno).

Western Pacific FP7 #804-A waits at Elko, Nevada around 4 AM on the morning of March 22, 1970 with the final westbound "California Zephyr" as a crew change takes place. Drew Jacksich photo.

Today, Nevada railroads are almost exclusively the realm of Union Pacific (although BNSF does continue to have a presence in the way of trackage rights across the state).

There is currently only two other freight railroads operating in the state, the Nevada Industrial Switch and the S&S Shortline Railroad.

Western Pacific GP40 #3511 leads its train eastbound at Sand Pass, Nevada at the southern end of the Smoke Creek Desert in December, 1981. Roger Puta photo.

The former operates a former UP branch, beginning operations in the mid-1990s and serves the Pabco Gypsum Mine which produces standard sheets of drywall.

The latter railroad is multifaceted operation providing car sales and leasing as well as providing train rides in Farmington, Utah (the S&S Railroad Shortline Park & Museum).

Southern Pacific 4-8-4 #4460 (GS-6) is seen here at Sparks, Nevada (Reno), following one its final excursions prior to retirement, during an October night in 1958. Today, this 1941 product of Lima is preserved at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis. William Mills photo.

However, it also owns a roughly 50-mile stretch of track between Shafter and Currie, Nevada where it has an interchange with Union Pacific. Currently, the company only uses the property for car storage.

* The iron horse arrived in Nevada with the coming of the Transcontinental Railroad; specifically, the Central Pacific Railroad.  Building east from Sacramento, California, the CPRR arrived in Reno, Nevada on June 18, 1868.

While passenger trains like the California Zephyr and City of San Francisco are no longer operated by their original creators, the CZ remains under the Amtrak banner with stops in Elko, Winnemucca, Sparks and Reno.

Today, there are about 1,200 miles of rails currently active and in some state of use in Nevada. During the industry's heyday of the 1920s (when mileage peaked in the country) Nevada was home to nearly 2,200 miles of rails.

Since that time the state has lost about 45% of its railroad infrastructure, which is on par with what most other states have experienced during that time.

In any event, for a more in-depth look at Nevada, in terms of rail mileage over the years please have a look at the chart above.

Rio Grande SD40T-2 #5365 is ahead of an eastbound manifest at Sparks/Lockwood, Nevada during October of 1996. Drew Jacksich photo.

So, if trackside along the UP becomes boring stop by the V&T or Nevada Northern to see classic railroading at its finest! 

As for railroad museums and excursion trains, Nevada is home to just a few of these, although they are notable including the Nevada Northern Railway, Nevada Southern Railway, the fabled Virginia & Truckee, and the Nevada State Railroad Museum.

All four are fascinating in their own right and receive a fair amount of visitors each year.

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Wes Barris's is simply the best web resource in the study of steam locomotives. 

The amount of information found there is quite staggering; historical backgrounds of wheel arrangements, types used by virtually every railroad, preserved and operational examples, and even those used in other countries (North America and beyond). 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.  It is a must visit!

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way. 

Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that. 

If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer

It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!