Building a museum |

Building a museum

As railroads go, not too many enjoy the luxury of their own museum. At No. 5 Kidder court, in Kidder Park off Bost Avenue, Nevada City, is the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum and Interpretative Center, dedicated primarily to the railroad but with a tip of the hat to other forms of transportation in Nevada County.

The history of the railroad could be called chapter one in the museum story. Let’s take a look at the highlights.

The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad (NCNGRR) was built between 1874 and ’76, and covered a distance of 22 miles from Nevada City to Colfax via Grass Valley. It connected with the Central Pacific (later the Southern Pacific) Railroad at Colfax and was the main freight and passenger link to points outside western Nevada County.

The railroad was abandoned in 1942, the victim of improved road transportation and rapidly rising operating costs. The rails and ties were taken up.

Some of the rolling stock, including locomotives, was scrapped. Some survived and were shipped to Hawaii and Alaska, where they helped in the United States’ World War II effort.

In 1940, engine No. 5, now on display in the museum, had been sold to Frank Lloyd Productions in Hollywood, where for many years it was a mainstay of “back lot steam.” It was featured (if not the star) in countless motion pictures.

One of No. 5’s most memorable roles was in the John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich classic, “The Spoilers.” The old locomotive was derailed, rolled over on its side and spouted volumes of steam. The prop people rigged up mattresses to cushion the fall and with only minor repairs, she rose to act another day.

The little road has been celebrated in song, story and poetry and has been the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles and books. In 1962, the musical play “Never Come, Never Go!” based on the building of the railroad, was produced at Nevada City’s Fourth of July celebration.

Written by a local school music teacher and a Nevada City newspaper reporter/photographer, it was a resounding success and has been produced a total of four times; the last was in 1987. The play’s title is from the railroads initials NCNG, which locals referred to affectionately as “our Never Come, Never Go Railroad.” However, the trains usually ran on time.

The Narrow Gauge lays claim to having the first U.S. (if not the world’s) woman railroad president. Sarah Kidder, widow of the builder and longtime president, followed her husband in the job upon his death in 1901.

She held that position until 1913, when she relinquished control to new owners. On her watch in 1908, the Narrow Gauge claimed the highest railroad trestle in the U.S. at 173 feet above the Bear River at the Placer-Nevada County line.

The high trestle stood until 1963, when it was blasted down to make way for Rollins Dam, part of the Nevada Irrigation District’s Yuba-Bear River Project.

Another noteworthy claim is that the railroad was never robbed. During its lifetime, the NCNG carried millions of dollar in gold bullion bound for the San Francisco Mint in cloth bags on the baggage car floor! It was said that it was the fear that John F. Kidder would hunt any bandit down that kept the gold safe. Kidder had a reputation as “one tough hombre!”

In his younger days, he regularly carried a pistol and a large Bowie knife in his belt.

The little railroad has been gone for some 62 years; its memory and legend, however shine brightly in Nevada County’s history.

Short line railroads, particularly narrow gauge roads, are being restored and rehabilitated worldwide to provide an experience for those generations who have never ridden on a train or seen a steam locomotive.

Now the museum. The idea to build a railroad museum took a gigantic and practical leap forward in the spring of 2000, when a representative of the Nevada County Historical Society met with Nevada City officials in the city manager’s office. After a brief discussion, then City Manager Beryl P. Robinson Jr. proposed that the city apply for a grant to partially fund a museum project.

The ball started rolling when the Roy E. Ramey Family Ltd. Trust offered to deed to the city almost two acres of land adjacent to their Northern Queen resort property.

With easements from TDK Semiconductor, Hooper & Weaver Inc. and a pledge of cash from the historical society, the stage was set.

The city was successful in obtaining grant funding from the state of California, the County of Nevada, the Nevada County Historical Society and also used money from its own general fund.

In early 2001, the project quickly took shape and with plans and specifications prepared, the project was ready to go to bid.

Next time: Construction gets underway on the museum.


Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, author of local and California history and a longtime Nevada County resident. You can reach him by e-mail at: or by U. S. mail at P.O. Box 216, Nevada City.

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