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Day 19 – the Sparks rail yard

By ThisIsReno

Submitted by Karl Breckenridge

Well, we better go to Sparks for a tale this morning lest I have the community hot at me for ignoring them!

While some towns lower their train tracks, others raise ‘em. In 1903 E. H. Harriman completed the purchase of the Central Pacific Railroad from the Big Four (Leland Stanford, C. P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker) and immediately started to re-engineer the CP tracks in northern Nevada to get rid of some awkward grades and curves to accommodate a new, heavier generation of locomotives and rolling stock.

The main line at that time ran down Prater Way, and engineers decreed that the better route would be far south of Prater with a major yard in a lowland area just south and east of the Sparks Nugget’s present location. It was then known as the Mary Wall ranch.

The area south of the present Nugget was low and therefore flood-prone, but did afford room to expand the train yard, build a first-class roundhouse and locomotive shop, and relocate Southern Pacific’s branch operation from Wadsworth to the west, closer to the east threshold of the Sierra and Donner Pass.

No sweat; a large community of Chinese laborers were available, the toughest workers in the world, whose grandfathers gained experience in creating the landfill Marina/South of Market areas of San Francisco in the 1840s, later in the Comstock mines, in the Donner Pass railroad tunnels and the Virginia & Truckee Railroad’s mountainous right-of-way, but were by 1902 looking for work.

sparks railroad roundhouse
Construction of the Sparks Roundhouse.
Image: NDOT, courtesy Sparks Heritage Museum.

They laid railroad tracks from the present Sparks rail yard along the route of the present Highway 40 to a spot near Stoker Drive. As many as 300 laborers, according to the Sparks Heritage Museum’s railroad expert John Hartman, took earth by pick and shovel to the gondola cars and offloaded it at the site of the new railroad yard.

The work continued under torchlight night and day for 13 months until Sparks’ new rail yard had been elevated and then compacted, adding a compacted elevation of nearly two feet.  Incorporating almost 80 miles of switching track, it was dead level, and it’s never flooded. The early engineers knew what they were doing.

A roundhouse servicing 36 tracks was begun after that, and the shop was completed after the yard was laid in 1904. The PFE icehouse came relatively later, and if this isolation keeps up, and if This is Reno doesn’t fire me first, we’ll probably read right here of the railroad’s locomotive shop and the Pacific Fruit Express icehouse that eventually became Harrah’s Auto Collection.

I gotta keep my Sparks buddies Joe Mayer, Gino Martini, Don Stockwell, and Elsie Gurr happy! This squib ought to hold them for a while. See y’all back here Saturday morning. Be safe, huh?

Submitted opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article here.

Karl Breckenridge

Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally. 

Read more from Karl Breckenridge

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