Nevada once boasted about 70 railroads with thousands of miles of track linking remote mining towns with the transcontinental railroads. The mercurial nature of mining spelled doom for many of Nevada’s railways, but the development of the country’s highways led to the demise of railroads as our expanding young nation once knew them.
Today, the network of rails has all but disappeared in the Silver State. Trains now speed across Nevada on some 1,200 miles of track used by just two railroads hauling freight, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe across the north and the Union Pacific in the south. Passenger service has dwindled to Amtrak trains through Reno on just the northern route.
Frantic to reach the mineral wealth pouring out of Nevada’s mines in the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroad companies vied to lay narrow and standard gauge track as fast as they could across the Silver State. They used the new rails to haul materials for depots, offices machines, engine sheds, employee housing, watering stops and sidings for passing trains as needed.
A handful of these railroad structures still stand, ghosts of a lively and colorful era. Some forlornly await an uncertain future in ghost towns. Others have been moved from their original sites and put to other uses. A few have been restored and repurposed, ensuring their continued existence. All have interesting stories to tell, worthy of inclusion as you travel through Nevada on highways that often parallel routes pioneered by those early railroads.
Motor to Clark County Heritage Museum on Boulder Highway in Henderson to visit the original Boulder City Depot and several railroad cars relocated to an outside display. The depot served a Union Pacific spur line built in the 1930s to bring construction materials to the site of Hoover Dam. Part of the original track now serves the Nevada Southern Railway from Boulder City, part of the state museum system, but its depot and other structures are new.
When you journey north on U.S. 93, stop in Caliente for a tour of its handsome mission-style depot built in 1923 by the UP. The restored two-story building now serves as a community center, as well as housing businesses and city offices. Be sure to visit the adjacent Boxcar Museum.
Continue on U.S. 93 to Ely to tour the Nevada Northern Railway complex, donated in its entirety by Kennecott Copper when it closed its open pit mine. This company-owned short line served the region for 60 years. Restored locomotives and rolling stock make up excursion trains that run on two original routes. The distinctive 1907 depot and offices operate as one of Nevada’s museums.
When you travel U.S. 95, turn in Beatty to reach old Rhyolite, a ghost town once served by three railroads. The tracks are gone, but the fine stone depot built in 1907 still stands, one of the best-preserved of several buildings in town. As you continue on U.S. 95, you’ll discover remnants of the same railroads housing a business in Goldfield and at the Tonopah Historic Mining Park. In Mina, watch for the old Southern Pacific depot from Luning repurposed for community use. In Hawthorne, the depot built for the Carson and Colorado line, a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific, now serves as a clubhouse.
In Fallon, the two-story wooden SP depot now comprises part of a casino. Nearby Fernley proudly displays its ornate original 1914 depot from the Fernley and Lassen Railway, a Southern Pacific associate, carefully relocated and painstakingly restored. Nearby Wadsworth’s two-story Southern Pacific depot now serves as a railway yard office in Sparks. Sparks erected a replica of a Union Pacific depot in 1976 to house its chamber of commerce and a museum.
In Reno, Amtrak passengers use a modern building with antique touches. The Nevada, California and Oregon Railroad’s 1910 depot, locomotive house and machine shop located nearby stand empty. Close by in downtown Reno, the historic Virginia and Truckee line’s original Freight House awaits redevelopment plans. Elsewhere, the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City uses other relocated V&T buildings and Gold Hill’s V&T depot now houses a museum.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.