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History Happened Here
Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail
By James Porterfield

 
© Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
The craggy South Virgin Mountains can be seen from the gravel trail.
 

Related Links

Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail on TrailLink.com
—A description, reviewer's comments, trail map and pictures.

RTC Trail of the Month (March 2012)
—National Park Service fact sheet on the trail.

Historic Railroad Trail Video Podcast
—National Park Service video introducing the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail.

Nevada Southern Railway/Nevada State Railroad Museum
—An excursion railroad, part of the Nevada State Railway Museum, that operates on an abandoned portion of the Union Pacific's Las Vegas-Boulder City branch.

Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum

 

Building the Hoover Dam across the Colorado River in southeastern Nevada created the need for thousands of workers in a remote location. This icon of Depression-era America contained a 3.25 million cubic yard mountain of concrete across Black Canyon, and oversized components that needed to be moved there to produce hydroelectric power.

The seven-mile long Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail lets you retrace the path taken by this army of workers and metropolis of machinery. It was once known as the U. S. Government Construction Railroad, and was built in just over six months to connect a Union Pacific Railroad branch in Boulder City, Nevada, with the dam construction site.

To fully appreciate the history associated with this trail, consider this:

  • The trail's route, a winding path around area hills, originated in part because a shorter, straighter railroad would have resulted in a continuous six-mile downhill run that ended at the brink of a cliff that dropped into a deep canyon. That is never a good railroading route practice.
  • While a typical railroad tunnel of that era was 16 feet wide and 22 feet high, the five tunnels that are the trail's namesake are as much as 25 feet wide and 30 feet high, to accommodate the massive loads that passed through them. Totaling 1,500 feet in length, each one was blasted through rock.
  • In the 49 months it took to complete the dam, the U. S. Government Construction Railroad hauled 35,000 carloads of materials and equipment weighing two million tons along the route of the trail to the construction site.

But you won't encounter the spirits of workmen past here—they traveled from Boulder City to the dam in trucks.

James D. Porterfield is Director of the Center for Railway Tourism at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va., and a contributing editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
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