Saturday, November 30, 2013

A ride of a lifetime... In the Cab of a Steam Locomotive

Backing down the mountain
This has been a crazy fall and I have not finished writing about an incredible trip I took out west this summer.  I’ve already written about Benton Hot Springs and Mono Lake as I made my way from Las Vegas to Virginia City.  And I have also written about a mountain biking trip along the rim of the mountains above Lake Tahoe.   This trip had so many highlights (including time with my grandson in Cedar City) but second to that was a ride in the cab of a 1914 steam engine on the Virginia and Truckee.  Five years ago, I wrote about how they had planned to rebuild the Virginia and Truckee to Carson City, Nevada.  Today, the tracks go from the Carson River to Virginia City, a curvy 16 or so mile run that includes a steep climb up into the Virginia Range.    I had to ride this line when visiting, but thanks to Dee, an old friend who does the books for the railroad, I didn’t have to ride in coach with the other tourists, I got to sit up in the cab with the fireman and the engineer!

I arrive at the V&T shops a little after 7 AM.  As they were getting the engine ready for the day’s run, I walked around the machine shop where the Virginia and Truckee has the capability of repairing and rebuilding old locomotives.   Maintaining a steam locomotive requires a lot of work and a shop is a necessity as parts often have to be fashioned to replace those that have worn out.  The complexity of a steam engine led to their demise as it is much easier to maintain diesel-electric locomotives.  Today’s locomotives may be efficient and easier to maintain, but they lack the romance and the “life-like character” of a “breathing steam engine.”

Heading uphill, looking back over the tender

Our run today is aboard a ninety ton Baldwin locomotive built in 1914 for logging railroads.  The locomotive features a smaller wheels and a large boiler, which also made it a perfect engine to pull trains up a steep line that snakes around the Virginia Range as it climbs from the Carson River to Virginia City.    In its “working life” the locomotive hauled logs for the McCloud Logging Railroad which ran around Mt. Shasta in Northern California.  Today, she hauls tourists to the Comstock Lode and has been trucked offsite (she is the largest locomotive capable of being trucked) for movie appearances.  Some of the guys from the V&T ran her in “Water for Elephants” and I was told the crew had a photo of themselves with Reese Witherspoon, who starred in the film. 

Fireman Ed checking smoke
At about 7:30, Tim, who served as conductor and brakeman, tells me to hope aboard.  He introduces me to the crew, Brian and Ed, and gives me some instructions such as watching my feet so that I don’t ruin a pair shoes by them being pinched by rotating the sheet metal flooring between the tender and the locomotive.   We wait for the go, the iron horse is hissing.   Every little bit there is a booming sound which I learn are the air pumps working to keep a nice draft in the fire box.  When we get the “all clear,” I find a comfortable place to stand and hold on as Brian, the engineer moves the throttle into position and releases the brakes.  We’re off, pulling three empty passenger cars.  Because there is no longer a working turntable, we’ll pull the cars down the grade with the tender in the lead.  At Moundhouse  (Carson Eastgate), where we’ll pick up passengers, we can drop the cars, move the engine to the front as in a normal train, and the pull the cars back up hill.   

Map of  the modern V and T

It’s cool in the morning, but it promises to be a warm day.  Because the grade is so steep, the descent must be controlled.  I watch Ed, the fireman, as he maintains the boiler, making sure there is enough steam for both movement and brakes.  Ed learned to fire a locomotive on a miniature (5 ton) steam trains in California.  Brian jokes that he has the easy job and Ed agrees.  Even though this locomotive is fired by oil and not coal (which requires shoveling), watching the boiler requires constant vigilance, especially on a grade like the V&T which has a few places that you might be going down, only to find yourself heading uphill for a short stretch.  Besides keeping enough steam so that Brian can operate the train, he has to make sure the water level is always high enough to cover the plates within the boiler.  On level ground, this is easier, but when the locomotive is pointed uphill, the water runs into the back of the boiler and when it goes over a hump and points downhill, the water moves to the front of the locomotive.   Exposed metal to the temperatures of the fire, without water to cool it down, could seriously damage the boiler and risk spraying those of us in the cab with steam.

Brian, our engineer for the day, is in charge of the train itself.  Brian is a Virginia City native.  He graduated from high school on the Comstock in 2000 and that summer went to work for the railroad.  He’s been at it ever since.  For years, he was seasonal and had to find other employment in the winter, but a few years ago, was hired on full time.  In the winter, they make a few runs (last year’s Christmas run was infamous as the snow was heavy and it took them nearly three hours to make the run back up the mountain.  Brian and Ed can do each other’s jobs and often switch back and forth.  As the engineer, he’s in charge of the operation of the train, but must depend on the fireman to watch the boiler and to provide him the steam needed for a smooth operation. 

A few minutes later,  Virginia City is out of sight as we cross the tunnel at the Divide and move toward Gold Hill.  Down below us is the Crown Point Mine and Mill site.  We cross the highway, by the old station and the run on over a fill that once was connected by the Crown Point trestle.  The trestle was torn down in 1936, but is widely believed to live on the Nevada Seal, which is a myth since the seal was designed in 1863 and predates the building of the trestle by five years.  Interestingly, there wasn’t even a train within the boundaries of the Nevada Territory when the seal was designed, so the trestle on the seal expressed a hopeful dream of the artist.      

After Gold Hill, the tracks make a long circle around American Flats.  There is a new mining operation with its cyanide leach fields on the north side of the Flats.  Also along this section is a herd of horses.  Ed and Brian seem to know well as they have names for many of the wild animals.  At Scales siding, the half way point, we stop and Brain and Tim checks the brakes.  There is some smoke in one and they are afraid it is overheating, but after checking it, all appears well.  We loop around the south side of the Flats, above the old American Flats Mill, which operated up into the 30s.  Then the tracks turn south and we slip into a tunnel.  On the other side of the tunnel, we can see Moundhouse, the site of where the Virginia and Truckee and the Carson and Colorado Narrow Gauge used to connect.  The train continues to hug the hillside.  The tracks mostly follow the original route except through Moundhouse.  Brain, the engineer, tells me that the original tracks went straight through Moundhouse and picked up the Carson River near where today are several brothels.  Figuring the whorehouses didn’t need to be disturbed by trains, they relocated the tracks to the west.  We cross over Highway 50 on a trestle and soon are at the station.  
Brian oiling the locomotive in Moundhouse (Carson Eastgate)
The parking lot is filled with cars and people have lined up to ride a piece of history.  The cars are dropped and then the train is unhooked and switches tracks.  On the far track, we stop and fill up with water.  I learn that although the train will only use 300 gallons of oil during the weekend, each trip up and down the mountain will require nearly 8000 gallons of water.  Once the tank is filled, we run up to the front of the cars, then switch tracks and couple up with the cars for the run back up the mountain.  Before leaving, Brian oils the working parts of the locomotive

As we leave Moundhouse, Ed pours a couple of cans of sand into the firebox.  The draft is such that the sand is sucked through the boiler tubes and out the stack, cleaning out any build up on the tubes and hopefully making the train run smoother.  As the sand runs through the boiler, or perhaps because of the addition air of having the firebox open, the smoke turns black for a few minutes.  Although it was a relaxed trip going down the mountain, running uphill requires more work, especially from Ed, who has to constantly keep checking on the boiler and making sure there is enough steam for running the train.  It almost seems he is as much of an artist as a mechanic as he both watches gages and makes adjustments to the amount of water going into the boiler or the amount of fuel pumped into the firebox.  But it’s not just the gages that he watches; he also keeps an eye on the smoke, occasionally glances into the firebox, and is always listening to the boiler breathing.    

Arrival in Virginia City
The sun is now high in the sky and it’s getting hot, but I’m not prepared for the experience of the first tunnel.  When we enter it, a hot wind blows across the boiler and into the cab and the temperature must have risen by 30 or 40 degrees.  Coming down, with the boiler behind us, the tunnels weren’t hot, but with the boiler in front, we feel all the heat.  This was the reason the last steam engines built for the Southern Pacific were “cab-forward” varieties.  It was harder to build a cab-forward locomotive when the fireman had to shovel coal (or you had to have the fireman and engineer in two different ends of the train which created communication problems).  But once the railroad began using oil, they could move both to the front of the boiler.  Not only did this allow better views of the track, it keep the cab more comfortable in long tunnels and the miles and miles of snowsheds the locomotives traveled as they made their way through the Sierras. 

At Scales, we stop for a few minutes and Brian gets out and oils various parts of the engine.  We then continue on until the Gold Hill Station where a few people get off in order to have lunch at the Gold Hill Hotel, but most continue on as the train makes the climb into Virginia City.  There, everyone gets off.  They’ll have three hours to tour the town before making the run back south.  I skip the ride south, but go out into the heat and photograph the train as it makes its way down the mountain.  Ed, Brian and Tim will leave the train at Moundhouse overnight.  The next morning they’ll pick up passengers and run them up to Virginia City and at the end of the day, after dropping the passengers off in Moundhouse, will take the empty train back up the mountain where it will be used during the week to shuttle tourist around the Comstock between Virginia City and Gold Hill.  The steam trains only run between Moundhouse and Virginia City on Saturdays and Sundays.  
Ed and Tim at the end of a run


  1. dude. that would be amazing...i would be happy to just ride a steam train...must have been pretty fascinating to watch them working as well...that ride in the snow i bet was quite interesting as well

  2. I have to agree with Brian, except for the snow trip. I think I could pass that one up no problem. I have ridden a couple of short rail lines but never steam or in the cab.

  3. Riding a steam train has always been something I've wanted to so. I always love visiting your blog and reading about your adventures :)

  4. Sounds like a huge load of fun. I could imagine how much my imagination would be working on such a ride.

  5. Wow.. what an experience. How exciting is that! A dying creature, that train. I'm so glad for you (and for us) that you got to ride those rails.

  6. I've always had two 'ride' trips that I would love to do. One is ride a train from coast to coast and another is ride a boat down the entire length of the Mississippi and Missouri river systems. I think they appeal to me because they would both allow me to watch the scenery unfold and not have to worry about what lane I may be drifting into!

  7. That sounded like quite a trip! My father-in-law would probably enjoy it - he's really into trains!

  8. My grandfather was a train engineer. So awesome you got to have this wonderful adventure!

  9. When you are leaving VC going south what is the depression on your right on the brow of town. It's just before you you enter open country.
    It was certainly a treat wasn't it.

    1. VInce, I think what you are referring to is one of the open pit mines. In modern times, parts of the Comstock has been mined via open pit, they haul away large amounts of dirt and run it through a cyanide leach process and get out the low grade ore.

    2. I've been doing a bit of reading. I hadn't realised they were mining a reef. Nor that they were the very first to mine in that way, on such a scale. Is that why the massive holes outside town. The superstructure of rock collapsed in once the lattice of timber superstructure disintegrated. and then they extracted the loose rock to crush out what was missed in the first pass.

  10. Definitely a piece of history. It's amazing to think about the American West back in that period of time.

    Sounds like you've had a good fall.

  11. Wow, what an experience! I have to confess that when I think of the States, I think of open spaces, travelling on a train or by car, covering huge distances. That's history you rode on. Many thanks for this beautiful post.

    Greetings from London.

  12. Oh my gosh I feel as though I've read a fascinating novel! It really brought me back to my days around Nevada as I once decided to make my home in Reno long ago! And Reese I've heard has a sparkling personality I can bet it was a great photo session for those that caught her live from the set.

  13. Wow, I'm still playing catch up on my blogs, (our internet is acting up again) but I can't believe my comment isn't here. As I remember this fun and journey like post and left a comment about making my home (for a very short while) in Reno. Love that country! I hope all is well and that your holiday will be filled with love and laughter!

  14. Sage: A great post. I've been on the Grand Canyon Railway twice. Reading your post and seeing that map brought back memories of the Theme Song to "Bonanza"!

  15. Great post! You are really good at making an interesting narrative relating to your travels and experiences. I always enjoy reading them!