Take a trip back in time on historic rail line
every town in the nation. Today, fewer railroads serve America and fewer Americans ride the trains that remain. A couple of generations now have missed the experience of train travel.
In yesteryear, dozens of railroads served Nevada. Old maps of the Silver State detail lines of tracks for now-defunct railways. In most cases, the tracks and rolling stock were sold for scrap and the ties torn out for firewood. Now, just the eroded roadbeds survive to indicate that trains ever rolled past.
A bit of Nevada’s colorful railroading past survives in Boulder City with the resurrection of the Nevada Southern Railroad. Built in 1931 as a spur line off the main Union Pacific tracks through Las Vegas, the railroad hauled equipment and construction supplies for the Boulder Canyon Project, later renamed Hoover Dam. With installation of the last enormous generator at the dam, the need for the line diminished. The rolling stock was dispersed and the tracks lay rusting under the desert sun, their surfaces no longer polished by the wheels of passing trains.
Concern that the historic line might totally disappear generated flurries of efforts over several years, resulting in eventual acquisition of the old line by the state. Now part of the Nevada Division of Museums and History, the Nevada Southern Railway joins two other state railroad museums in Carson City and Ely.
Revitalization of the old railway line continues with expanding facilities and services. Excursion trains run every Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. from February through early December each year. [Note: as of October 17, 2020, departure times changed to 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Additionally, since 2019, weekend trains run year round.]
In 1993, the railway acquired rolling stock from the historic “Heber Creeper” in Utah. In 1996, the state built a large building to house the equipment. Volunteers and staff began restoration of several Pullman cars, some dating back to 1911. The railroad later acquired a handsome locomotive built in 1963 and used on the Union Pacific. Its refurbishing complete, the trains could roll again.
Today, visitors to the museum exit U.S. 93 at Yucca Street in Boulder City (turn at the Taco Bell). They find the tracks straight ahead about a block off the highway. The large maintenance shed sits to the left of the street while the parking lot lies to the right. A sidewalk takes you along the tracks to the Boulder City Depot.
Attention to detail adds to the charm of the depot, styled after railroad buildings constructed in the early 1900s. Two buildings house a gift shop and train crews. Even the tile in the restroom carries out the railroad theme in desert tan, sky blue and the dark pattern of rails and ties.
Arrive about 15 minutes before departure. The excursions are not crowded enough to require reservations. Tickets for the 35-minute train ride cost $10 for adults, and $5 for children aged 11 and under. The train consists of the locomotive, a diesel-powered generator car providing electricity to the passenger cars, two refurbished closed Pullman cars with air conditioning, an open-air roofed car and a closed car with a lift for handicapped travelers. It has armchairs for seating and a restroom serving all passengers.
Volunteers crew the train dressed in vintage uniforms. The engineer in his characteristic billed cap and the nattily attired conductor visit with passengers before train time. The conductor then calls out “Board!,” clips your ticket and assists passengers up the steps into the cars. He provides narration during the trip.
The engineer starts the train down the track toward Railroad Pass almost four miles west of the depot. The train rolls past the Railroad Pass Casino, usually eliciting a few friendly waves from passers-by before stopping and reversing direction for the return trip.
During the journey, passengers walk from car to car, sitting where they please. Large windows on the closed cars provide views of the desert and mountains as the train passes by within sight of busy U.S. 93. Wildflowers still grace the washes. Used to the train, a few desert creatures appear, including quail, mourning doves and ground squirrels.
Reprinted with permission from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.