The Nevada State Railroad Museum at Carson City, Nevada, has completed the restoration of a 19th century track-laying car. Though only a small service vehicle, it is a significant relic from the days of hand-built railroads. Until the increased weight of rail before World War I made track-laying machines imperative, these cars were the standard means of delivering rail to the end-of-track during new construction. They were generally the first rail vehicles acquired by railroads, and the NSRM’s car is believed to be the last surviving example.
In use, track-laying cars were loaded with 16 to 20 rails and drawn by horses hitched to an iron ring on the side of the car. At the end-of-track, the rails were pulled lengthwise off the car on rollers, placed at the ends of the transoms so the rails came off virtually to gauge. Thirty-foot rails weighing 56 pounds to the yard were handled by as few as four men, one team working on each side of the track. To make rapid progress, crews only placed the rails; splicing and spiking took place after the track-laying car had been rolled ahead. Crews often laid more than a mile of track in a day, and a Central Pacific crew once laid ten miles in eleven hours. On large projects, several track-laying cars were used; when they met shuttling back and forth, the empty cars were tipped onto their side on the tie-ends so the loaded cars could pass. A crew of men rode each car to brake and tip it out of the way, and to assist in loading and unloading.
With the completion of construction, track-laying cars were immediately redundant, and most were soon sold, converted to other uses, or scrapped. The Nevada State Railroad Museum’s example belonged to the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. It was apparently built in the company shop before construction of the railroad in 1869, probably utilizing iron parts from an older car acquired from the CPRR after completion of the transcontinental railroad. Latter-day photographs of the car show it decked over, making it more useful as a track maintenance push car. The company sold this particular car to Paramount Studios in 1937 for $5.00, along with several other pieces of rolling stock, and it was featured in the track construction scene of the 1939 motion picture Union Pacific. After that, the neglected and eventually forgotten car slowly disintegrated. Fortunately, the significance of the surviving parts was recognized and they were returned to Carson City last summer.
The car has been rebuilt to the design of the CPRR track-laying cars and will be featured in a new exhibit, marking the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad, that is being installed in the Museum’s Jacobson Interpretative Center.