Dennis Cassinelli: Nevada’s Central Pacific Railroad
The completion of the Nevada portion of the Central Pacific Railroad was celebrated with the driving of the golden spike near Promontory Point, Utah in May 1869. 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 completion of the Central Pacific, between 1,600 and 2,000 men from that project went to work on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad from Carson City to Virginia City and Reno. 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, so 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” (brothels) were located.
Several years ago, I was 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 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. Much of the roadbed and even some drainage structures were still visible.
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 a little more than 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 is 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.
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 Co. 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 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 still can 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.” I took my box of rusted Central Pacific Railroad artifacts to the Nevada State Railroad Museum, but they said they had all the rusty junk they needed. Later on, I was working on a construction project in Reno along Ralston Street where the modern trains now travel below the original ground level and found the head of an extremely rusted pick that had been from the Central Pacific Railroad. I now put it to use in my own yard.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Cassinelli’s books sold through this publication will be at a discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.