There is an amazing sense of connection to the landscape when you travel by rail. Trains carry you places automobiles cannot. Vistas are made visible that you would labor overland vast distances to appreciate. This is an underappreciated method of travel in the fast-paced world we currently inhabit.
Once-upon-a-time, and not so long ago, trains were the go-to method of travel. People flocked onto railcars to visit faraway places. Travel was both luxurious and demanding. The remnants of those bygone eras collect dust in storage yards and rail sheds. There is one place you can still explore the past and take a ride on a train hauled by a steam-powered locomotive, the Nevada State Railroad Museum.
Should you ever visit Carson City, the Nevada state capital, make time to stop and admire the railcars. Here is what the official blurb has to say about the place:
Considered one of the finest regional railroad museums in the country, it includes five steam locomotives and several restored coaches and freight cars. Most featured equipment is from the Comstock Era’s Virginia & Truckee Railroad, America’s richest and most famous short line.
The first time I visited, almost twenty-five years ago, the museum was actively collecting old Pullman cars, passenger coaches, engines, and pretty much any sort of railroad memorabilia. Having been a hive of old-time railroad intersections, within reasonable proximity to arid storage and Hollywood, Nevada was a storehouse of railway potential just waiting to be harvested. Items and objects poured in from all over the west, faster than volunteers could process, in a volume greater than the museum could accommodate. Even with a large fenced yard, and massive effort, they were swiftly overwhelmed with offerings.
My experience with old-fashioned railcars stemmed primarily from Hollywood films, especially the old westerns that ran in constant streams on television. I was surprised to learn how many of those railroad relics yet survive. Many of the cars, coaches, and engines the museum acquired were in deplorable condition…but they took as many as they could find space to fit, and are always on the lookout for new and rare pieces to add to the collection.
One of the star attractions is the cars from the Virginia & Truckee Railroad line. This rail line is still in service, taking passengers along one of the West’s most picturesque routes, but they donated 31 cars and engines to the NSRM’s collection. The museum and their affiliates maintain a large variety of equipment, as shown on this equipment roster. Since by their nature, trains are large, this is an impressive feat just in terms of storage capacity. Here is a fun list of films, movies and television shows in which various trains appeared and the route map of the V&T line.
It takes enormous time and effort, expense and patience, but the museum and a steady stream of hardy volunteers from the Friends of the Nevada State Railroad Museum are restoring these bits of history to their original elegant opulence. Make no mistake, travel by rail in the early twentieth century could encompass rough travel conditions, especially if you were in the regular old passenger cars, but the railroad lines competed heavily for wealthy clients. One method to lure potential riders was to provide lavish accommodations and supply every travel accoutrement possible. First class passengers enjoyed a whole different kind of travel on the railroads, something that is still true today.
Visit the Nevada State Railroad Museum and see for yourself, just how lovely the old trains were. The facility houses 65 locomotives and cars. Forty of these were built before 1900 and reflect an attention to detail and a commitment to artistry that modern travel has lost. When you visit, don’t forget to stop in at the Nevada State Museum and discover what it’s like to go down a mine and why this empty landscape is called the Silver State. You won’t be disappointed.
Interested in learning more about historic trains and America’s railway past? There are many resources, but try these books if you’re a novice looking for basics: