Dennis Cassinelli: Nevada’s Central Pacific Railroad

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Central Pacific Railroad reaching Reno.

From Reno, the track was laid across the entire state and connected the towns of Verdi, Reno, Sparks, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Carlin, Elko, Wells and Wendover.

Being a construction person, I cannot help but admire what was accomplished by these 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 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 is in modern construction.

The route selected for the Central Pacific Railroad through the mountains and deserts of Nevada generally followed the Old California Trail, since this had been proven to be the easiest route of travel through the Great Basin for many years. Since the railroad needed water for the steam engines, the route had to be near access to water at regular intervals. 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.

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 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 truly is 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 still can be found.

The driving of the golden spike near Promontory Point, Utah, 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 that 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 to make this connection near where the old “cribs” were located.

I recently have been working 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 have had 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.

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 will take my box of rusty iron over to the Nevada State Railroad Museum to see if they want any of this memorabilia from the Nevada portion of America’s first transcontinental railroad.

This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.


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