The Virginia & Truckee: Nevada’s Bonanza Railroad

Nevada’s most famous short line is the Virginia & Truckee Railroad which connected Reno with Carson City, Virginia City, and Minden. Operating for 80 years, the V&T was Nevada’s Bonanza Railroad as it hauled valuable Comstock ore to quartz reduction mills located at Silver City and along the Carson River. Today visitors to Virginia City enjoy a ride over nearly three miles of the original line amidst encouraging prospects that rails my soon once again reach the outskirts of Carson City. The name “Virginia & Truckee” is recognized the world over: V&T locomotives and cars have appeared in scores of feature-length motion pictures and the historic equipment is preserved and exhibited in museums in Nevada, California, and as far away as Strasburg, Pennsylvania. The V&T enjoys an international constituency.

The Virginia & Truckee Railroad Company was organized in Nevada on March 5, 1868. The objective was to connect Comstock ore producing mines with quartz reduction mills and, on the return trip, to bring in needed lumber, mining timbers and cord wood for fuel. Surveyed by local surveyor Isaac E. James, the 21-mile standard gauge line was completed on January 29, 1870 between Carson and Virginia City. A 31-mile extension north from Carson City through Franktown, Washoe City, and Steamboat Springs connected the Comstock with transcontinental rail service at Reno in August of 1872.

Primarily controlled by William Ralston, Darius O. Mills and William Sharon on behalf of the Union Mill & Mining Company and the Bank of California, the Virginia & Truckee was efficiently managed by General Superintendent Henry M. Yerington and immediately became a paying success. The completion of the V&T permitted the further development of Comstock mines by allowing the economical reduction of lower grade ores through reduced freight rates to the mills and by increasing the essential supply of lumber, mining timbers, and cord wood for fuel. In addition, well-appointed passenger service to Carson and Virginia City was a by-product of the short line’s connection with transcontinental rails at Reno.

For nearly twenty years the V&T was a major political and economic factor in the growth and development of Western Nevada and Eastern California. During the late 1870s, V&T stockholders divided handsome dividends in excess of $100,000 monthly. Additional financial returns provided the capital for nearly 40 other V&T-affiliated concerns. The 300-mile Carson & Colorado Railroad was built from Mound House, Nevada, to Keeler, California, and was operated by principals of the V&T from 1880 to 1900. V&T dividends funded the establishment of Hawthorne, Nevada, the Hawthorne Water Works, lumbering operations at Lake Tahoe and Southern Nevada, the Columbus Wagon Road to Bodie, a large soda plant at Keeler, and dozens of mining ventures at Aurora, Bodie, Hawthorne, Candelaria, Belleville, Columbus, and Cerro Gordo.

Headquartered at Carson City, a massive complex of railroad shops were erected under the direction of Abraham Curry. The shops were proclaimed by the Central Pacific to be equal to or better than their great locomotive and car building facilities at Sacramento. From these shops poured nearly every conceivable type of essential machinery for communities throughout Nevada, Eastern California, and even Mexico. For decades the Virginia & Truckee was hailed as the wealthiest short line railroad in the world!

With revenues derived from the twentieth century Tonopah boom, a new Virginia & Truckee Railway Company was incorporated in Nevada on June 24, 1905 to purchase the predecessor company and to construct a 15-mile branch south from Carson City to Minden. This branch offered transportation facilities to a growing agricultural and grazing district and resulted in substantial new revenue to the railway until such time as a surface highway was constructed between Reno, Carson City, and Minden in the years 1921-1922. Known today as U.S. Highway 395, the concrete highway completely paralleled the V&T between Reno and Minden and ultimately was the cause of the railway’s red ink operations beginning in 1923. Prior to that time, the V&T was the only efficient means of transportation for freight and passengers between these communities.

During the period 1932-1937, Ogden L. Mills, one of the major stockholders, loaned the railway nearly $95,000 to balance operating deficits until the line was forced to enter voluntary Federal receivership on April 27, 1938. Solid corporate status was not established again until January 18, 1946, under the financial direction of former V&T Auditor Gordon A. Sampson. Starting in 1937, the railroad began selling capital assets to meet monthly working capital obligations. The disappearance of Comstock traffic and the caving of several wood-lined tunnels ushered in the closing of the Carson-Virginia City line in 1938. The rails were removed and sold in late 1941. The resulting $52,000 revenue was again applied as working capital on routine maintenance which had been deferred for over a decade. Additional working capital also came from selling old V&T locomotives and cars to Hollywood studios for use in motion pictures.

For the twenty year period from 1928-1947, the V&T had a net income deficit of $440,605.75 by U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission accounting practices. As early as 1932, officials of the V&T seriously considered total abandonment of the railway in the face of annually mounting loses.

After 80 years of continuous operation, the Virginia & Truckee finally succumbed to the increasing competition of highway truck traffic. The Bonanza short line’s last official revenue train operated on May 31, 1950 between Reno, Carson City, and Minden. Following the local sale of the railway’s structures and properties, the rails between Reno and Minden were finally removed and the famous V&T became but a legend.

By Stephen E. Drew

(Stephen Drew has been researching the V&T for more than four decades. For the past 30 years, he has been Chief Curator of the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento.)

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