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Virginia & Truckee, Part 2

Photo by Drew Jacksich
Restored V&T railroad.

Last time, we told you about building the Virginia and Truckee Railroad, incorporated one hundred and fifty years ago. There’s more to the story. A lot more.

Construction became tied to other issues. The Central Pacific was being completed, and the federal government had helped the builders by making it easier for them to hire Chinese laborers, who were paid less. Sharon also hired Chinese workers for his railroad. Comstock miners claimed it was part of a plan to replace them with Chinese miners. They went out to the construction site and drove away the Chinese. The miners calmed down only after Sharon reassured them he wouldn’t replace them in the mines. The Chinese returned to work.

There was also the matter of geography. It’s no coincidence that mountainous areas tend to have minerals and mining. If you’ve been around the Comstock Lode, you’ve seen the proof. Surveyor and construction engineer Isaac James had quite a task on his hands with the V and T. The railroad had to go down sixteen hundred feet in the course of thirteen and a half miles from Virginia City to the Carson River. He did it without any grade exceeding two and a quarter percent—quite an achievement. To get the line up and down the mountain, it makes seventeen circles. SEVENTEEN.

Partly for that reason, the Virginia and Truckee was known as the crookedest railroad in the world. There was another reason: Sharon and his method of operations. We told you he got Ormsby and Washoe Counties to help pay for construction. Sharon worked with—or on—local officials to make sure the road would get a low assessed valuation, meaning the taxes on it would be less. He and his partners from the bank, William Ralston and Darius Mills, bought out the other stockholders for a pittance and made enormous profits.

And it was the only railroad in town, so Sharon could pretty much charge what he wanted. Then other mining millionaires made their displeasure known. One of them, John Percival Jones, served five terms in the U.S. Senate from Nevada. The other was John Mackay, leader of the Bonanza Kings, owners of a huge vein under Virginia City. They threatened to build competing railroads. And they had the money to do it. THEN, Sharon lowered the rates, at least for a while.

The railroad made plenty of money for Sharon and the Bank Crowd, but the Comstock Lode was soon headed into decline. The V and T kept operating, with several spurs to nearby towns. But in 1929, it ended passenger service from Virginia City to Reno, and finally shut down on May 31, 1950.

But the V and T refused to die. In the 1970s, local investors led by Bob Gray worked to rebuild some of the line and get new locomotives. The Nevada Commission for the Reconstruction of the V and T Railway got involved later. Senator Harry Reid got federal funding and Lieutenant Governor Lorraine Hunt pushed for state money. Today, the restored V and T runs from Carson City to Virginia City and from there to Gold Hill. We Nevadans are also blessed with railroad museums in Carson City and Boulder City, and the railroad museum in Ely, all reminding us of an important part of our heritage.