GOLD HILL - Working the hammers like windmills over their backs and forcing obstinate rails into place, seven workers began construction Wednesday on the Virginia & Truckee Railway.
Northern Nevada's dry heat comes as a blessing and a curse to these workers. Although uncomfortable to work in, the blazing heat provides a good environment for bending the Reno retrack project rails into the historic V&T.
Using clamps, a team of about three men placed the wooden ties about two feet apart along the right-of-way, which is now a bed of ballast rock. The first phase of the reconstruction project - from Gold Hill Depot, spanning the Overman Pit then to American Flat - will use 7,500 cubic yards of the crushed and graded aggregate from Granite Construction's Lockwood quarry.
The workers alternate the retrack ties and new wood ties down the track. The old ties are nine feet long, hard wood crusted with dirt, pieces of rock, some with broken glass and old bottle caps. The new ones are eight feet long, soft wood and stained black.
"Even though the old ties are ratty looking, they'll probably last longer," said Granite Construction Co. Project Manager John O'Day.
Farther down the rail, the reverberating clangs of hammer against iron echoed down American Flat. The odor of creosote, a preserving chemical used on the ties, fills the air. The team uses sledgehammers and spike mauls to put the track together. After four weeks on the job, Railroad subcontractor RailWorks Track Systems nailed its first spike around 10 a.m.
Larry Clewell, a 64-year-old retired Virginia City man, snapped pictures of the work with his Kodak disposable camera. He drove his Jeep up a dirt road, something the project manager can't really stop unless the person steps on project ground.
"I was wondering if we were ever going to see this," Clewell said in awe as he watched the workers.
When it comes to laying rails, it's all hard labor. The goal is to complete about 350 feet a day.
"It's a lot of work," said Richard Carney, Railworks' project manager. "This rail is so rigid and second-hand it doesn't want to go into place," said Carney. "It's heavy steel and it has the memory from being in certain places."
Each rail is lifted and placed by a speed swing, a machine that rides the newly placed rails. Two tie plates and four metal railroad spikes keep rail and wood together. Each 50-foot rail is joined to the next rail by a joint bar.
This phase of the project will be completed by mid-August, officials say. But the whole railway from here to Carson City is projected to be completed in 2009.
One wrong swing and the worker can break the spike maul's head off, which is something that opens him up to some good-hearted ribbing. Just today two mauls have been beheaded.
Carney swung at a new V&T spike and knocked the head off. He looked at it in disgust then tossed it aside. His workers don't comment on this episode. He can hammer a spike down in about five or six hits.
"I'd say on a scale of one to 10 (of difficulty), this rail is fighting a good eight," said operator Warren Butler, who was the first one to ride on top the reconstructed rail aboard the speed swing. "It's 136 pounds for every three feet of rail. The tracks are 50 foot a piece. So, we're well over 1,000 pounds for each rail."
He can get a spike in oak in eight to 10 hits.
"I love it," Butler said about the job. Then the 31-year-old flexed his barb wire tattooed bicep.
n Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1212.