March 2018 marks another anniversary. It was one hundred and fifty years ago that the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was incorporated. Now, a lot of you are familiar with some major railroads like the Union and Central Pacific, and various lines that have run through your towns, in Nevada and elsewhere. The V and T meant a lot to Nevada’s history. And it reflected some important aspects of American history.
Our friends at Vegas PBS aired a documentary about the Gilded Age. To oversimplify a bit, that’s the period in late nineteenth century America that we recall for great wealth and poverty, industrialization, and immigration, among other things. At the time, industrialists like Andrew Carnegie practiced what was called vertical integration. That meant a company controlled its supply chain. Carnegie Steel had its own iron and coal, plus ships and railroads. That way, Carnegie maximized his profits.
Nevada had its version of this. In 1864, the Bank of California opened a branch in Virginia City. It became the financier of a lot of mining on the Comstock. Bank boss William Sharon set out to make money and gain control. Within a few years, Sharon or the bank owned several mines and mills, as well as lumber and water sources.
Sharon wasn’t the first or only one to think a railroad to the Comstock Lode would be a good idea. But he got it done. He saw the value of building a road from Virginia City to meet the transcontinental railroad in the Reno area. It would cut transportation costs. It also might make money for him and his friends in what was called the Bank Ring.
So they incorporated the railroad. The line would run from Gold Hill, right next to Virginia City, to the Truckee River. Now, if you know your Nevada geography, you know that would bypass Carson City, the Carson River, and the Washoe Valley. Sharon knew it, and so did area residents. They screamed. Sharon felt VERY generous. He said he would have the road built through there if Ormsby and Washoe Counties bought stock in the railroad company. They did.
As Sharon’s biographer Michael Mackley put it, “The proposed Gold Hill to Reno route was certainly a bluff used to raise county monies. From the beginning Sharon undoubtedly intended to run the line along the Carson River, since he was in the process of acquiring the bank’s seven foreclosed mills for the Bank Ring and consolidating them on the river. Also, a road to Carson City would connect the ring’s timber resources with the mines.”
Sharon brought in the Comstock’s leading mine surveyor, Isaac James, and said, “Can you run a road from Virginia City to the Carson River?” James said, “Yes.” Sharon replied, “Do it, then, at once.” James did. In September 1869, Henry M. Yerington drove a silver spike for the first rail of the line in Carson City; he would spend forty years as the railroad’s top executive and be the namesake of a Nevada town. On August 24, 1872, another thirty-one miles of track linked the Comstock Lode to the Central Pacific.
Now Virginia City’s ore could more easily travel to the rest of the world. We’ll talk more about the railroad that did it, and the people who built it, next time.
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