May 22, 2003

Diesel Up

Golly, sez here in the news-paper that the Virginia & Truckee Rail-Road is gettin’ one a them new-fangled diesel locomotives. Shucks, I can remember when all we had was mules to haul our gold down the mountain, and we did just fine.

The V&T just got a new diesel engine to pull their trains. This choice seems a little puzzling to me, since it seems to take a lot of the romance out of the experience. And for the 99.5% of you that have no idea what the V&T is, lemme explain.

The V&T is Carson City’s historic railroad. It ran up to Virginia City and over to Reno, and was responsible for hauling millions of tons of silver ore out of the Comstock Lode. As the mines ran out, so did the need for the train, and the Virginia City line was shut down in 1938. The whole operation stopped in 1950.

In the late ’70s, millionaire train buff Bob Gray got the idea to reopen the V&T as a tourist railroad. So he bought a couple of steam engines and some rolling stock (not original V&T equipment — most of that belongs to the state museum) and built a few miles of track in Virginia City to run it on. The new route doesn’t even come close to going all the way to Carson City. In fact, it only goes to the next town over, Gold Hill, about three miles away. But it’s a real live, operating steam train, running on the historic right-of-way from a hundred years ago. In a town that would be nothing without the tourist trade, it’s a great way for a family to kill a few hours and take a trip back in time. In fact, there’s a grassroots effort to rebuild the line all the way down to Carson City, and turn the V&T into a huge tourist attraction along the lines of the Skunk Train or the Durango and Silverton, with day trips from Carson up to VC. Bob Gray, if he’s still alive then, I’m sure will be a part of that.

But years of use and slim budgets have taken their toll on the steam engines. I think it was just four or five years ago that they were both completely stripped down and rebuilt, and now they’ve gotten so bad that it has to be done again. But the catch this time is that they’re both being worked on simultaneously. With both engines out of operation, and the summer about to start, Bob Gray was stuck with tourists coming to ride his train, and no train for them to ride on. So he bought (or bartered for) a diesel engine.

Right there, I’ll bet the thrill of the trip is cut in half. I’ve ridden the V&T dozens of times. I had friends who worked on it, so I got free rides. I used to take the trip three or four times a day and hang out with the crew, so I’m probably more familiar with it than most people. The whole romance of riding that train is that it’s being pulled by an actual steam engine. It’s chugging its way up the hill, it’s shooting sparks out of the boiler, it’s filling the tunnel with black smoke, these experiences are the V&T. To take all that away and replace it with a diesel engine is to cut the heart out of the train.

Now, I can see why the choice had to be made. In this day and age, how easy is it to get your hands on a third steam locomotive to add to your collection? This diesel was surplus from the Portola Railroad Museum, and it sounds like both sides got something they wanted out of the deal, so it seems like everyone’s happy. It’s almost petty for me to belittle the decision based on one newspaper article.

But there’s a little part of me that can’t help but wonder how they got into this situation in the first place. How did they let both their steam engines go down at the same time? Usually, when one was down for repair, the other was in full working order. And I think back to what I knew about the railroad in those days I was associated with it. I sat around talking a lot to the engineers and the mechanics who ran it and kept it running. The V&T may have been a lot of things, but well-funded was not one of them. And the one thing I kept hearing over and over about Bob Gray, the owner, was that he was a notorious cheapskate.

There were rumors that in the winter he would strap his skis to his back and hike up the Tahoe ski slopes, just so he didn’t have to shell out the $40 for a lift ticket. He had a little room in the maintenance shop where he would sleep when he was in town, and the workers swore he never washed his sheets. They would write the date, in pencil, on a corner of the sheet, and months later it would still be there. And then there were the cans. Bob Gray loved his aluminum cans, because he could recycle them for money. Behind his back the employees called him the “Can Man”. This guy, supposedly worth millions of dollars, once thanked me three times for dropping off a trash bag full of aluminum cans. A couple of weeks later I went up there again, and he saw me and leaned out of his window and said, “I just wanted to thank you again for those cans.” Here I was, riding on what amounted to a permanent free pass, and he’s eternally grateful for a few pounds of aluminum. The employees used to joke that the money from the cans was the only thing keeping the railroad running. They had one of those wall-mounted can crushers, and someone had written “Restoration Fund” on it with a magic marker.

So, was it the lack of money that lead to both steam engines falling apart at the same time? I don’t know. I haven’t been around the railroad for a few years, so I don’t know what’s going on up there. But I do know that hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists are going to have to ride the historic V&T while being pulled by a diesel locomotive, and I can’t imagine that being too enjoyable.

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