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Paul Matson: How did all this happen?

John Christensen at Universal Studios in 1985 guides Engine #5 onto a Low Boy.
Submitted photo

The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad began service in 1876 and continued until 1943. The tracks were then removed and the rolling stock dispersed.

The 22-mile route ran from Nevada City to Grass Valley and then on to Colfax where you could catch a train to anywhere in the country. During its lifespan, it hauled $200 million worth of gold!

The years went by. In 1983 members of the Nevada County Historical Society held a meeting to consider reviving at least the memory of the Narrow Gauge. Madelyn Helling was president. Eighty people showed up at the Nevada City Veterans Hall, many of them model railroaders. A core group began by creating exhibits at Nevada City Fire House #1 in conjunction with the Historical Society.



One such person was John Christensen, who remains very active today in moving the Nevada County Rail Road and Transportation Museum forward. He is the forever on the hunt for track, rolling stock, and spare parts; working, building, restoring.

From parts secured from Tuolumne’s West Side Lumber Company, an exact replica of our NCNGRR caboose was built from scratch. (The lumber company had 70 miles of tracks of their own). That caboose then located at the Northern Queen Inn, served as the first meeting place of the newly formed Rail Road Museum and later became the gift shop.




Lowell Robinson, the late founder of Robinson (Timber) Enterprises did a lot to get and keep things moving.

“We had a silent partnership,” said Christensen. “He would send a truck to get whatever it was; rail, ties, switches, He was a big supporter of the community and totally supported the Railroad project. He never charged us a dime, and the company is still helping us today.”

In the summer of 1984 big things started to happen. Nevada County’s centerpiece, Engine #5 had ended up at Universal Studios, and had served as a “movie star.” Many of the movie posters it was featured in are on display at the Museum.

Christensen, on a family vacation to Disneyland, took a break and went to Universal Studios. Somehow he managed to navigate his way through the organization and was driven to the lot where Engine #5 was, in a state of disrepair. Universal Studios at first was not interested. So, John launched a letter-writing campaign. Letters from Grass Valley, Nevada City, Nevada County and our state and federal representatives started rolling into the studio. An initial loan agreement was reached and Robinson Enterprises picked it up with one of their trucks. No small feat, by the way, with temporary track being laid and extended to the ground to move the engine onto the truck for transport.

It returned here in 1985, complete with a parade and celebration.

Then, more big things occurred. The Ramey family, led by patriarch Roy Ramey, acquired the 17-acre BLM parcel surrounded by the Northern Queen Inn, Hooper and Weaver’s Cemetery and Gold Flat Industrial Park. It was a land-locked parcel. The Ramey family donated 2.7 acres to the City of Nevada City for a Railroad Museum. Ken and Kay Baker, owners of the cemetery, granted an easement along their property so the museum site could be accessed. Bost Avenue and New Mohawk Road, while properly aligned to meet, were separated by cemetery property and property then owned by TDK Semiconductor. Both property owners granted the rights of way to allow these two roadways to connect and serve the up and coming museum with ample access.

More help arrived. The Historical Society put up some money. Nevada City rounded up some Quimby Act Recreation funds from the county. And then, the eagle really landed.

“The Nevada County Transportation Commission was able to help in the funding of the Transportation Museum by acquiring a Federal Transportation Enhancement Activities (TEA) grant in the amount of $392,161. TEA funds are to be used for transportation-related capital improvement projects that take creative actions to integrate transportation into our communities,” the June 2013 Nevada County Transportation Commission Newsletter states.

Beryl Robinson was Nevada City’s city manager and worked out the multitude of details involved. Today, Nevada City owns the land and buildings. The Historical Society serves as the operator. Groundbreaking was July 8, 2001 with Mayor Kerry Arnett presiding. The building dedication was Dec. 20, 2001, and the grand opening was held on May 17-18, 2003.

Coming soon in an upcoming column: the Railroad and Transportation Museum today.

Paul Matson, who lives in Nevada City, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His opinion is his own and does not reflect the viewpoint of The Union or its editorial board. Write to him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.


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