Dennis Cassinelli: Remembering Nevada’s ‘Slim Princess’ railroad
By 1880, the owners of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad decided to pursue another venture to tap into the new mining districts developing in the south central part of Nevada. The idea was to construct a new railroad line to connect Carson City and the Comstock to the Colorado River at the southern border of the state.
The Carson and Colorado Railroad was started at the Virginia and Truckee station at Mound House just east of Carson City and wound its way through Dayton, Hawthorne and points south in hopes of cashing in on new mining developments along the way. As new discoveries were made, the route of the line was changed to suit the needs of the developers. When a major discovery was made in the Candelaria region, the C&C followed. The line then veered off to cross the White Mountains into California finally ending at Keeler, Calif., 300 miles from the starting point at Mound House. Unfortunately, the line never did make it all the way to the Colorado River as originally planned. Residents of Pizen Switch in Mason Valley renamed their town Yerington after the builder and general manager of the Carson and Colorado, Henry M. Yerington, in hopes this would entice the railroad to come through their town. The trick didn’t work, however, and it would be many years later before Yerington would get a railroad.
In addition to serving the mining interests, the C&C helped in the development of agriculture in the region by providing a means to ship crops and livestock to market. Many of the farms and ranches along the way had their own siding where an empty boxcar could be left and picked up again by the next train after being filled. My own family, who owned a ranch near where the C&C crossed the river at Dayton, used the trains in the 1890s to ship potatoes, hogs and cattle to the Comstock and to California.
Unlike the standard-gauge V&T, the Carson and Colorado was a narrow-gauge line. All the engines and rolling stock of the C&C were much lighter and smaller than the V&T equipment. The railroad men assigned to work on the new line weren’t accustomed to working with the smaller equipment, so they nicknamed the new train the “Slim Princess” — and the name stuck. The operation of the Slim Princess line was a casual affair at best and certainly was no model of how to run a railroad.
In order to cross over Indian land around the east side of Walker Lake, the owners made an agreement with the Indians they could ride the trains for free anytime they wanted — not in the passenger cars, but atop the freight cars. On most trips, it was common to see eight or 10 Indians riding atop the boxcars as the train chugged its way across the desert. The Slim Princess was notorious for making unscheduled stops along the way for one reason or another. If a passenger’s hat would blow off, the engineer would stop the train and back up so the passenger could retrieve it.
In the fall, passengers had to wait while the crew stopped to hunt a few sage hen or wait for a flight of ducks to fly by in Mason Valley. Other times of the year, they found it great sport to take potshots at passing jackrabbits from the open boxcar doors. One of the conductors, who later became Nevada Gov. Fred Balzar, often stopped the train while he took a buggy ride to have dinner at his sweetheart’s ranch. Sometimes in the winter when the summit over Montgomery Pass was covered with snow and ice, the light Slim Princess didn’t have enough weight to have traction. When this happened, the fireman would get out and sprinkle hot ashes on the tracks so the train could continue on.
When I worked in Hawthorne a few years ago, I visited the Mineral County Museum and saw a big steamship anchor on display that had recently been discovered when the water of Walker Lake had reached a new low. I learned in the 1880s, a steamer had crossed Walker Lake from the east shore to bring supplies and passengers from a C&C siding on the east shore of the lake to the town of Walker on the west shore near present Highway 95. Somehow the anchor was lost until discovered when the receding water reached a new low point.
By 1900, the owners of the Carson and Colorado decided to cut their losses and sell the line to the Southern Pacific Railroad for more than $2 million. Although it had been a fun ride, the investment just hadn’t lived up to their expectations. The sale proved to be an unwise decision, because two months after the sale, the Tonopah rush began, followed shortly after by the Goldfield boom. These were just the type of discoveries the former owners always had hoped they could cash in on.
The Southern Pacific Company soon converted the Carson and Colorado to standard-gauge in order to better serve the new mining districts. With this development, the Slim Princess was taken out of service and soon faded away into oblivion to become nothing more than memories of one of the most casual railroad lines in railroading history.
Railroad history enthusiasts in Keeler and Laws California have been active in collecting and restoring rolling stock from the old Carson and Colorado Railroad at the far south end of the line. At Dayton on the north end, an effort is underway to restore the original C&C depot. Parts of the original boxcar No. 84 have been donated to Dayton and is awaiting restoration near the depot. It’s in deteriorated condition and will be a challenge to restore.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount to reduce inventory and Dennis will pay the postage. These will no longer be available from Amazon.