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Day 44 – The Western Pacific

By ThisIsReno

Submitted by Karl Breckenridge

Early in the maturation of this daily piece to offer This is Reno readers a bit of respite from you-know-what, we inadvertently ran a couple of stories where the SP Railroad figured somewhat prominently. Didn’t plan it that way, it just happened.

A friend said, “Weren’t there two railroads in Reno when we were kids?” and I then realized the error of my writing – a fair balance would include them both.

Don Hartman
Don Hartman

So, to that end, I asked my Ralston Street childhood buddy Don Hartman, who has forgotten more about choo-choos than I’ll ever know, to send me eight- or nine-hundred carefully chosen words about the Western Pacific Railroad. Here’s what I received by email over the weekend, almost verbatim as he sent it. Don’s words follow:

There is a mighty-fine railroad line that entered Reno through the back door. Most Reno-Sparks area residents are familiar with the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad (now the Union Pacific) whose powerful Malley steam locomotives pounded through downtown Reno, with their beautiful City of San Francisco and Overland passenger trains connecting Reno to the rest of the country.

Modern SP diesel locomotives with their longer trains blocked traffic on Virginia Street before the trench was constructed. The SP provided hundreds of jobs for workers in Sparks (my dad, two uncles and my grandfather among them!). We all remember the Mighty SP!

Of course Reno had the quaint and historic Virginia & Truckee Railroad – the V & T – that puffed along south of Reno into Carson City, down to Minden and over to Gold Hill and Virginia City. The V&T service to Virginia City was gone by the 1930s and the rest of the line ended in 1950. I recall, as a six-year-old, listening to KOH radio as the newscaster announced the arrival of the last V&T train to enter Reno!

What was the mighty-fine line that entered Reno through the back door? It was the Western Pacific Railroad that few Reno area folks remember, lost in the shadows of the mighty SP and the “Gem of the Comstock,” the V&T.

The Western Pacific was spawned from the narrow gauge (3 feet between the rails) Nevada California and Oregon Railroad (NCO). The NCO was narrow in gauge but big in dreams to build north from Reno to Oregon by way of Alturas, California. 

The NCO Train Depot in Reno

To make a statement of their ambitions, the NCO constructed a magnificent depot in Reno designed by none other than Reno architect Frederick Delongchamps. The depot still stands today on East Fourth Street. Alas, it’s said that the NCO was built 200 miles too long or 200 years too soon, as she gave up the ghost in 1917.

Enter now, Reno’s other mighty-fine line that walked into Reno through the back door, the Western Pacific Railroad. The Western Pacific (WP) purchased portions of the NCO which when, standard-gauged (altered to 4′- 8½” between the rails), formed the line to Reno.

The WP mighty- fine line departed the WP mainline at Reno Junction, in California just east of the beautiful Sierra Valley and Chilcoot. The tracks wandered south through Long Valley, Bordertown, Peavine Mountain near Stead AFB, then along a rather winding path into Reno by the University of Nevada campus. Much of that portion of the line by UNR is still run by the Union Pacific Railroad today.

The WP itself was gobbled up, like the SP, years ago by the UP. The UP line from near Bordertown north to Reno Junction is not used today. But tracks still are seen west of 395 in Long Valley. The Union Pacific line north of Reno to Stead is still used today for warehouses and natural gas facilities.

Western Pacific Circus Special Train
The Western Pacific Circus Special. Image: Nevada Parks & Highways Magazine, released to the Nevada Shrine.

The Western Pacific was a thoughtful little railroad. The WP ran the “Circus Special” every summer from deep in Nevada to Reno. The Circus Special brought loads of happy children from Winnemucca by the Black Rock and Smoke Creek Deserts then to Reno Junction and on down the Reno line. The children were allowed to decorate the passenger cars with paint. The train would stop near Evans Avenue at a railroad crossing and the children would disembark the train, line up and march to the university campus and old Mackay Stadium to attend the Shrine Circus. How special was it for the mighty-fine WP line to provide hundreds of children from across northern Nevada with a circus experience?

Western Pacific ran a daily freight into Reno using orange and silver diesels. In the trains there would often be seen out-dated wood-sided refrigerator cars, often painted silver, labeled, “for ice service.” The cars would be handed off to the Southern Pacific near West Fourth Street and run down to the Union Ice plant. The reefers would be loaded with ice and returned to the WP. The ice was used by work crews in the desert of Nevada along the WP mainline.

The refrigerator cars also brought the ice to Portola where it was loaded aboard the California Zephyr to be used in the train’s dining car and bar-lounge car. This ice service continued until the demise of the California Zephyr in March of 1970.

Western Pacific’s diesel train. Image: Mike Muckel, Feather River Railroad Museum

The California Zephyr, known as the “Silver Lady”, was one of America’s beloved streamlined passenger trains plying between Oakland and Chicago. The California Zephyr stayed on the WP mainline but often several times a winter, the Silver Lady would make several trips down the Reno line when the Feather River Canyon was blocked by a mud-slides or snow.

I will never forget, as a child, seeing the beautiful all- silver California Zephyr with a Southern Pacific steam locomotive in charge as a pilot engine at the Ralston Street crossing…silver and orange diesels, with an all-silver passenger train with five vista- dome cars! What a sight in Reno! (The SP could never run vista-dome cars on their premium passenger trains, as they wouldn’t fit through the snow sheds and tunnels.)

The Western Pacific also ran a special train down the Reno line in the 1940s. The train was equipped for a blood drive. The wartime train had a passenger car set-up for accepting blood donations for the military and for hospitals along the line across California and Nevada. 

In the early 50s, WP ran a special, rush-order set of box cars down the Reno line carrying new appliances to Reno’s Osborne & Dermody store, just in time for Reno area Christmas shoppers.

The Western Pacific Railroad was small compared to the giant Southern Pacific. The WP ran from Oakland to Salt Lake City with a few branch lines here and there. Reno and Sparks folks can never forget the Western Pacific Railroad that tip-toed into our city until the early 1980s. 

The motto of the WP was, “The Western Way,” which adorned WP box cars in the 1950s and 60s. The “Western Way” is being there for folks and helping out, and being down-right friendly. The Western Pacific lived up to its motto… Reno and Sparks folks can never forget the Western Pacific Railroad. Into our area…rolled a mighty-fine line!

Thanks, Don – you’ve brought the Mighty-Fine Line, and I don’t mean Johnny Cash’s Rock Island Line, into a clear focus, as it should be around these parts. Come back again with another train story, or a tale of our misspent youth in postwar Little Italy (upper Ralston Street, for the younger readers).

And everybody else, see you right back here on Wednesday morning. And, 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. 

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