Ride the Rails in Nevada!
On Friday morning April 27 in Boulder City the Nevada State Railroad Museum, home of the Nevada Southern Railway woke up early.
The little depot on Yucca Street was bustling — not with choo-choos but with railbikes. These are industrial grade quadricycles-built-for-two that run on railroad tracks when pedaled, and they can be joined together so that whole groups can travel as one, all pedaling . . . gently at first, and then going like mad. Great fun!
Their adventure takes them west on track originally laid in 1931 to connect the UPRR from Las Vegas to Black Canyon and the Boulder Dam construction site, ending just northwest of the Railroad Pass Hotel/Casino at the US 93/95 Freeway.
This has also been the end of the line for the weekend excursion trains since they began in 2002.
But on this day that would change in a big way. A special train was waiting to carry invited guests to a ceremony at the opening of a new bridge carrying the rails across the new Freeway to Henderson.
Celebrities arrived one by one and two by two; Governor Sandoval, Senator Heller and 40 or 50 people representing constituencies, contributors and participants in the project. And at 11 o’clock we got on board the two coaches, a dining car, an open-sided observation car (all acquired from Utah’s “Heber Creeper” in 1992) and the VIP Caboose and a vintage diesel pulled us gently to the bridge.
In 1985 the Union Pacific Railroad sold its Las Vegas-Henderson spur to the City of Henderson with an agreement that the city would maintain the rails and the UP would continue 5-days-a-week service to the city’s industrial businesses. Beyond Henderson the line was unused, and in 1988 NDOT paved over the rails that crossed the highway.
By 2000 the State Railroad Museum consisted of the track, the big shop across Yucca Street, the shaded platform and the fully rehabbed equipment from Utah. All of this was accomplished by the sole employee on site, Greg Corbin, working with contractors.
All that was lacking was running trains, so in 2002 Museums Administrator Peter Barton contacted southern Nevada members of the National Railroad Historical Society and asked if in addition to loving railroads they’d like to run one. It turned out they would, and they formed the Friends of the Nevada Southern Railway to fire up the locomotives and carry 2000 riders on the run to Railroad Pass the first year.
Annual ridership is now about 37,000 on the weekend runs plus the Special Trains — during December the Holiday trains all sell out, and carry some 10,000 passengers.
Preparations for the advent of Interstate 11 have had a big impact on the operation of the NSRy, starting with the redesign of US 93 and US 95 at Railroad Pass. When those plans were announced, Corbin reminded NDOT that the original rails had been paved over 20 years before, even though the right-of-way, despite being unused at the time, had never legally been abandoned. As a consequence the bridge we’d gathered to inaugurate was added to the highway realignment plans and constructed by NDOT. The small bridge a little farther west carries the bike trail.
Another consequence of I-11 was that Boulder City officials realized that rerouting highway traffic around the city would hurt local business. They came to the Railroad Museum wondering if it could be expanded to become a more significant attraction.
That, of course, is up to the Legislature and it’s
anticipated that funding the three phases of development will take a mix of public and private financing. A federal grant is being sought to develop and maintain the biking/hiking trails, and the museum itself will be a mix of State bonds and private money. Phase One is a $15 million Visitor Center/Passenger Depot at the now undeveloped east end of the property. Phase 2 is to be development of the access drive from Yucca Street into a landscaped greenbelt roadway, and phase 3 fills in the gap between the current platform and the new Visitor Center with more exhibits.
Oh but that’s just the beginning. After the ceremony by the bridge (after hearing that Governor Stanford went 0 for 3 when trying to drive the Golden Spike at Promontory Point in 1869, Governor Sandoval practically got onto his knees to tap-tap-tap the Silver Spike carefully into place) we reboarded the train and made the first passenger run to Henderson.
The tracks don’t extend very far beyond the highway crossing yet but preliminary plans suggest that an operating agreement now being negotiated with the City of Henderson will extend the run on a regular basis by about a mile, to the end of current UPRR directed freight service. An anticipated operating agreement between the City, the Museum and Union Pacific would allow Special trains to a Henderson passenger platform where the tracks run near to Water Street, the original downtown, and ultimately to the area of the Fiesta Casino, about seven miles west of the bridge.
Tourist trains back and forth between the two cities are a natural; there are even giddy thoughts of establishing daily commuter trains from Boulder City all the way to Las Vegas. Complex negotiations are underway between the Museum, the City of Henderson which owns the rails within its borders, and the Union Pacific Railroad that’s running trains five days a week on the Henderson tracks, to figure out what’s next. Until they do, that next thing is not going to happen.
But when it does, it will be a very big thing indeed, involving scheduled trains between downtown Henderson and the expanded passenger depot and Visitor Center mentioned above at Boulder City.
Just to whet your appetite, here are some of the development plans for the Railroad Museum at Boulder City. First, the property as it is now:
The current depot is at the upper left; on the right the track ends far enough out of the photo to allow a train to move beyond the switch that then permits it to back into the wye and get turned around.
Here’s the plan. That new Visitor Center and passenger depot of the Nevada Southern is at the intersection where incoming traffic eastbound on US 93 turns north, away from the downtown district of Boulder City.
Here is the Visitor Center and passenger depot with a gift shop.
And here is the Visitor Center interior:
Hurry up with it, ladies and gents. We want to ride that train!