Beginning in the 1860s when it served as the eastern staging point for the Central Pacific’s construction of the Transcontinental Railroad over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Truckee has played a significant role in railroad history.
The construction, subsequent operation, and the lumber and tourist industries spawned from its arrival, all are intertwined. Among innovations introduced in the area were the introduction of nitroglycerin for blasting and development of the “cab forward” locomotive. This locomotive placed the crew cab ahead of the boiler and smoke stack minimizing the crew’s exposure to smoke and fumes encountered while passing through the 40 miles of tunnels and snowsheds over Donner Summit. Truckee became an important operations and maintenance station serving as home for the “helper” engines that assisted trains over the “hill” and to the crews and equipment working to clear the snow from the tracks.
The Transcontinental Railroad opened the way for lumbering to become a major industry in the area. Now there was an economic way to transport timbers to the Nevada mines and lumber to the growing cities to the east and west. The railroad itself created an insatiable demand for wood to be used for fuel. Lumber railroads soon crisscrossed north and south of Truckee and around Lake Tahoe collecting the logs, bringing them to the mills for processing, then delivering the lumber to the nation.
As the forests were logged out, D. L. Bliss created the Lake Tahoe Railway and Transportation Company to provide a new use for the trains and steamers no longer needed for logging. Construction of the railroad between Tahoe City and Truckee, enabled tourists to travel from the Central Pacific station in Truckee to a pier near Tahoe City where they transferred to the steamers to complete the trip to accommodations around the lake and the casinos on the south shore. Thus began the tourist industry we know today.
These stories and more can be found in the Truckee Railroad Museum next door to the historic depot in old town Truckee. The museum, housed in a converted Southern Pacific bay window caboose, is the first step in the Truckee Donner Railroad Society’s plan to build a full-scale railroad museum. Displays provide glimpses into the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and the challenge of keeping the tracks clear of snow in the Sierra winters. Logging railroads, and the tourist rail industry that supplanted them, are also featured. A restored roomette from a1950s era sleeper car provides insight into rail travel in that era. Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends entertain children allowing parents to peruse and enjoy the other displays.
The museum deck has become a favorite place to safely watch the trains passing through Truckee on the original transcontinental right of way. The east and westbound California Zephyr passenger trains stop each day to load and unload passengers and there are frequent freight trains passing by. Wave to the engineer, he will often wave back and has been known to give an extra toot on the whistle as he goes by. The double-stacked container trains are of special interest. The Union Pacific Railroad recently completed enlarging the tunnels enabling these trains to save several hours off the previous route up the Feather River Canyon.