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Nevada Northern Railway Mysteries — Part I

Everyone likes a good mystery and in keeping with the season, we have a couple of mysteries right here at the railroad. They’re neither ghoulish nor macabre—they’re just head scratchers. In other words, why did the railroad do something a certain way? What was the reasoning behind their decisions? These are my observations. If you have an answer let me know. Or if you have your own little head scratcher, let me know that also. And who knows maybe we can get some answers.

The first little puzzle starts with the name of the railroad, Nevada Northern Railway. And for such short name, it creates three puzzles. The first is why Railway and not Railroad? Railroad was by far the more common name. Secondly, why Nevada Northern and not Northern Nevada? Finally, why even use the words Nevada Northern?

To start the railroad, Mark Requa, the builder of the railroad, traveled to New York City to meet with E. H. Harriman, the owner of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific, which were the closest transcontinental railroads at that time. Mr. Requa met with Mr. Harriman to get permission to build the Nevada Northern Railway and tie in with the transcontinental railroad somewhere in northern Nevada. Permission was needed because there was still active railroad building going on in the United States and it was intensely competitive. A case in point is the Western Pacific Railroad: it wasn’t built yet and when it was, it would compete with the Southern Pacific.

If Mr. Harriman suspected or believed that Requa was going to build a competing railroad, Harriman would have fought him tooth and nail. Requa assured Harriman that he was only going to build from the copper mines at Ruth to the interchange with Harriman’s railroads. Requa made his pitch and convinced Harriman that he would only build a feeder line to Harriman’s railroads. It was a short meeting and I wonder if it would have been an even shorter meeting if Mark Requa had named his railroad the Ruth and Cobre Railroad? There was precedent: Requa was the General Manager of the Eureka and Palisades Railroad, which ran from, you guessed it, Eureka to Palisades.

Keith Albrandt, who is doing research on the Nevada Northern Railway, offers these thoughts.

“At this time, Requa was in search of income for his failing narrow-gauge, short line and he was already familiar with the Robinson district through the business received with the reopening of the Chainman mine as well as the operations of the Pilot Knob Copper Mining Company beginning in 1901. He also spent a week in the gold and silver mining boomtown of Tonopah in Sept. 1902 that resulted in a survey for a rail route between the Robinson district, Eureka, and Tonopah. Financial backing for the project never materialized and the projected route was never constructed. Nevertheless, perhaps the Nevada Northern name was carefully chosen with an eye towards possible expansion without offending Harriman’s interests. The Omar & Ruth Railroad might not offend Harriman but it certainly suggests a very limited sphere. (The plans were originally to connect with the CP/SP at Omar; the change to a slightly different site and its name Cobre was not decided until the fall of 1905). On the other hand, Nevada Northern is broad enough to suggest perhaps more than a feeder line and at the same time narrow enough not to suggest expansive, competitive interests to Harriman. ‘Nevada’ suggests a specific place (as opposed to Central, Union, Great) and ‘Northern’ would not raise Harriman’s eyebrows, as ‘Pacific’ certainly would have.”

The word railroad is by far the more common term than railway. Railroad is more common, yet we got the moniker railway. Why? Keith has some thoughts on this too.

“Having no firm evidence on how Requa chose the name, nevertheless, in general, railroad is more prevalent in the U.S.A. while railway is preferred in Canada and the U.K. However, it is often a matter of personal preference and changes between one and the other upon corporate reorganizations. In fact, under Requa’s presidency since 1897, the Eureka & Palisade Railroad Company was reorganized through bankruptcy proceedings as the Eureka & Palisade Railway Company during 1901 and 1902. Perhaps that change in name influenced his decision on the Nevada Northern moniker.”

The next two mysteries have to do with building the railroad. The first is why did the mainline go to Hiline Junction? The second is why was there a coaling station built at Goshute?

All builders of railroads avoid hills like the plague. Going up a hill requires more energy than just traveling on level ground. In railroading, that means either one of two choices: you either run a shorter train or you put on a helper locomotive on the train. Neither option is attractive. The reason the options are not attractive is that either one will cost the railroad money. As the railroad built from McGill Junction to Hiline Junction, it built up a rather steep grade, almost three-quarters of a percent. Then from Hiline Junction to East Ely, there is a downgrade of one percent. (Of course going the other way, this is now an upgrade of one percent.) These are steep grades when you consider that in building up Steptoe Valley the railroad was able to take advantage of the flatness of the valley and, in spots, the railroad is flat for miles.

So what does this mean? The railroad has traveled 128 miles with almost no grades. Then ten miles from East Ely, the railroad climbs a hill and goes down the other side. So traveling from Cobre, you either take fewer cars, have a helper locomotive help you up the hill to Hiline, or double the hill. (Doubling the hill is breaking the train in half and taking one half of the train up the hill, parking it, setting brakes, and then going back down the hill for the second half of the train. Then at the top of the hill, you put the train back together.) Whichever option you choose it is expensive. And all of the trains coming or going from East Ely face the hill. Where, if the railroad had followed the route of today’s US 93, it would have saved itself a stiff climb. In fact, when the Hiline was built the railroad limited the grade on that branch to just four tenths of one percent—about half of what the grade is either going or coming from Hiline junction.

So why did the railroad go up the hill? Don’t know. Railroads have the power of eminent domain and they’re not bashful about using it. Eminent domain allows a railroad to take land to build on it. And at this time, 1906, there was no development east of Ely. In fact, there wasn’t a highway 93 either. And even if there was some development, the railroad could have taken the land. Besides, who is going to stand in the way of Ely getting a railroad? Nobody. So the railroad went up and down a short hill and this is a problem that still vexes the railroad today. The steepest grade on the mainline is at Hiline. Extra power was needed by BHP trains and extra power will be needed by the concentrate trains when Quadra starts shipping by rail.

Goshute is another Nevada Northern Railway mystery. When you travel on the Nevada Northern south from Cobre, the line is flat and you only go through three little communities: Shafter, Currie, and Cherry Creek. In 1917, management decided that a coaling station was needed on the north part of the line and they built this station at Goshute. The question is why there? Goshute is located midway between Cherry Creek and Currie. There was nothing at Goshute yet both Cherry Creek and Currie had some people living there. If the coaling facility was built at either community, the railroad could have made a little extra money selling coal to the people of either community. It wouldn’t have been a lot of revenue but it would have been some. Also at Currie is one of the few hills on the railroad. If the railroad had built the coalbunker there, they could have used the hillside to get over the top of the bunker to unload the coal cars. At Goshute, the railroad had to build an artificial hill.

Today, the Goshute coalbunker still exists. To get the coal cars to the top of the coalbunker, the railroad built up a ramp. And to get the cars under the coalbunker, the railroad had to excavate dirt. The rail to the coalbunker and the rail under the bunker are gone. Today, Goshute is a bear to get to, unless of course, you go by rail.

Looking back almost a century now it is hard to understand what the reasoning was for the things that the railroad did. I’m sure that at the time they had a good reason for all of the decisions that were made. The reasoning for these decision is now lost, unless we can find clues in the railroad’s correspondence. Who knows, the answers may be lurking there.

There are other Ruth and Cobre Railroad mysteries—oh excuse me, Nevada Northern Railway mysteries—but we’ll save those for next week.

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