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A dream stays on track

Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum keeps on chugging


Karen Newell Young

Nevada City Advocate

As if Nevada City were not quaint and historic enough, the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum provides a pocket of historic charm in the heart of the city.

Chugging through surrounding forests and the Inn Town Campground, the museum’s railbus’s take riders from the museum to the Northern Queen Inn, which was instrumental in helping bring the narrow gauge back to life – partly for the enhancement of its property as well as owner Roy Ramey’s interest in all things steam-operated.

The museum takes visitors back to childhood memories of locomotives, iron horses and history steeped in the heyday of what was once the primary mode of transportation before airplanes knocked trains off their tracks.

The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad & Transportation Museum holds the mystery and magic of yesteryear, with artifacts of childhood recollections spread throughout the building – capturing memories of whistles blowing through backyards and locomotives screaming in and out of stations throughout the country.

Since its inception in 2001 under the auspices of Nevada City and the Nevada County Historical Society, the museum has worked to preserve Nevada County’s transportation history and artifacts from the narrow gauge railroad era.

John Christensen, now director of the museum, began volunteering in 1983 with a few other members of the historical society and local railroad enthusiasts hoping to find a way to enhance the memory of the long-gone historical mining era railroad. It was not an easy ride. 

They had visions of re-establishing a segment of an operating railroad in Nevada County, but obstacles mounted as property challenges, permits and financing issues intervened in plans for a museum. It took another 18 years for the dream to materialize.

A train enthusiast since childhood when the Santa Fe Railroad ran past his backyard, Christensen said when he heard the whistles blowing, he ran to the track. 

I grew up with it,” he said. “I got the bug really early. My uncle brought a Lionel train and set it up in our living room and I took that engine to bed with me.”

He added: “The Southern Pacific Railroad also ran through my neighborhood in Richmond and it was referred to as the iron triangle since the tracks from both railroad lines confined that section of town near the old Kaiser Ship Yards.”

Christensen said many of the museum’s railroad equipment displays were secured from post World War II abandoned railroads such as the Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge & West Side Lumber Company since their equipment was not scrapped or disrupted by the war effort, unlike the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad 1942. 

He first acquired a 46-foot passenger coach in Chico, which he was able to purchase through the historical society for $2,000 in 1984. Another early milestone was the acquisition of Engine #5.

“I began a publicity campaign to generate interest in acquiring Engine #5 from Universal Studios” which helped him obtain the engine and other related railroad equipment.

The engine, which had been sold by the museum to Revue Studios in 1940, was used in more than 100 movies and television episodes, such as “The Spoiler” starring John Wayne as well as movies like “Dawn at Socorro,” “Shenandoah,” and “Rails into Laramie.”

Christensen traveled to Southern California along with the historical society’s then-president Bruce Bollinger in early 1985 to arrange for its return. Lowell Robinson, who owned Robinson Timber Enterprises, sent two trucks to pick up the engine and tender. 

Throughout its 15 years, the museum has had the support of hundreds in the community and continues to be a major attraction in the area. Despite a drizzling rain, attendance on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend broke all records, with 193 rail bus passengers, prompting the museum to bring out its second bus for three additional runs.

During 2017, the museum saw visitors from 243 California cities, 35 states and 15 countries.

Madelyn Helling, who recently concluded 12 years as director of the museum, said “It’s important to preserve this part of history. It’s our history and it draws people to our community from far and wide.”

About the photo:   

Jim Fessler and director John Christensen flank Engine # 5, which starred in more than 100 movies and TV episodes, but was returned to the museum in 1985.  

Photo by Karen Newell  Young