Railroad to Golconda

Beyond any doubt the one Comstock institution that functioned longer, achieved more enduring fame and whose name became more synonymous with Nevada than any other tangible asset except the Lode itself was the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. For more than eighty years of unbroken and useful service its operations were at first the wonder of the railroad world and later the most picturesque of working antiquities. Long after the mineshafts of Hale & Norcross and Consolidated Virginia that brought it into being were sealed forever and long after its builders, the might Darius Mills and shrewd William Sharon of the Bank of California, had routed their private cars for the last time over its circuitous rails, the V & T was a functioning Nevada tradition, a venerable gaffer among the railroads of the world. It had outlived its spendthrift youth and even its substantial maturity, but it still precariously rolled the mail, freight and a few passengers over its grass-grown right of way to become an imperishable actor in the great cavalcade of American railfaring.

Other railroads have had other terminals, but the V & T’s generations of dispatchers now long dead gave it a green light and a clear track without slow orders and straight to immortality.

By the late sixties fortunes of the Comstock were, after a full decade of thundering production, operating in borrasca and the end of their yield was in sight. Because of the freight charges of the teamsters who hauled the ore down to the mills which lined the Carson River from Dayton to Empire only the richest ores were worth processing, and timber with which to shore up the deep stopes, drifts and winzes of the mines was equally prohibitively priced. Millions of dollars in inferior ore lay on the mine dumps below Virginia City and ore worth millions more was almost at hand below ground but was unavailable because of the excessive cost of getting at it.

The Bank of California’s manager on the Comstock was a dapper and infinitely foresighteed little man named William Sharon. Sharon knew that a railroad was what the doctor prescribed for the ailing Comstock. It would take the ore down to the mills at a fraction of the teamster’s prices, thus making the inferior ores now above ground available to reduction, and it could bring up timber from the forests of the Sierra at fantastic savings to continue operation of the mines. But Sharon wasn’t satisfied simply with the idea of building a railroad and taking a profit from its operations in freight and passengers. It might not be said that Sharon was greedy, but he had a remarkably acquisitive intelligence and so, with a grand over-all design in the back of his steel trap mind, he began allowing the mill owners of the Comstock to overextend themselves financially at his bank, took their paper when he knew it to be quite unsecured by any possibility of future earnings and kept the matter of the railroad under his well groomed silk top hat. When the mill owners were unable to meet the obligations and so were completely in the power of the Bank of California, Sharon coolly organized them in a single association, each member of which was obligated to patronize the railroad after it was built and otherwise to do the bidding of the bank in every detail of its conduct.

Then and only then did Sharon build his railroad.

The V & T was originally planned to run only from the mineshafts on Sun Mountain down to the long array of stamping mills along Carson Water, but with the transcontinental railroad now passing through Reno only thirty odd miles away it was inevitably that the V & T should build from Carson to a Reno connection.

The first shovelful of earth was turned for the V & T’s grade in the shadow of the mint at Carson City early on the morning of September 27, 1869, and from that moment down to the immediate present the V & T has participated almost daily, and often in matters of tumult and importance, in the news of Nevada. When, in 1875, the great stone shops and engine houses in the meadows outside Carson City were completed, a local notable named Colonel Curry conceived the idea of a monster railroad ball. For weeks all Nevada was in a tizzy of excitement and newspapers carried daily accounts of reports of the decorations committee, the decisions in the matter of refreshments and how the resourceful colonel was sending to far-off San Francisco for an orchestra at the unheard-of outlay of $500! When the ball itself took place special trains brought the elite of the Comstock down to Carson in their Paisley shawls and broadcloth tailcoats on special trains for the gala event and the last special didn’t head up the grade with its cargo of wilted revelers next morning until nine o’clock. Nevada has never forgotten the great railroad ball of 1875.

Once in operation, the V & T surpassed the wildest dreams of its projectors. Not only did they own the railroad, but the nabobs of the Comstock were carrying aboard it their own ores to mills which they controlled and returning with lumber from forests they also had acquired. Only the cynical would call it a monopoly, but for many years Mills, Sharon and William Ralston, each a third owner of the V & T, divided $100,000 a month in profits from their railroad alone.

Unlike most men of property of a later generation, the owners of the V & T were proud of the appearance of their bonanza railroad and nothing was too good for it. The most powerful engines, the finest and most beautiful rolling stock in all the West made their first appearance on the V & T. Its locomotives were miracles of red paint and gold trim and its coaches were the products of the master car builders of San Francisco and the East. The V & T’s owners had the idea, now quaint and outmoded in American finance, that a fine property deserved well at the hands of its proprietors and that they were under obligation, while pocketing gratifying sums from the V & T, to give the public something in return.

It was inevitably, with the wealth that was pouring from the mineshafts of Virginia City and Gold Hall promising to total a billion dollars, that notables from all over the world should want to see the source of these iridescent wonders. Metallurgists came from Germany, mine experts voyaged from distant Cornwall, the Baron Rothschild and his entourage (a whole special train for them) arrived from London and mere American millionaires, capitalists, stock promoters, newspaper reporters and magazine writers were a dime a dozen in C Street and the bar of the International Hotel.

They all came up over the V & T, in beautiful canary colored coached, in overnight sleepers from San Francisco and Sacramento and in the clever Mr. Pullman’s Palace Cars, each according to his station and means. President Grant, General Sherman, Helena Modjeska, Salvini, Booth, McCullough and David Belasco. Some of the maharajahs of super-finance came in private cars of fearful and wonderful design with vast resources of marble bathtubs, tufted satin boudoirs and brass bound observation platforms. It is hard, even to the enlightened fancy of a later generation, to imagine the V & T yards down the hill a pace from C Street alive of a morning with switch engines shifting traffic and the arriving of hundreds of adventurers, business men and sightseers. But so it once was, and in the evening the light from the crystal chandeliers of stately private cars shone through the drawn silk shades, and women in evening gowns from Paris and New York tripped daintily up their carpeted steps for intimate suppers of quail and champagne. The years of the ortolans on the V & T were very, very splendid indeed.

When the long twilight of its career set in as the mines slowly and finally ceased altogether, the V & T shortly after the turn of the century, changed character from a bonanza railroad to one of rustic and agricultural destinies. It built the Minden branch tapping the rich dairy and ranching resources to the south of Carson City, and for a time the traffic in milk, butter, cheese and stock shored up its declining revenue. But the automobile and the speed highway which paralleled every mile of the railroad’s main line abolished its passenger traffic except for occasional excursions and a few sentimental voyagers into the past and during the last few years the V & T depended almost entirely on the mail contract and a modest source of revenue from heavy freight shipped in on slow schedules.

For a time the railroad was the personal property of Ogden L. Mills, grandson of its original builder, who, a generous, sensible man, kept it running out of his private pocket. No matter how lean the years upon which it had fallen, the V & T could glory in the circumstance, noted on its eightieth birthday, that it was the most celebrated short line railroad in the world.

“Just how colorful the legend of the V & T has come to be,” said the Nevada Appeal in the fall of 1949, “is best illustrated by the fact that it figures in more literature than most main line railroads and that no other little railroad ever attracted a quarter the attention of the V & T in books and periodicals, monographs and histories both technical and popular, Bancroft, Eliot Lord, George Lyman, Dan DeQuille and Oscar Lewis are only a few of the writers who have been fascinated by one aspect or another of what Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg in their Mixed Train Daily have called ‘the Yankee Princess of bonanza railroads.’ It is a certainty that the V & T will enjoy a fragrant immortality as the most literary of all the little feeder lines that once abated time and distance in the imperishable American West.”

The original main line of the V & T between Carson and Virginia City was torn up in 1938, but sometimes on clear winter nights when the snow lies heavy on the slopes of Sun Mountain and the coyotes and prairie dogs hold carnival down Six Mile Canyon, old inhabitants of the Comstock hear a soft huff-puffing of wood burning engines and the clatter of couplings and they know, no matter what anyone else may say, that the Night Express for San Francisco is being made up in the yards and that the V & T is still carrying the old bearded Kings of the Comstock and their treasure down the grade to immortality.

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