I listened to the trains rumbling in the night as a child. My older brother rode boxcars across the country on his way home from Vietnam. Getting off at the train yard near our house, he walked through the back door during dinner to great excitement. Romance about train travel was still common then.
Decades later, the trains rolling in the night worked there way into my dreams when I lived south of Las Vegas in a desert town that abutted the tracks.
While the role of mining in shaping Nevada remains more present, the role railroads played, is forgotten by most. These rolling monuments to our past still carry an enormous amount of freight through our valley, but the sad fact is that passenger trains no longer even stop in Las Vegas.
Trains were not just lifelines, but built Nevada’s towns and its commerce, making mining, ranching and agriculture more economical. A novelty experience to us today was once the main means of transporting people and goods across the country. Until the early 1950s, ninety-percent of US mail was transported by railroad.
The dominance of trains was transformed not only by the waxing and waning of mine fortunes, but also by the birth and growth of our highways. By 1980, forty-two railroads bisecting our nation were consolidated into seven. Passenger rail became a nostalgic experience, which I enjoyed when I came of age, and rode the west Coast Starlight—still considered the most scenic train ride in the U.S. More recently, I rode the historic Nevada Southern Railroad out of Boulder City.
While the original Boulder City Depot now stands at the Clark County Museum, seven miles of the Nevada the Southern Railway still vibrates with the wheels of a vintage restored train that runs on weekends. Hop aboard in Boulder City and ride in comfort on restored green velvet seats. The historic Boulder City Branch Line also features an outdoor museum including a vintage postal car. Step inside and perhaps recall watching many a western featuring train robbers going for the postal car.
For nostalgic rides reeking of the old west you can also hit the historic passenger trains in Elko, Ely, Virginia City and Carson City. Other communities, like Goodsprings, are working to get old rail beds turned into recreation corridors. You can walk the Historic Rail Road Trail in Lake Mead National Recreation area as an alternative route to Hoover Dam. A regional distinction are the many railroad ties that ended up recycled into ranch fencing and walls, such as at Walking Box Ranch.
Some say there is still no better way to explore the U.S. and relive our expansion west than by train. Our transcontinental passenger rail, Amtrak, has recently had its highest ridership in decades.
I’d like to ride all five of Nevada’s historic trains, but until then, I’ll content myself with my yard art of old train bits—a spring coil that could break your foot, rail stakes that prop up plants and pots on my deck, as well as a section of rail I use as a boot scraper. Trains will always be useful to me.
AIRED ON KNPR Network MAY 8, 2010