Nevada County’s narrow gauge railroad museum opens Saturday for 15th season |

Nevada County’s narrow gauge railroad museum opens Saturday for 15th season

John Christensen, director of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum, gives a tour to Jesse VanWinkle, from right, Griffin Wall, Jason Reis and C.W. Wall, visiting from Iowa.
Photos by John Hart

Know & Go

What: Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad and Transportation Museum

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Tuesday

Where: 5 Kidder Court, Nevada City

For info: Railbus rides are approximately 35 minutes long and are offered on Saturdays only during the summer season. Reservations are strongly recommended for railbus rides. Call 530-470-0902 or go to

Nevada County’s railroad — which ran from Nevada City to Colfax via Grass Valley for nearly 75 years — has not been in existence since World War II. If you know where to look, of course, you can catch glimpses of its past.

But thanks to a dedicated band of volunteers, rail enthusiasts of all ages can find out everything they might want to know about the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad — and get up and close and personal with quite a bit of its rolling stock — at the museum built in 2003 to honor its heritage.

The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum and Interpretative Center, located on Kidder Court in Nevada City, opens this Saturday for its 15th summer season.

And if you have only visited this gem once — or if it has been a while since you ventured through the doors — you should make a point of returning, because the railroad volunteers are never content to rest on their laurels. Over the years, they have worked to constantly expand their offerings and improve the experience for their visitors.

New this year is the Sarah Kidder railbus, which has been recently refurbished and which will be available for rides along with the Donna Jeanne.

The museum has been operating the Donna Jeanne, also known as No. 97, for several years, taking passengers along Gold Run Creek past the Inn Town Campground to the Northern Queen, paralleling a portion of the original route of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad.

According to museum director John Christensen, the Donna Jeanne was originally built for the Westside & Cherry Valley Railway, a tourist railroad, in 1975 and ran until 1981. It was eventually sold to the Northern Queen Inn and ran in their adjacent meadow until about 2010.

The Sarah Kidder originally was used as a shuttle vehicle at the Westside & Cherry Valley Railway, and features polished wood bench seating and brass accents that give it a style reminiscent of times gone by. The railbus is named for Sarah Kidder, the former president of the railroad from 1901-1913 and the first female president of a railroad in the United States.

The railbus rides — available only on Saturdays — are far from the only attractions at the museum, which highlights other modes of transportation as well. For instance, the museum hosts what is believed to be Nevada County’s first car, the 1901 Jeffery steam automobile, as well as film of aviation pioneer Lyman Gilmore, believed by some to have actually flown the first airplane.

Saturday also marks the beginning of the season for docent-led tours, which show off the restored rail cars in the “rail yard” and the restoration shop with its works in progress.

“We do a lot of hustling in the winter to get ready,” Christensen said during an impromptu tour for a quartet of rail buffs from Iowa earlier this week. “Then in the summer, we switch focus to operations.”

One of the duties volunteers have been busy performing before opening day involves running the railbuses down the track, to make sure the winter, with its attendant snow, ice and flooding, didn’t cause any problems with the rails. The museum has just installed some “display” track in the Northern Queen meadow and will put some cars there this summer to “decompress” the yard, which is getting overly full of projects.

“We’re a victim of our own success,” Christensen said with a laugh.

Currently, the restoration crew is working on the centerpiece exhibit of the museum — Engine No. 5, which ended its long career as a movie engine for Universal Studios.

“This is the first thing (visitors) see,” Christensen said.

“The little kids run to it,” said Madelyn Helling, currently the museum’s director emeritus. “It’s genetic.”

Engine No. 5 and its tender are the two surviving cars of the original railroad operation in the late 1800s. While these two cars are in good mechanical and cosmetic condition, Engine No. 5 lacks a boiler, the critical component necessary to generate steam to power the locomotive. Restoration efforts to rectify that are underway, with anticipated completion in 2021.

“We will restore it back to circa 1939, as it was before it left here,” Christensen said.

When Engine No. 5 is done, it will be moved to the shop, where it will go up and down the track under its own steam power.

Reason enough to mark your calendar for mid-April, three years from now.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at

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