Sunday, March 26, 2017

Battle Mountain Survivor

This is a tale - and a photo - of survival. Our photo is of Nevada Central Railroad No. 5, a second-hand Baldwin 4-4-0 American steam locomotive from the 1876 that served the gold and silver mines around Battle Mountain, Nevada until things went bust in the 1930s. Though most of the Nevada Central ended up being scrapped, old No. 5 survived, a 19th century marvel now on display in the 21st century.

Completed in 1880, the narrow-gauge NCRR ran from the silver and gold mining center Austin to Battle Mountain (a town that never saw a battle and sits in a valley), where it connected with the Central Pacific's transcontinental line. How the railroad came to be is a story in itself. After a bitter fight, the Nevada legislature (overrideing the Governor's veto) authorized $200,000 as a Lander County subsidiary bond fund for the building of a railroad to serve the mines around Austin. Of course, there was a bit of western "politics" involved: the state senator that ramrodded this through was also the Secretary of the Manhattan Silver Mining Company, who owned most of the mining claims in the area, and whose company would pretty much solely benefit from the line's existence. The stipulation was that the line had to be built within five years.

No. 5 in about 1885. CSRM Collection
However, construction didn't start for another four and a half years, and by that time, the boom-period was just about over. Still, there were those state bonds that could be collected, so the Nevada Central Railway dove into constructing the 92 miles of rail line through the Reese River valley from Battle Mountain to Austin. As hard as they worked, though, the end of the track was still two miles from the Austin town limits with less than a day to go before the deadline. The Austin Town Board held an emergency meeting and knowing that the line meant potential prosperity and growth for Austin, they realized that if you can't get the rail line to the town, you can always take the town to the rail line, and agreed to extend the town limits out two miles, and thus the final rails were laid (some over frozen ground with no ballast) with only minutes to spare on February 9, 1880. The bond funds were secure!

No. 5 in better days. CSRM collection
To make the money stretch, the railroad bought mostly second-hand equipment. One of these purchases was Nevada Central No. 5. The locomotive was originally built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia (their builder's number 3483) for the North Pacific Coast Railroad as their No. 12, and was named Sonoma. When that road was purchased by the Northwest Pacific and converted to standard guage, Nevada Central got the locomotive cheap in 1879.

NCRR renamed the locomtive the General J.H. Ledlie, after the Union general who had been involved with the original building of the Nevada Central. It was an ignomious name, as General Ledlie had been cashiered from the service for dereliction of duty, having been drunk in his bunker when he was supposed to be leading his troops in a charge during Battle of the Crater, part of the Siege of Petersburg. Because of the general's absence, his troops were slaughtered.

In 1881, the Union Pacific had the idea of competing with the CP and building their own line across Nevada, to take advantage of the mining traffic. They bought the Nevada Central as a piece of that puzzle, but the mining bust led them to back away from the plan, and in October 1884 they purposely defaulted on an interest payment, letting the NCRR fall into receivership. Four years later and renamed the Nevada Central Railroad, the company pressed on under local ownership by the Stokes family.

The Nevada Central continually struggled with solvency, and could only generate a decent profit if all the mines around Austin were in full production. Most mining had ended by 1911, and the company survived - barely - by relying on wool and cattle traffic. By the mid-1930s, not even that was enough, and so on December 20, 1937, the Federal Interstate Commerce Commision authorized the line's abandonment and on January 31, 1938 all operations ceased and the Nevada Central was backrupt for the last time, Most of the equipment was sold for scrap. Most, but not all. No. 5 had continued to operate pretty much to the end, but instead of being scrapped, it was acquired by NCRR's General Manager, J. M. Hiskey, who then loaned it to the Pacific Coast Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society.

In December, 1938, the locomotive was transported to the Southern Pacific shops in Berkeley, where she was gussied up to look like Central Pacific No. 60, the Jupiter, and (along with sister No. 6), was used to stage the famous driving of the Golden Spike ceremony at 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, a show produced by Art Linkletter. Our photo, then, was probably taken some time in late 1938.

On display at the CSRM. Photo linked from the CSRM page.
Following the end of the Exposition, No. 5 was put into storage until 1977 when she was transferred to the California State Railroad Museum. She was restored to her original appearance as the Sonoma, and is on display today. (Incidently, sister locomotive No. 2 was rescued from the scrappers by famed Disney animator Ward Kimball, who ran it on his own private back-yard railroad; more here.)

One final note from the perspective of a researcher: had the owner of this photo not written "Battle Mountain Nev" on it, this would have likely remained a completely anonymous photograph, without much of a clue (other than the "5") to begin researching. So, I'm very thankful that someone took the time to note where this photo was taken!

Some of the references I've drawn on for this story:

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