For more than 10 years, the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum in Nevada City has helped to preserve local transportation history and artifacts from the narrow gauge railroad era. But the museum is not just a building filled with historical artifacts, it is also filled with people dedicated to giving the community a little piece of the past.
“It’s a part of the whole history of the United States,” museum board President Madelyn Helling said. “The history of transportation is vital to every part of the country, so we’re a major player in the history of the West.”
In 1983, members of the Nevada County Historical Society got together for a meeting to discuss efforts to get the county railroad going again. Those efforts, though, failed, and the group decided to establish a transportation museum. Its purpose was to preserve railroad history in the county and to restore and display artifacts from that time period.
In 2003, Nevada City secured a State Department of Transportation grant to open the museum. For 20 years prior to the museum’s opening, members of the historical society had already collected equipment and artifacts to fill the museum.
“It was a joint movement of different groups to establish the museum,” Helling said. “The wonderful work done by our people during that time gave us a great deal of equipment to put into the museum.”
The museum tells the history of the Nevada County railroad through railroad maps, pictures, model train displays and restored railroad parts. It also contains artifacts that are not necessarily part of railroad history but part of the county’s transportation chronicle.
“This is a car that was built here in Nevada City in 1891. Its a steam car, one of the very first cars that ever was built,” said Don Tallitsch, museum docent and tour guide. “The way you see it is the way it was.”
Built in 1874 and finished in 1876, the railroad connected Colfax, Chicago Park, Grass Valley and Nevada City together during the Gold Rush and was used to transport products to and from each city. It was shut down just before World War II started in 1942.
Notable displays at the museum include Engine number 5, the last remaining piece of rolling stock that is part of the original Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad. The engine was acquired from Universal Studios by museum Restoration Manager John Christensen after being used in old Hollywood movies like “Dawn At Socorro,” “Backtrack” and “Rails Into Laramie.”
Christensen said, though, that a lot of train equipment he finds to restore doesn’t come from a Hollywood shoot but from railroads that used the trains to transport lumber.
“My main focus is getting railroad cars rebuilt and show-ready,” Christensen, said. “This particular caboose was the last caboose to come on the last train, to come out of the woods in the 1960s in the last commercial logging run.”
Christensen has headed the restoration project for more than 30 years and says that all museum boxcars, engines, cabooses, carriages and locomotives are found in other railroads throughout the country, brought to the museum and restored by more than 20 volunteers who have contributed close to 147,000 hours of service to building and regenerating train parts throughout the years.
All in the name of preserving the past.
“It’s important to preserve this railroad equipment that we have here,” Christensen said. “It’s special.”
Since May 2003, the museum has welcomed more than 57,000 visitors through its doors. In the last year alone, the museum has seen a 17-percent increase in visitors from the previous year, with visitors coming from 245 cities, 37 states and 11 countries.
“When you look at these statistics you have to realize that we are a very little town, in a very limited, populated county; and this museum is marvelous, drawing (people) into the county,” Helling said.
The museum celebrated its 10th anniversary last May, holding an open house for families to enjoy live music, museum tours and rail-bus rides.
A gift shop located at the museum entrance gives visitors a product line of railroad memorabilia that gives people a chance to take a piece of that history home.
“We have many things pertaining to the railroad industry,” Tallitsch said. “We have many books, toys for kids, artifacts, pictures and clothing. We have a very nice gift shop.”
For Helling, museum volunteers and employees like Christensen and Tallitsch are the real gifts of the museum.
“They’re so devoted,” Helling said. “They love what they’re doing, and they’re helping preserve Nevada County’s transportation history.”
To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
“The history of transportation is vital to every part of the country, so we’re a major player in the history of the West.”
NCNGRR Museum President Madelyn Helling