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Steaming in the Silver State for a Century — Part I

Many Americans mark the changing of the seasons by holidays. Labor Day unofficially ushers in the transition to fall, regardless that it formally begins with the autumnal equinox—this year on September 22. However, the passage of summer is not the only notable event this month. Next weekend marks the centennial of the inaugural construction of the Nevada Northern Railway that would culminate in Ely’s Railroad Day slightly more than a year later, on September 29, 1906, connecting the seat of White Pine County with the transcontinental railroad network.

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum and the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum will celebrate the centennial of Railroad Day with special activities commemorating the importance of the railroad to the development of Ely and surrounding communities over the past century. However, it is interesting to turn the clock back a bit further and examine the events that led up to that grand celebration.

As early as 1901, brothers Joseph and Eugene Giroux, Peter Kimberly, and others, as organizers of the Pilot Knob Copper Mining Company, envisioned a narrow gauge railroad to connect their holdings near what would become Kimberly with the Eureka and Palisade Railroad at Eureka. While those plans never materialized, by late 1902 Mark Requa, then president of the Eureka and Palisade Railway, optioned the nearby Ruth and Kearsage claims (worked by Edwin Gray and David Bartley) as a potential revenue source for his railroad interests. By the fall of 1904, his experimental mill was in operation. It would come to demonstrate the profitability of mining the vast copper deposits in the Robinson district. Meanwhile, Requa turned his attention to the requisite transportation issues and commissioned a survey for a railroad route from the Robinson district.

Engineers analyzed both a seventy-five mile route connecting Ely with Eureka and a route north to the Southern Pacific twice that length. Although the route to connect Ely with the Eureka and Palisade Railway was shorter, it involved crossing four mountain ranges and the longer route with minimal grades was chosen to extend north through the Steptoe Valley. Requa enlisted Southern Pacific Railroad engineers Adolph Judell and E. E. Carpenter to lay out the route during November and December 1904. Their report of February 10, 1905 established a route from Copper Flat and the Ruth mine to Ely by way of Robinson Canyon and finally north through Steptoe Valley, interchanging with the Southern Pacific near Omar at what would later become a new station named Cobre (Spanish for copper).

With a favorable engineering report for the development of his Nevada Consolidated Copper properties in hand by early 1905, Requa obtained financing from eastern banking interests for construction of a railway and reduction works. Plans for a cheaper, narrow gauge line were abandoned and Requa organized the Nevada Northern Railway Co. on May 29, 1905 (some sources give the date as June 1) having already obtained permission earlier that month from the Board of County Commissioners to run the standard gauge rails down Aultman St., Ely’s main artery.

The railway immediately dispatched surveyors to the field. Before the end of August 1905, their labors completed, they broke camp at their Currie ranch headquarters and removed to Toano. Subsequently, on August 29, 1905, the Utah Construction Company secured the contract to build the Nevada Northern Railway between Omar and Ely. Crews that had just completed work on the Southern Pacific’s Hazen cutoff moved west to work on the new line awaiting the arrival of Construction Superintendent W. H. Wattis.

The precise date that grading began at Omar is controversial. University of Nevada historian and McGill native Russell R. Elliott affixes the date as September 9, 1905, in agreement with A. B. Parsons of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers. However, noted railroad historian David F. Myrick sets the date some two days later, on September 11, 1905. If the secondary literature is in disagreement, then primary source material is of little additional help. The 1906 Railroad Day program notes “ground for the railroad was broken on September 9, 1905,” but the White Pine News of September 21, 1905 reported Requa telegraphed the superintendent of Nevada Consolidated Copper Co. “that grading was commenced on the 11th inst. on the Nevada Northern road bed at Omar.” Given that both primary and secondary sources disagree, one can only speculate that the September 11 date is more likely because it reflects the source closest to the date of the event and it is more probable that work began on a Monday (September 11) than on the previous Saturday. As it turns out, then, the groundbreaking is similar to the end of summer—Labor Day or the equinox depending on your perspective.

By September 20, grading crews had moved as far as Flowery Lake, some miles south of the present-day interchange at Shafter. However, Requa’s initial projection that construction crews would celebrate New Year’s Eve in the seat of White Pine County proved overly optimistic.

By the end of October, grading crews had moved some 15 miles beyond Flowery Lake but contractors had yet to install any permanent rails. Laborers constructed a temporary siding at the new Cobre interchange with the Southern Pacific to receive construction supplies, but keeping men on the job longer than a few days proved difficult. The White Pine News reported that harsh conditions, low pay, long hours of taxing labor, and cold weather provided ample reason for workers quickly abandoning their jobs. Crews succeeded in laying five miles of track by mid-November and by then Requa had pushed back the completion date into Ely to March 1.

(to be continued)

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