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Nevada Smith: The Christmas Trains

As you roll north on US 95 or east on Interstate 80, it’s easy to forget there was a time Nevada’s transportation system relied not on the automobile, but on the iron horse.

  Starting in the early 1860s when the first railroad engine entered Nevada near Verdi, the state was soon festooned with tracks connecting its mining boomtowns with the outside world.

  The railroad boom lasted until the early 20th century diminished along with the ore in places like Eureka, Rhyolite, and even Virginia City. By World War II, most of the state’s railroads has either been absorbed by corporate giants or abandoned all together.

  They were gone, but not forgotten in the hearts and minds of many Nevadans. Some longed to return to a time when the railroad was our only reliable mass transit. Others wanted the trains and tracks preserved for historical reasons. Nevada has been so busy growing over the last 150 years that its rarely paused to consider the history it was making.

  Travel the state these days, and you can still find places where Nevada’s railroad heritage is alive and celebrated. The best part is, this time of year you can combine a visit to the museum with a treat the whole family will enjoy.

  Starting in the south, there’s the Nevada Southern Railroad Museum in Boulder City. The Union Pacific built a rail line from Las Vegas to Boulder City in 1931, a short route that required five tunnels through the mountains. Although the railroad was decommissioned not long after its completion, the museum is devoted to historically preserving trains from the era.

  In time for the holidays, beginning Dec. 4 young visitors to the museum will be greeted by Santa Claus during its special excursions. It’s an excellent way to experience the museum. (For more information: 702 486-5933.)

  Traveling up U.S. 95 just outside Beatty, a side trip to Rhyolite will remind you of Nevada’s roaring railroad era. Although no trains run through the ghost town, the Rhyolite station still stands as a testament to a time when fortune-seekers and speculators flocked to the great Nevada outback. Starting just before Christmas in 1906, the Bullfrog Goldfield line once made regular stops in Rhyolite. (Information: rhyolitesite.com/tidewater1.html)

  Up north, the Virginia & Truckee Railroad is running strong. It starts near the Carson River Canyon and travels east of Mound House, over the U.S. 50 bridge and up through Gold Hill and into Virginia City.

  In December, the Virginia Truckee operates the “Comstock Christmas Train” for holiday revelers. The train is decorated and Christmas music fills the air.  (Information: 775 847-0380.)

  Moving east to Ely, the dedicated souls at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum have devoted innumerable hours to create the “Polar Express,” which began Nov. 26 and runs through to Christmas. It turns out Santa and his elves not only make use of a sleigh and reindeer, but are also fond of diesel and steam locomotives.

  On the way to the North Pole, Chris Van Allsburg’s award-winning “The Polar Express” is read to passengers, who are served hot chocolate and cookies. After a visit from Santa, Christmas carols are sung all the way back to the Ely station. (Information: 775 289-2085.)

  Ely’s Polar Express helps raise funds that keep the museum and its stout-hearted engines running.

  In the process, railroad devotees from Boulder City to Virginia City help keep alive an important part of Nevada history.

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