Ties that bind

Martin Hanson/Courtesy photo The locomotive that was purchased for the V&T Railway is seen here  traveling through the McLeod, Calif., region near Mount Shasta.

Martin Hanson/Courtesy photo The locomotive that was purchased for the V&T Railway is seen here traveling through the McLeod, Calif., region near Mount Shasta.

(Editor's note: This story was updated on 3/21/05)

A black and silver 1914 locomotive will chug over the ties that connect Carson City and Virginia City, which are pegged to $30 million worth of iron, engineering and ingenuity.

This is a combination that Virginia & Truckee Railway project coordinator Kevin Ray calls "the perfect project."

Others will call it the ties of sisterhood. It's a bond built on the idea that prosperity for one means prosperity for all.

The railroad is historically known as the "most crooked short line in America," because of its waltz with the Carson River, twists up the American Flats and span across the Overman Pit. Tourism and government officials promise it'll bring a $40 million boost during the construction phase, and $16 million annually after the railway is completed. Area business owners yearn for the 160,000 annual passengers the V&T is expected to attract.

"It's a perfect example of how regional marketing works together," said Ray, who is the project coordinator for the Nevada Commission for the Reconstruction of the V&T Railway.

Hope of prosperity spurred the creation of the railroad, which broke ground on Feb. 18, 1869, two miles below Gold Hill on American Flat. According to historian David Myrick in his "Railroads of Nevada," extraction of $310 million from the Comstock Lode from 1859 to 1879 fueled the economic power of Virginia City.

But when the mines dried up, so did the money. State Archivist Guy Rocha said by the '30s they were running the railroad in the red. The mines had virtually shut down and few passengers were left.

"They were losing money hand over fist, so they shut it down," he said.

Published records mark the end of the V&T in stages. But the official coup de grĂ¥ce came with the final run on May 11, 1950. It now exists only as a short hop between Gold Hill and Virginia City, operated half the year by Bob Gray since 1976.

Joe Curtis, owner of Mark Twain Book Store on C Street in Virginia City, predicts that a restored connection with the capital city will tow a renaissance into the community.

"It will probably have the same or greater economic impact as did the Bonanza TV series in the 1950s," he said.

Or, it could not.

V&T Project Coordinator Ray said he isn't worried about the V&T going bust, like other rail lines that couldn't keep the tourists coming.

"When you look at what we offer in Northern Nevada, including Reno, Lake Tahoe and Carson City and the unique historic nature of Virginia City, we already have the tourism," he said. "I wouldn't compare Northern Nevada to McCloud because each place has its own features. Here we have so much to offer."

Mount Shasta looks beautiful this time of year, said Jeff Forbis, president and owner of McCloud Railway and the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train.

But all McCloud has to offer wasn't enough. The tourist line is starting to cut back.

He runs a locomotive and four diesel trains on 100 miles of rails beneath the 14,162- foot mountain. His excursion lines are going broke, which is the reason he sold his second locomotive, the McCloud No. 18.

"It's an asset we weren't able to fully realize a return on," Forbis said about No. 18.

Excursion lines are longer trips between cities, aimed at rail aficionados and tourists. He just doesn't get the number of passengers any more to warrant running an expensive steam locomotive.

He sold the fully refurbished Baldwin Locomotive Works engine for $420,000 to the V&T commission.

Forbis will continue his lucrative dinner train between McCloud, Calif., and Mount Shasta. But he will likely shut down the line that runs to Burney, Calif.

"There are some things that can save it, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen," Forbis said about the line. "I've been trying to sell for a year, but it's not like selling a car."

He bought the McCloud railway 13 years ago after a 36-year career in the freight rail business. He doesn't consider himself an expert on running a tourist line, and Forbis said he doesn't really have any advice to share with the V&T commission. He just did it for fun.

This characterizes many tourist railways " even the V&T before its tracks were pulled. A wealthy train buff will keep the line alive, just enough to hearken back to a bygone era when the train was king and lavish Pullman cars represented the highest social class. Then it goes into the red.

But the McCloud Railway is making money on its dinner and murder mystery trains " tickets sell for $85 to $95 each. It isn't just the train ride that draws tourists, it's the entertainment on board.

The one thing Forbis has learned: It's better to pull a dinner train with a diesel, and save the costly steam engines for excursions.

No. 18 is in storage at McCloud's shop, where it will stay until the commission is ready for it. The next time it'll run is in early August.

Carson City and Virginia City are leaping into the unknown together " holding hands and encouraging each other.

Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Candy Duncan said it makes sense to partner with Virginia City. As many members of the tourism board have said, they don't want a train in Carson City that goes to nowhere.

"I think 'Sisters in History' evolved because when people came to Carson City one of the things they wanted to do was go to Virginia City. They have a world-famous name," Duncan said.

"Sisters in History" began as a coupon brochure to generate tourism traffic in both areas. Duncan said the tourism board gave her the goal of strengthening the relationship with Virginia City, so that visitors would immediately associate the two cities together.

"So when the V&T is completed they would know about both our communities," she said.

Susan Sutton, of the Virginia City tourism authority, said she is also a firm believer in cooperative marketing. With tax revenue from only 72 rooms, all the rooms in Storey County, she has to be.

As the executive director of the Virginia City Convention and Tourism Authority she oversees an annual budget of $171,000. In contrast, Carson City's tourism budget last year was about $1.2 million, which is revenue from the 10 percent lodging tax. The V&T project gleans 2 percent of that, which was about $246,000 last year.

Sutton said the partnership with Carson City is important to the V&T " but not exclusive.

"With our limited funds I'm looking for as many partners as possible," Sutton said.

Hugh R. Marshall, president of Silverland USA, plans to build a $4 million AmeriHost Hotel, which would double the number of rooms in Virginia City.

He is already focused on getting the train to the front of his hotel, and that would require opening the tunnel near the landmark St. Mary in the Mountains Catholic church. Re-opening the tunnel and strengthening the foundation of the church is expected to cost about $1.2 million. The tunnel doesn't have a name yet, but it will probably be named after the principal financial contributor, he said.

When visitors take the V&T, will they stay overnight, or go back down? That question is important to Carol Fain, co-owner of the Gold Hill Hotel, but she isn't losing sleep over it. Her rustic hotel has 12 rooms and six lodges.

"It doesn't worry me at all," she said. "I think people from Reno will come up for the day and hopefully will spend the night. But if not they'll go to Carson City."

That's what partnership is all about.

--Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at bbosshart@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.


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