The little engine that could: Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad and Transportation Museum resumes operations, railbus rides with safety measures in place |

The little engine that could: Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad and Transportation Museum resumes operations, railbus rides with safety measures in place

Hollie Grimaldi Flores
Special to Prospector


CALL 530-470-0902 or visit the website

Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad and Transportation Museum, located in Nevada City, has been working to “preserve local transportation history and artifacts from the narrow gauge railroad era” for over 35 years, expanding their historic collection of artifacts beyond the rail system for which it is named, to include a variety of transportation related artifacts. The organization has recently reopened to the public, offering free rides on the narrow gauge railbuses and docent lead, as well as self-guided, tours of the museum.

Museum Director John Christensen said the museum honors the history of the 22-mile railroad that ran from Colfax to Grass Valley, ending in Nevada City. Funded by local business owners and built in 1876 for the purpose of carrying freight as well as passengers, the rail system operated until 1942 when it closed by decree of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Christensen said, “It was abandoned due to the advent World War II. There was a presidential decree to shut down all non-essential businesses, and gold mines were part of that, and the gold mines were the railroads’ biggest customer.”

He added other transportation options such as automobiles, buses and trucking had been competing with the railroad for a decade.

“The group that are operating the railbus want to keep operating. I just have to make sure I have enough volunteers to do that.”— John ChristensenMuseum director

The idea to open a museum came some four decades later, when a group of local citizens tossed around the idea at a well-attended community meeting in 1983. “My wife saw an article in the paper looking for volunteers for the historical society to do something in regard to the railroad, but it wasn’t specific,” Christensen said. That meeting was August 25, 1983. The group began exploring ideas — from the idea of a model railroad, to those who thought a full-scale exhibit might be viable. Christensen said, “We formed a board of directors and were called ‘The Transportation Museum Division of the Nevada County Historical Society’ and we set up our first little exhibit in the Firehouse Museum in Nevada City and then I found a Coach (rail car) in 1984.”

The Historical Society bought that coach for $2,000 for the purpose of restoring it and setting up an exhibit along with other memorabilia.

“We still have that coach,” Christensen said. “It still has not been restored.” He said they are working on a sister coach they purchased from a museum in Carson City that is in better shape than the original acquisition and is in a restoration shop now.

Christensen was instrumental in securing the purchase of Engine Number 5 from Universal Studios. The engine can be seen in a number of films but was an original part of the Nevada County railroad. He said that really helped the museum take off.

Today the Narrow Gauge Railroad and Transportation Museum curates more than 40 pieces of transportation history including buggies, Nevada County’s first car, and many other pieces. The money generated at the museum from railbus ride donations and gift shop purchases goes to restoration of acquired equipment and the operation of the all-volunteer museum.

With the City of Nevada City, the group is also in the midst of a collaborative project located near Sacramento Street on Railroad Avenue. “We built a kiosk with three panels that will show what the area looked like when it was a rail depot. We already laid 300 feet of track in there, and we are still working on it. The little building is shaped to look like the Nevada City Depot.”

Making the visit

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the museum is only open on Saturday’s from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and with social distancing practices firmly in place, Christensen recommends making a reservation.

“What we are doing right now is social distancing and requiring people to wear a mask. We only allow people to occupy every other seat on the bus. That limits the numbers, but we have two railbuses so if we had a large amount of people, we could bring out the second bus.”

A founding member of the organization, Christensen is also Chairman of the Board of Directors, Museum Director, and the current Restoration Manager. The retired nurse and army reserve officer took a break from his duties after being called up (for the reserves) for a second time in 2005 and turned the reigns over to Madelyn Helling, who kept the position until retiring in 2018. Christensen returned to the helm where he continues to lead the group of approximately 65 volunteers.

Christensen said in addition to the rail rides, they also have handouts for a self-guided tour of the museum if docents are not available. “The group that are operating the railbus want to keep operating. I just have to make sure I have enough volunteers to do that.”

Railbus Manager Ken Mathias said the buses run about six times a day, and groups of families can sit together, but visitors are otherwise spaced a seat a part. Added safety measures are employed, including requiring face coverings and supplying hand sanitizer. The rides are free, but donations are appreciated. While the railbus generally runs from April through October, he said they have run as late as December.

The gift shop is not currently open due to a shortage of volunteers as some are a bit nervous about serving the public during the pandemic. Anyone interested in helping to preserve the local transportation history through volunteerism or membership, or to reserve a seat of the railbus can do so by calling ​530-470-0902 or visiting the website

Hollie Grimaldi Flores is a Nevada County resident and freelance writer for hire. She can be reached at

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