April 8, 2005

V&T Groundbreaking Ceremony

People gather around the V&T at Gold Hill.

Wednesday afternoon I got a chance to pack up the kids and head up the hill, up to the groundbreaking ceremony for Phase One of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad project. The ceremony was held in Gold Hill, at the very end of the current line. On the way there, twisting through the sagebrush along Hwy 341, I drove through Silver City and Gold Hill, crumbling towns that saw their heyday around the same time as the V&T, back in the 1870s. The turnoff for the Gold Hill depot is right before the V&T’s grade crossing, right at the road’s steepest point. I made the turn, expecting to park at the depot itself, but instead I was guided along a freshly-cut road that took me a couple hundred yards down the track, to the very end of the line. There, at the spot where the Crown Point Trestle had stood until they dismantled it and filled in Crown Point Ravine, they had built a parking lot for the construction workers. That day the parking lot was filled with spectators.

The Crown Point Parking Lot, former site of the Crown Point Ravine and Crown Point Trestle.

Fiddler Randy Pollard entertains the crowd.

Just as I arrived and was getting out of the car, the current V&T came rolling down the hillside. Bob Gray’s V&T has been running tourists between Virginia City and Gold Hill for almost 30 years now (actually, at first it only went halfway there, and then it was extended to Gold Hill in 1991.) This time the train from Virginia City was carrying members of the Nevada Commission for the Reconstruction of the V&T Railway and their guests on a special excursion.

The V&T right now is running with a diesel engine, since both of their steam locomotives are being rebuilt. Kind of ugly, ain’t it?

Kevin Ray addresses the crowd from the V&T’s observation car.

The ceremony started out with several speakers, standing on the train and addressing the gathered crowd. Jeff Fontaine, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation, was there, as well as Lieutenant Governor Lorraine Hunt and Kevin Ray, project coordinator for the Commission. Also speaking was Ron Allen, whose father was the V&T roadmaster who was responsible for tearing up the tracks in the 1930s. He said it was his father’s dream to be able to put the tracks back in place one day, but he didn’t live to see it happen. “I’ll do it for him,” he said. After a few speeches and thanks and handing out of plaques, everyone detrained and made their way to the end of the tracks for the shovel ceremony.

The media and the crowd gather around the end of the line, where a fresh pile of dirt has been placed for the shovel ceremony.

There were about twelve people shoveling, so it got a little out of control, with the shovels clanking into each other and dirt flying everywhere. But the media and the crowd got their pictures and their footage for the 6 o’clock news, and that’s really what this is all about anyway.

Shovels away!

And of course this wasn’t the actual first ground broken on the project. Groundbreakings are always like that. While the suits twiddle around with their ceremonial shovels, the real crew, the one that’s going to get the job done, is already hard at work. And it was no exception on this project. A lot of the workers and NDOT guys took a break to attend the ceremony, and there were quite a few orange shirts in the crowd. But the real work had started on Tuesday, and all throughout the ceremony we could hear the low drone of a single bulldozer picking away at a large hill that they’re going to tear down to use to fill in the Overman Pit.

This bulldozer driver knows a thing or two about breaking ground.

After the shoveling came the media interviews, and during that the crowd kind of dispersed. Everyone either got back on the train or into their cars for the trip home, and before long the V&T started chugging back up the hill. It was pretty short and uneventful, but after all the ceremony itself wasn’t what we were all excited about. We were really all there to celebrate the fact that, after years and years of “talking about it”, the first steps were being taken to really make it happen and bring the train down the hill to Carson City. After everyone was gone, the employees from Granite Construction and Stantec that had been milling around watching split up and got back to work.

The train started back up the hill. From here, there’s only one way to go!

Right now it’s the end of the line. Soon it will just be a stop on the way to Carson City.

They had a map leaning against one of the bulldozers that showed the whole planned route, broken up into all five phases. Phase One, the one they’re starting now, will go from Gold Hill, over the Overman Pit, and about a mile and a half into the hills. At that point the train will turn around and go back to Virginia City. Phase Two, which has not yet been funded or scheduled, would extend the track all the way down, through the hills, to Hwy 50 in Mound House, and a depot would be built there with parking. Phase Three would see the track go down to the Carson River, with a piece of loop track to turn the train around, and Phase Four would take the train all the way into Carson City at the eastern edge of town. It was also nice to see Phase Five on that map, even though it’s the biggest long shot of the whole project. Phase Five would extend the track in Virginia City half a mile from where you board now (which is an old caboose converted to a ticket office/gift shop) to the old V&T depot a couple of blocks away. The problem with the phase, as I’ve written before, is that the collasped Tunnel #6 stands in the way, and Tunnel #6 is going to be a royal pain in the hiney to reopen. Lumos Engineering wrote a little about what the project would involve in their newsletter a few years ago, which can be read in PDF.

Here’s the route map they had posted. There’s also a super large version available (556kb).

After the ceremony was over and everyone had left, I got back in the car and took a quick jaunt around the corner to the Overman Pit. I’ve been talking about this pit here forever, and its existence is really the reason this project has taken so long to get off the ground. But I’d only been to the pit once, about nine years ago, and I had no pictures. So since I was there, with time to kill, and with space left on my memory card, I set out to find the pit.

If you don’t know where it is, it can be hard to find. There aren’t exactly any signs to the place, even though the historic Gold Hill Cemetery is right there next to it. And all the roads have been regraded recently to fit the heavy equipment that’s going to be reshaping the landscape, so there are roads on the side of this hill going every which way, and since I had only been there once it took me a few tries to find the right road and finally make it to a spot where I had a good overlook into the pit.

And let me tell you something, that pit is a bitch.

The infamous Overman Pit. It’s hard to judge scale on a picture like this, but that v-shaped cliff at the back is well over a hundred feet tall.

During the days of the V&T, this area was mostly level with a slight downhill slope. The train tracks ran roughly across the middle of the picture, and during Gold Hill’s heyday there were probably houses and shacks littering the landscape. But back then all the mining was shaft mining. Dig a tiny hole straight down into the ground, and send miners in to dig tunnels in every direction. If you find a good vein of ore, follow it wherever it goes. Slow, labor intensive, and dangerous, it was the best technology they had in the 1860s. And when the gold and silver started getting scarce, it wasn’t profitable anymore, so most people moved out of the area. With no people the V&T had no business, and in 1938 they ran the last train along this line and started to tear up the tracks.

Fast forward to the mid-20th century and the advent of open-pit mining, or “strip mining”. The introduction of heavy duty bulldozers and dump trucks created a brand-new form of mining, where instead of meticulously digging a winding series of tunnels, the entire earth was stripped away one layer at a time and sifted for minerals. In the 1950s the owners of the Overman Mine, a small shaft mine near the old V&T right-of-way, realized there might still be enough ore underground to make strip mining profitable in Gold Hill. So they started digging a pit, hauling truckload after truckload of dirt out and sifting through it for gold and silver. As they hauled out more and more dirt, the pit got deeper and wider, and by the time they decided to abandon the operation it had become a very impressive sight. The Overman Silver Mining Company pulled out of Gold Hill, leaving behind this giant pit that would cause so many problems for the next generation.

Just to the north of the Pit, heavy equipment has started carving out a path for the train. They are going to tear down part of that hill in the center to fill in the Pit.

So now, after so many decades, the pit is finally going to be filled in. Part of it at least, just enough to run track along it I guess. The Railway Commission’s own website has a rather crappily Photoshopped view of what it will look like when it’s done. Presumably in real life it will be nicer than that. Part of the project will also involve improving access to the cemetery, which right now is on a crumbling slope of land that’s almost threatening to slide into the pit. It will be shored up with a retaining wall, and a good access road and parking area will be built to make it more welcoming for visitors.

But the real attraction will be the train. By the end of this year they’re supposed to be done with this mile and a half of track, across the Overman Pit and then a little ways further into the hills. And though it’s still not even close to Carson City, it’s the first track extension in 15 years, and it will definitely make the trip more exciting, no matter how long it takes to finish Phase Two.

So good luck to Granite Construction in their efforts to conquer the pit, and if you know me you know that I’ll be making a few trips up to Virginia City this summer to track their progress.

For more info on the groundbreaking ceremony (written by real live journalists!), you can read articles in the Nevada Appeal and the Reno Gazette Journal.

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  1. JULIO CHACON says:

    feliz cumplea񯳠que DIOS nte bendiga mucho y que disfrutes de los cuyes de Virginia City.Esta hermosa la ciudad.

    Posted March 18, 2006 @ 10:32 am

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