Walker River

A Southbound Southern Pacific train crosses dry streambed of Walker River at Schurz on its way to Thorne, amid autumn colors in 1994.

Hawthorne’s origin in 1881 was closely related to railroading. And even today, 135 years later, our community’s principal employer still relies substantially on that mode of transportation.

In 2011, a railroad history group called the Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge Historical Society held its annual conference here in Hawthorne. As part of that program, Steve VanDenburgh of Carson City compiled a chronology of highlights regarding the rail line that directly served Hawthorne until 1905 (and Thorne thereafter).

Since that gathering, VanDenburgh has learned more details about those railroad operations. We at MCIN thought some of our readers also might be interested in his summary, which honors the 135th anniversary of the railroad’s arrival here on April 7, 1881.

VanDenburgh’s connection with Hawthorne goes back almost 50 years, to 1968 when he participated in a water-resources reconnaissance of the 1,900-square-mile area just south and east of Walker Lake Valley. Later, during 1973-1980, he and his U.S. Geological Survey colleagues evaluated shallow underground water at the ammunition depot, on behalf of the Navy and Army. Steve also enjoyed many high-school basketball games during the Lady Serpents’ exhilarating Munger-Orndorff-Jernigan-Gurule era.

So, here is VanDenburgh’s compilation of the last 135 years: 1881: On April 7, construction of narrow-gauge (3 foot) Carson & Colorado Railroad (C&C) reaches Hawthorne town site, 100 rail miles southwest of C&C’s interchange with standard gauge Virginia & Truckee (V&T) at Mound House near Carson City.

1992: In July, track-laying crews finally arrive at southern terminus of C&C in California’s Owens Valley, almost 300 rail miles from Mound House and 193 from Hawthorne.

1890: Southward branch line from Hawthorne to Cottonwood (7.3 miles) is completed in November, to obtain timber for locomotive fuel. Branch lasts until August 1902 (after locomotives are converted from wood-burning to coal).

1900: Southern Pacific Company (SP) purchases entire C&C from V&T, in March; rail line retains C&C name. Fortuitously for SP, Tonopah boom begins only two months later.

1904: Newly completed narrow-gauge Tonopah Railroad (TR) connects with C&C at Tonopah Junction (on July 23), and is granted trackage rights to Sodaville, 5.5 miles north of junction, where C&C maintains locomotive facilities near spring-fed water supply. Length of C&C line between Wabuska (north of Yerington) and Tonopah Junction is 106 miles, via Hawthorne.

1905: Land and water-rights issues at Sodaville force C&C to seek and develop alternative water supply (thereafter known as Southern Pacific Spring) 5 miles north-northeast of Sodaville; as a result, expanding C&C facilities are moved 3.5 miles north, to new settlement named Mina. TR’s trackage rights are extended to Mina. On May 11, C&C is renamed Nevada & California Railway (N&C), this corporate “paper entity” lasts until 1912, when rail line becomes known as Nevada & California Branch of SP.

1905, continued: Narrow-gauge N&C between Mound House and Tonopah Junction is converted to dual gauge by late July; soon afterwards, entire line north of Mina becomes standard gauge (4 feet, 8.5 inches). During that effort, Hawthorne is bypassed on Aug. 18 and desolate Thorne Station is established on new rail segment, almost six miles north of town.

1905, concluded: Tonopah Railroad is widened to standard gauge (completed on Aug. 14). That line and Goldfield Railroad merge on Nov. 1 t form Tonopah & Goldfield (T&G); trackage rights to Mina are retained. North of Wabuska, meanwhile, SP completes 28-mile cut-off from Hazen (on their main-line “Overland Route”) to Churchill on N&C (Sept. 1), bypassing Mound House and V&T. At end of busy 1905, length of Wabuska-to-Tonopah Junction segment is 98.0 miles, via Thorne.

1909: Lucky Boy mining boom and other factors stimulate enthusiasm for renewed rail service to Hawthorne. In response, SP designs alternative alignments from vicinity of Thorne, but proposed reconnection is not constructed.

1928-1930: Construction of huge U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot at Hawthorne begins in mid-1928. First contract is for on-base road and rail networks; structures follow, beginning in 1929. Facility is commissioned on Sept. 15, 1040, while construction continues. Military rail network eventually exceeds 200 miles and connects with SP at Thorne.

1938: Last SP narrow-gauge train departs southward from Mina on Feb. 16.

1940-1946: At ammunition depot, explosives-related activities associated with World War II keep base and SP’s Hazen-to-Thorne line very busy (likewise, but to somewhat lesser extent, during subsequent “conflicts”.) WWII congestion on SP line is increased by additional traffic to and from U.S. Army Air Field near Tonopah (1941-1945): these shipments, dominated by aviation fuel, are transported to Mina by SP, from Mina to Tonopah by T&G and from there to airfield by truck. (Branch rail line to base is planned, but never constructed.)

1947: T&G is abandoned on Oct. 15.

1949: Most of 9.0-mile SP line from Mina to Tonopah Junction is dismantled; new distance from Wabuska to end of track at Mina is 89.7 miles.

About 1952: Last regular use of steam locomotives on Mina Branch.

About 1957: Last scheduled rail passenger/mail/express service between Sparks and Mina (6-day-per-week mixed trains 605 and 606, which date from 1932-1933.)

1964: Hazen-to-Mina branch, heretofore part of SP’s Salt Lake Division (Sparks to Ogden), becomes component of newly expanded Sacramento Division (Sacramento-Ogden).

1977: Naval Ammunition Depot becomes Army Ammunition Plant on Oct. 1. About 1985: Last routine use of cabooses on Mina Branch trains.

1987: Last train operates between Mina and Thorne in February.

1988: Rio Grande Industries purchases SP, effective Oct. 13; SP name is retained for combined rail system.

1989: SP and Walker River Paiute Indian Reservation negotiators reach financial settlement in April regarding alleged trespassing by railroad since early 1880’s (railroad right to way on reservation land totals 30 miles.) On Sept. 20, Thorne-to-Mina segment is officially abandoned; rails are removed by mid-1990. New distance from Wabuska to end of SP track at Thorne is only 57.0 miles.

1991: Segment from about four miles east of Wabuska (at milepost 331.7, just beyond Fort Churchill Power Plant) to Thorne is purchased from SP by U.S. Army on May 7. Length 53.3 miles; cost, $2.8 million (half of which is for right-of-way upgrades by SP.) SP locomotives and crews continue to operate trains to/from Thorne.

1996: Union Pacific Railroad (UP) purchases SP (finalized on Sept. 11.)

1996-1997: Army further upgrades its segment of branch (with heavier rail, new ties and more ballast.) Wooden bridges over Walker River east of Wabuska and at Schurz are replaced with concrete and steel structures.

2016: Trains from Wabuska to Thorne are infrequent; timing depends on Army’s operational needs at Hawthorne base. (Meanwhile, Hazen-to-Wabuska segment generally is serviced by UP at least weekly.) April 7, 2016, marks 135 years of railroading via Hawthorne and Thorne.