Much like the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859, reconstruction of the Virginia & Truckee rail line could draw international attention, say its boosters.
"Right now, 60 percent of the tourists in Death Valley are from Germany. They love the West and they love the heat. When this train is operating, it's going to turn a lot of heads. It's a worldwide draw," said Dan Dominy, board member with the Northern Nevada Commission for the Construction of the V&T Railway.
Dominy headed a tour along the old rail bed Friday, and the scene was perfect at Storey County's American Flat.
A small band of wild horses, sleepy in the heat of an August morning, kept a wary eye from under a craggy Russian olive tree. The huge cement mill stood empty below, a testament to the area's mining past. Swallows darted and soared against nearby cliffs and the two vehicles on tour lurched and rocked over the historic rail bed.
Built at the height of the Comstock Lode, the short line delivered lumber from the Sierra Nevada to the mines and silver ore to the mills in Carson River and Brunswick canyons.
The V&T rail line once extended from Virginia City to Carson City and ultimately, from Minden to Reno. The rails and ties were removed long ago, but much of the bed from Gold Hill to the mouth of Carson River Canyon is still intact.
"The grade is set, the engineering has been done and there won't be many landslide worries. The banks have been stable for over 100 years," Dominy said. "Once we get past the Overman Pit, this will be a very fast project."
Excavated as a mining operation in the 1950s, the pit destroyed the rail bed, leaving a hole 90 feet deep. The bed will extend about 30 to 40 feet above the natural ground level and the crossing is expected to cost $5.4 million. Part of that money, $2.2 million, was obtained through a federal grant from the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.
Railway Commission member Ted Short is both optimistic and anxious. He said the project is waiting for the final environmental impact statement and engineering from Nevada's Department of Transportation and should go out to bid soon.
"We're ready to go," he said. "We have $1 million from the Department of Tourism and once we've laid that section of track, we'll be able to find other avenues for obtaining the rest of the money."
"Total cost for the project is estimated at $25 million," Dominy said. "But a more realistic figure may be $30 million."
The rail bed winds south and east through sage and Pi-on, with Mount Como and Jobs Peak serving as the backdrop to the south. The route bypasses two old railroad tunnels, problems yet to be resolved. The solution for Tunnel Four, according to Dominy, depends on funding.
"The most likely option will be to daylight the tunnel, or dig it all out," he said. "But every railroad buff out there wants a tunnel."
Residential areas have obliterated the original route in Mound House and the new path skirts the foothills to the west. An overpass bridge will carry the train south at the Lyon County and Carson City line, over Highway 50 and south into the river canyon.
The bed clings almost precariously to the side of steep grades there, periodically reinforced with thick stone walls. Huge wooden beams sticking out of the ground mark the points where trains dumped their loads of ore, destined for the mills hundreds of feet below.
Studded with cottonwoods and willows, the Carson River was low and lazy, sparkling in the noonday sun as a huge blue Heron swooped low, looking for a meal.
Once under way, completion of the project is expected to take about two years. Economic impact statements project a $40.9 million bonanza from the construction project alone. Once the train is operating, the annual economic impact for the region is estimated at $16.5 million.
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