The vanished glory that was the V&T
“You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
To truly see and appreciate the world around us requires, as Mark Twain suggests, that we engage our imaginations. It is the power of imagination that enables an artist to see the beauty in the barrenness of a desert or a photographer to see the majesty in the soot-covered frame of an iron horse.
As we learned last week, Carson City resident Steve Van Denburgh drew his photographic inspiration, as a child of 14, from the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. Although his first encounter with the famous Comstock shortline was during its declining eyars, for Steve the V&T was no less alluring. Following are his memories of the journey to Carson City in search of the jewel in Nevada’s panoply of historic treasures.
“Fifty years ago, in September of 1949, my folks and I, along with classmate Dick Schuettge, vacationed briefly in western Nevada. The trip from California via Highway 395, was either a grade-school graduation reward (Dick and I were both 14) or a late summer fling before our freshman year at Citrus Union High School. (Would you believe that our “school colors” at CUHS were orange and lemon? True story.)
The V&T was my primary target of the trip. In retrospect, Dick and my folks seemed remarkably tolerant of this, perhaps because they were able to whisk me through Owens Valley in both directions without a time-consuming visit to Southern Pacific’s narrow gauge railroad.
The V&T that we found in Carson City was on its deathbed with, as it turned out, less than nine months of life left. (Sadly, the railroad was officially abandoned on my 15th birthday.) But when we arrived in September of ’49, the V&T was still operating to and from Reno and Minden. What’s more, author Lucius Beebe (pronounced “Luscious” by some of his critics), was right – this venerable shortline constituted “an animate and active link between …y esterday’s frontier and the present day.” I call it delightfully anachronistic.
Although I rode the train to Minden (a dream fulfilled, on an overcast September day) and briefly sat in the cab of locomotive No. 26, my favorite haunt, and the venue for most of my V&T photography, was downtown Carson City. I suspect that Beebe and his sidekick, Chuck Clegg, felt the same way, since their private railroad passenger car was parked there, on a spur close to the present-day intersection of Stewart and Washington streets.
I don’t remember much about the rest of this small state capital half a century ago (with an official population in 1950 of a mere 3,082 people), but the railroad facilities, including that huge and mysterious sandstone engine house-shops building, and the shade of massive cottonwoods, poplars, locusts and elms made a vivid, lasting impression on me. It was the influence of the V&T Railroad that, at least in part, led me back to Carson City, as an adult, 18 years later.
In 1949, the peaceful downtown railroad scene was punctuated by two periods of relatively vigorous activity each day – when the southbound train arrived from Reno in mid-morning and when the same train returned northbound from Minden in mid-afternoon. As Beebe put it, that activity had about it “a style and an air of vanished glory” – a vestige of the 19th century that was “a fine thing to see and a wonderful railroad to know.” I certainly remember it with fondness five decades later. I only wish that I had taken additional photographs, using a camera more sophisticated than my trusty but optically challenged Kodak Brownie.
Ironically, my boyhood friend, Dick Schuettge, later went to work for Howell-North Press in Berkeley – the same firm that published several of Beebe and Clegg’s popular railroad books, including tributes to the V&T with their flowery prose and excellent photography. Sometimes, fate works in strange and refreshing ways. Or is it that some things are just meant to be? I guess my September visit to Carson City half a century ago was one of those things too. How lucky I was (and still am).”