In 1862 silver was discovered in the remote Lander County, Nevada. Over the next decade the town of Austin formed and grew but faced difficult issues with transportation. M.J. Farrell of the Manhattan Silver Company, the region's primary operator began the task of arranging for a railroad and necessary financing. Despite the county's $200,000 subsidy offering, cash was difficult to obtain. In 1878 the Nevada Railway was incorporated to build a 3' gauge line from Austin to Battle Mountain on the Central Pacific Railroad. The surveyed length was 93 miles but Farrell continued to have difficulty raising funding. A year later in 1879, Phelps Stokes, a heavy investor in Arizona Copper mining became interested in the project and the road was reincorporated as the Nevada Central Railway.
Construction began in September 1879 at Battle Mountain with a County Subsidy expiration looming 6 months later on February 9, 1880 if the track-work was not completed to Austin. In extreme haste the road was built with light grading and reached within 900 feet of the City limits 10 minutes before the moment of expiration! The County Subsidy was awarded. With the continuation of winter storms much of line required rebuilding in the spring of that year. The Nevada Central was originally equipped with rail and two locomotives from the Monterey & Salinas Railroad in California that had been purchased and was being converted to standard gauge by the Southern Pacific.
Passenger service on the road averaged five and a half hours and freight service ran three times weekly initially. Plans to expand the road emerged quickly in a number of directions. Southward from the Austin end (Clifton) to Belmont and other mining camps in Nye County, Nevada but none were executed. North from Battle Mountain plans were made into Idaho but remained dreams. The one southern connection made was the dummy line that serviced the southern terminus of the road up a hill and into Austin proper. This was the Austin City Railway built in 1881 and ran 2.8 miles into the town on a 7.5% grade. The Austin City Railway had but one locomotive bearing the name "Mule's Relief" and generally ran with one or two cars. The line's demise came in 1889 with the reduction of mining activity in Austin.
To the south, in 1881 the Carson & Colorado Railroad siphoned off about 50% of the traffic through Nevada Central and the Central Pacific Railroad to the mining camps in Nye County. At the same time the Union Pacific Railroad became interested in using the road as a connection for a projected extension between Salt Lake and San Francisco. The U.P. then purchased the Nevada Central in June of 1881 for that purpose. The U.P. shortly dropped the planned route and in October 1884 allowed the narrow gauge to pass the month's interest payment thus throwing the little road into bankruptcy. The road reverted to the Stokes family's control and was reorganized as the Nevada Central Railroad in 1888.
Mining and ranching activity in the region continued into the early 1900's. By 1904 the Austin mining district rapidly declined, effectively ending by 1911. Passenger and freight traffic on the Nevada Central continued for the service of camps to the south of Austin. After 1911 the Nevada Central survived primarily on wool and cattle traffic from local ranching and a motor car was constructed to provide passenger service, replacing steam. Like many other struggling roads, bus service was provided with the creation of the Nevada Central Motor Lines in 1927. As a road that faced poor revenue earnings and outright abandonment for much of it's life, survival into the 1930's is remarkable. Equally surprising, a significant quantity of the equipment has survived in a number of museums. Several of these provide a unique picture of western Narrow Gauge story.
Collected Nevada Central Railway Photographs.
Images collected from private collections, libraries and historical societies.