Gold Country, California: The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum

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I thought this series about Gold Country was done.  But I realize now that may not be true for some time.  About 6 months ago, wanting to replace the wood stove in my house that was installed when the house was built in 1978, I called a recommended dealer who arrived to inspect the situation.  Jim took one look at the old stove and laughed, saying a fellow up at the railroad museum in Nevada City, about 5 miles up the road from me, had asked him long ago to keep an eye out for one of those stoves with locomotives cast into the doors.  Two doors, 2 different locomotives and that’s what I had.  Would I mind, he asked, if he gave the doors to the museum?  Certainly not, I said.  That was in November.

 

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Six months later I thought about those doors and wondering if they had, in fact, made it to their new home, I called the museum.  They didn’t know a thing about them, so I called Jim.  No, he said, he hadn’t gotten around to it but they were still there.  The following week I drove down to Penn Valley, picked them up, then drove back up to Nevada City and delivered them myself.

 

I found the museum, not far off Highway 49, well hidden in the trees behind a cemetery on the south side of Nevada City.  Ron Kapper, museum officer and tour guide, met me at the front door and we each carried one of the stove doors into the building.  Ron had me fill out a donation form then said “Would you like a tour?”  Well, why wouldn’t I like a tour, and off we went.  I must admit, I hadn’t really given the place a thought beyond making sure they got their locomotive wood stove doors and I was, therefore, in for an unexpected treat.

 

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The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad, the NCNGRR, in the days when it was not known for keeping to its schedule, using the initials, was nicknamed the Never Come Never Go Railroad.  Built to serve the gold mining and timber industries, as well as farmers and passengers from around the communities of Grass Valley and Nevada City, it connected people and freight with the Central Pacific Railroad in Colfax, a stop on the main Transcontinental route between San Francisco and the eastern United States.  Construction began in January, 1875, and the first train made the 22 mile trip, through 2 tunnels, across 2 bridges and 5 trestles, from Colfax to Nevada City, in spring of the following year.

 

When I walked through the door of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Museum I was not even aware that the county had ever had a railroad.  My first lesson was a wall of maps and photographs of the founders.  I do love maps so it was a propitious start.

 

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Ron told me the story of John Flint Kidder who worked for the company from it’s beginning, eventually becoming president.  Upon his death in 1901, his widow, Sarah, took up the reins, the first woman president of a railroad, running it until 1913, when she retired to San Francisco.  Their beautiful Grass Valley mansion on Bennet Street was a showplace and after the Kidders were gone the house eventually fell into disrepair and the town government, rather than spend money on it, tore it down, in hindsight a great loss to the town.

 

The most fascinating part of the story for me, as Ron told it to me on our walk around the museum, through the yard and into the large restoration shop, was his description of all the rolling stock, the condition of each car and locomotive when it arrived at the facility and the time, expertise and donated money it took to return them to working condition.  We had a long stop inside the museum building as Ron showed me Engine Number 5, built in 1875 to haul lumber, then passengers and freight and concluded its career in Hollywood movies.  He told of one movie where it was derailed and sent off on it’s side and how painful that was for any train buffs watching the movie.  A huge movie fan myself, Ron gave me the long list of films Number 5 starred in and I plan to get to work on it, watching every one I can find.  And speaking of “buffs”, I mentioned to Ron as we were walking along, that my uncle had been a train freak.  He said politely, “We call them buffs”.  I won’t forget, Ron.

 

 

 Left, John, restoration manager, and right, Jim, museum board member and restorer.

 

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That was Tuesday.  During the busy season, they’re closed Wednesday and Thursday, so on Friday I was back to take pictures.  This time it was Jim, board member and restorer, who kept me company and answered my questions.  One thing that surprised me, and that Jim said was unusual for a facility of this kind, was the fact that they allow visitors like me to go into the restoration shop, all around, and it may be the most fascinating place of all.  Jim made sure the lights were all on and opened the big doors so I had as much light as possible for my pictures.  As I had on Tuesday, I used up a great deal of my host’s time and never for a minute was made to feel like it was too much.  They seem to tailor the tours to the interest and stamina of their guests.  Their interest and knowledge of the subject matter is vast and, I have no doubt, they enjoy sharing it at length.  As we were leaving the shop, John, the restoration manager, turned up and I got them to pose for a picture for me.

 

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As always at the NCNGRR Museum, they’ve got big plans.  They’ve just finished restoration of an extra set of 2 passenger car wheel trucks (set of wheels) that will be swapped for a locomotive boiler they need.  The Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City needs the wheel trucks and NCNGRR needs their spare boiler, so everyone is thrilled.  The museum is in the midst of plans to install a turntable and connect tracks from the Northern Queen Hotel, just north in Nevada City, once used for a ride around the large grounds, with those at the museum to give visitors rides on the combined circuit.  They’ve got a caboose cupola in the shop, while the rest of the caboose is still in Oregon, but not for long.  The little speeder, used to deliver men and tools and whatever was needed down the track is sitting quietly on the sidelines until someone brings it the Indian Motorcycle engine it needs to get going.  Restoration of rail cars and locomotives is ongoing and I don’t imagine there will ever be an end to it as long as there are trains to be restored and rebuilt.

 

Engine Number 5, Ready for its Close-up

 

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Engine No. 5 was built in Philadelphia in 1875 and purchased for the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad in 1899.  In 1941, No. 5 was sold to Frank Lloyd Productions at Universal Studios in Burbank for the John Wayne film, ‘The Spoilers’.  Over the years it appeared in 30 productions, the last, ‘Twightlight Zone: The Movie’ in 1983.  Its movie career at an end, in 1985 No. 5 returned to Nevada County and its new home at the NCNGRR Museum.

 

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Have a good look at the NCNGRR Museum website, full of pictures & information I’ve only just touched on, & detailed descriptions of locomotives & rolling stock shown here:

 

 http://ncngrrmuseum.org

 

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More about the NCNGRR here

And an interesting discussion of Engine No. 5 here.

 

 

 

Have a look at the museum ’s location on Google Maps, and between

Kidder Court where the museum is located, and Railroad Avenue to the north,

you can see the gray outline of the combined tracks of the museum and those

of the Northern Queen Hotel that will, one day soon, be ready to ride.

 

 

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Thanks to the NCNGRR museum staff for their help and in particular, to

Ron & Jim, whose generous guidance made this telling of the story possible.

 

 

 

Read more episodes of ‘Gold Country, California’ here.

 

 

 

 

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