Dennis Cassinelli: Nevada’s Central Pacific Railroad a remarkable feat
May 17, 2017
On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed with the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah. This followed an intense year of construction of the Central Pacific Railroad through the mountains and deserts of the Great Basin known as Nevada.
Immediately after the completion of the Central Pacific, between 1,600 and 2,000 men from that project went to work on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. The majority of these were Chinese laborers at a time when the population of Virginia City was about 10,000. The permanent residents were interested in mining and other occupations, and they were content to leave the railroad building to the Chinese.
The Central Pacific went through Reno, so it was determined the V&T should connect to the transcontinental railroad at the Truckee River in downtown Reno, hence the name Virginia and Truckee Railroad. I still remember where the bridge crossed the Truckee River to make this connection near where the old "cribs" were located.
A few years ago, I worked on a highway construction project between Fernley and Lovelock that happens to cross back and forth over the old roadbed of the original Central Pacific route. In the early evening hours I took time to walk over several sections of the old roadbed in search of artifacts and to study the construction techniques used by the crews who built this engineering marvel. In many places, the old roadbed still is visible, including cuts and fills and even some traces of bridges and culverts.
Being a construction person, I can't help but admire what was accomplished by those people between April 1868 and May 1869. Without heavy construction equipment, these men built a railroad that crossed the entire expanse of the State of Nevada in little over one year. The roadbed was flat and smooth, and the grading was done with Chinese laborers using wheelbarrows, picks and shovels. The roadbed was built up by taking material from a "borrow ditch" on either side and throwing it up onto the roadbed. In a hill or cut section, the material was thrown up over the side and not hauled long distances as it's in modern construction.
The original roadbed didn't even have ballast between the ties in many areas. This was added later when the line was completed and ballast material could be brought in on railroad cars.
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At the Nevada State Railroad Museum, I picked up a remarkable book titled "The Central Pacific Railroad Across Nevada, 1868 & 1997" by Lawrence K. Hersh. The Central Pacific Company employed an official photographer named Alfred A. Hart who took photos along the way during construction of the railroad through Nevada.
In Hersh's book he shows many of these photos along with photos he has taken from the same locations showing, by way of comparison, how these same places look today. This is truly a fascinating volume, and I recommend it to anyone interested in railroad history. I have made a game of visiting many of these same places to see firsthand what traces of the old Central Pacific Railroad can still be found.
So far, I have found several railroad spikes, a broken brake shoe, some track plates and a remarkable cover plate from a journal box with the inscription "C.P.R.R. — 1875." At the end of the construction season, I took my box of rusty iron to offer it to the Nevada State Railroad Museum to see if they wanted any of this memorabilia from the Nevada portion of America's first transcontinental railroad.
Most Northern Nevada towns sprang up around the Central Pacific Railroad stations, including Verdi, Reno, Wadsworth, Fernley, Lovelock, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Carlin, Elko and Wells. In 1969, there was a centennial celebration of the 1869 golden Spike Ceremony at Promontory Point, Utah. Since the original Central Pacific locomotive "Jupiter" no longer existed, the V&T locomotive "Dayton" was modified to represent the Jupiter at the centennial celebration. When the Dayton was later restored at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, I salvaged one of the Jupiter signs and gave it to the Eastgate Depot near Carson City where it can be seen hanging in the depot.
Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis' books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount to reduce inventory and Dennis will pay the postage.