VIRGINIA CITY - As St. Mary's noon bell tolled Thursday, a team of train experts and volunteers prepared to move the Virginia & Truckee No. 18 Dayton steam locomotive into its new home at the Comstock History Center.
About 100 curious onlookers flanked the 38-ton black, brown and scarlet engine watching every second of the slow-moving drama. Sometimes a train enthusiast with a fancy camera blocked their view, prompting a quick scolding from the audience.
"This is history," said Virginia City resident Louise Giberson. "These trains were the history of the town because of all the mining, and now we're getting the engine back."
This is the first time a V&T railroad engine has been on display in the landmark historic district since 1993, when Engine No. 27 was removed for restoration.
Onlookers lined up at the top of a ridge overlooking E Street, beside the historic, in some places crumbling, buildings that have made Virginia City a popular tourist destination.
The locomotive and its tender left the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City on two trucks and rolled into Virginia City at 10:40 a.m. The convoy drove up the truck route at about 25 mph behind a Storey County Sheriff's escort.
Tony Martinez and Steve Dickey, plane mechanics in town for the Reno Championship Air Races, learned of the Dayton engine's arrival from an employee at the Brass Rail, where they ate breakfast.
"We came up here to ride the Virginia & Truckee Railroad and then we heard about this," Martinez said.
Lee Hobold, a cab restoration specialist for the railroad museum, rang the engine's brass bell, signaling that it was time to roll the Dayton off the low-boy trailer onto the tracks that led into the history center. Hobold continued to ring the bell as the engine rolled.
"Hey, Lee that's enough!" yelled Chris DeWitt, museum supervisor of restoration, who was guiding the train's front end into place. The bell was right above DeWitt's head.
Hobold craned his neck out the cab's window to watch the progress, which was slow.
"You want to get this thing down?" he asked. "This is so much more fun when you're on light duty."
By 12:30 p.m. the scarlet wheels were all on the ground rails.
Agita Sherer, 9, smacked his gum as he watched the engine approach the open doors of the yellow-sided building. The doors are a replica of the original V&T doors. Inspiration for the design came from a train shed that used to be on the site.
"I just wanted to see this one," the Placerville boy said. "I really like the red wheels. It's different from regular trains."
"It looks like a big toy," said his aunt, Heidi Jonas.
Railroad museum Director Peter Barton said the move was coordinated perfectly by his team of four museum employees and six conscripted volunteers. The team still had to re-attach the engine's cow catcher and whistle, the latter of which was removed before the move because of its height.
"It's a melancholy time for us because it's one of the prized pieces of our collection," said Barton about the engine's absence from the Carson City museum. "And it still is. We loaned it to the State Historic Preservation Office for display here in the Comstock History Center. But it will become a billboard for the museum. Hopefully those who see it here will come to the museum to learn more about the Comstock."
The Comstock History Center, 20 N. E St., will open in four to six weeks.
Dayton engine facts
• Built in 1873 at the Central Pacific shops in Sacramento
• Weight 76,000 pounds
• Height 13 feet, width 10 feet 2 inches
• Wheel base is 20 feet 6 inches
• Original cost $15,249.
• Tender weighs 25,000 pounds
• The Dayton (along with the Columbus) was the heaviest V&T locomotive prior to 1902 and usually hauled freight or local mixed trains
• The V&T Railroad dates to 1869 when the first track was laid between Carson City and Gold Hill. Regular service to Virginia City ended in 1938 after the Comstock mines declined.
• The Dayton will go on permanent display at the Comstock History Center, which was built to house the engine.
Source: Nevada State Railroad Museum
- Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at email@example.com or 881-1212.