When my extended family decided to hold its annual reunion at Donner Lake this year, I scrambled to organize an activity that would appeal to a range of ages. A ride on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad seemed like just the “ticket.” Based on other commitments and the travel time from Donner, I decided to book reservations for a one way (deadhead) trip to Virginia City departing Carson at 4:30 p.m.
As my husband and I waited for the family to arrive at the depot, I spent a few minutes visiting with Kevin Ray, who was manning the gift shop and welcoming expectant passengers at the East Gate Siding. We chatted briefly about the ongoing effort to extend the track farther into the Carson River Canyon which, in the minds of many, will be the crowning achievement of a reconstruction effort that began inauspiciously with the laying of the first railroad tie by Bob Gray in 1974, forecasting the re-establishment of service between Virginia City and Gold Hill.
As our departure time grew near, familiar faces appeared among the string of ticket holders trailing in from the parking lot toward the boarding platform. While the adults in my family were rather blasé, the younger members were jittery with excitement. What is it about a train that evokes this sort of reaction from children? Are the forces of Manifest Destiny still at work in our American DNA, or have these youngsters learned to love the Iron Horse because of movies like the Polar Express or the books of Wilbert Awdry who introduced generations of would-be engineers to the Cherub faced “Thomas the Tank Engine?”
As the train from Virginia City moved into the station, the anticipation was palpable. In their restless excitement, kids played imaginary jump rope with the plastic chains that had fallen from the metal stands that guided passengers in a sort of organized chaos toward the stairs leading to the boarding platform. Nearby parents pretended not to notice hoping, perhaps, their kids would wear themselves ragged before the one-and-a-half-hour journey to Virginia City began.
Minutes after leaving the station, we crossed the bridge straddling Highway 50 East where the conductor choreographed a collective wave to the passing cars below. As we climbed the grade and the buildings of Mound House fell away into the distance, the enduring landscape of the Nevada desert (peppered with eroding hills of tailings) spread wide before us.
A short distance ahead on a level piece of ground the train slowed to a stop to take on water to cool the engine. As the crew regaled us with stories of the Comstock, Tom Gray, the son of the man who kept the V&T legacy alive, invited my husband and me to ride in the cab with the fireman and engineer. I met Tom a number of years before when I served on the Railway Foundation Board and was delighted to accept his generous but unexpected offer.
As we positioned ourselves behind the red hot boiler, we were cautioned not to stand where a metal plate slipped and slid across the edge of the floor with every jerk and jolt of the tender behind us.
As we gained speed and angled around a bend in the road, a band of wild horses rose up like a puff of smoke over the ridge near the track. On cue, the fireman tugged on the rope before him belching forth a whistle that scattered the equines like dust. Directly before us lay Tunnel No. 4. As the darkness closed in around us, a blast of heat from the engine struck me in the face, sucking the air from the cab. I held my breath, peering through the blackness for a speck of light in the distance. Within seconds we emerged from the tunnel, back into sunlight and the cool, early evening air.
As we pulled into the Virginia City Station and the train grudgingly grinded to a halt, we thanked the crew and stepped warily down the steps to the side of the rails where the rest of our party was disembarking from the passenger cars behind us. As I climbed the hill to “C” Street, I thought to myself how lucky we are to have such a unique and historic attraction to remind us of our gritty and glorious past.
Shelly Aldean is a former Carson City Supervisor and local business owner.