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Sparks Railroad History: Then and Now

When most people think of the history of Nevada, images from Bonanza and various John Wayne films may come to mind. Tales of men striking it rich in the silver mines of the Virginia Range and desperados raiding the rails have become a common view of the Old West. Nevertheless, there is more to our state’s history than those surface level views of the frontier days. Life was hard on the frontier with settlers and ranchers gradually carving a livelihood out of the desert. With the coming of the Central Pacific Railroad in the mid 1860’s, life in Nevada changed as cities such as Reno rose from the silent sagebrush to become booming communities. Additional towns and farmland developed in the coming decades, with one of them becoming present day Sparks, Nevada due in no small part to the railroad.

Creation of Sparks, Nevada

Sparks sprang into existence in 1903 as a new division point on the Southern Pacific Railroad. While conducting, straightening and realigning the old Central Pacific railroad across Nevada, the Southern Pacific Company made the decision to relocate its shops and headquarters from the small outpost of Wadsworth to present day Sparks. The move was due in part to a lack of adequate water for the trains as well as the destruction of the Wadsworth facilities in an 1884 fire. The site selected was the Mary Wall ranch, just east of Reno making it much more convenient for workers and their families, with it offering plenty of space for a new, modern shop and large roundhouse.

Prior to the birth of Sparks, the original Central Pacific Railroad skirted past the marshlands that made up the Truckee Meadows by running the railway to the north, along the alignment of modern Prater Way. To provide suitable dry land for the new railroad facilities, 65,000 carloads of gravel and rock with personnel working two shifts a day for six months hauled in and spread the material to fill in the area. They raised the average elevation by 18 inches with it taking over a six-month period in 1903.

Moving day from Wadsworth came on July 1, 1904. On that day, houses were dismantled and placed on flat cars for transport, trees were dug up and prepared for shipment, wagons loaded, and the migration to the Truckee Meadows began. In the first few years the town was variously called East Reno, Glendale, and Harriman (Union Pacific President Edward H. Harriman declined to have the new town named after him). The townsfolk finally named the new city ‘Sparks’ in honor of then sitting Nevada Governor John Sparks in 1905. The Governor threw a barbecue for all at his Alamo Ranch south of Reno.

Sparks Railroad Complex

In the years following the move to the Truckee Meadows, Union Pacific built up to service the growing influx of freight trains across the state. Some of the facilities include a roundhouse — the largest west of Chicago, a new and expanded shop building, which included erection bays, a blacksmith, machine shops, the original depot building from Wadsworth, and an enormous coal bunker constructed specifically to fuel the locomotives. The brand new rail yard complex assumed full operation in 1904.

At this time, Sparks became the western Nevada base for a vast stable of steam locomotives, particularly the famous Southern Pacific 4294, a type of mammoth forward cab train with it allowing safer travel within the tunnel heavy line of the Sierra Nevadas. These colossal steamers (123 feet along and 1,051,200 pounds in total) hauled both freight and passengers over the steep grades of the Sierra Nevada between Roseville, California and Sparks.

During the first half of the 20th century, the entire community was connected to the railroad– either someone you knew worked there or was married to someone who worked there. The schools, the parks, the entire city grew up around the rail yard. The nearby Sparks High School is still known as the Railroaders and uses a steam train in their logo. However, this era of the Railroad city was not to last, with the coming of the 1950’s, times began to change with the Union Pacific gradually removing the now outdated facilities in Sparks. The railroad dismantled a huge forty-stall locomotive roundhouse in 1959. Union Pacific demolished most of the old railroad structures during the 1970’s, with the state condemning other buildings to make way for I-80 and subsequent lane additions.

What Remains of the Rail Yard

Today, the last remnants of the once bustling rail yard is the acre sized machine shops not far from the Nugget Casino. The brick warehouse has two levels of window openings, the top one segmentally arched, piercing recessed panels divided by pilasters. Steel posts and roof trusses support a metal roof. The building initially contained several shops but was slowly forgotten as the years wore on. The interstate separates the building from the rest of town, but its great size makes it easy to find especially for motorists taking the I-80 exit toward Pyramid Way.

The shop continues to be on Union Pacific land with the building itself privately owned by a second party. The shops have since been used for mostly storage with hot tubs stacked on top of each other, along with a few boats and campers, and for a brief time the shop became the home of the Harrah Automobile collection. As of late, the shop has become home to a few budding artists like musician Jonny Rolling, who recently put the finishing touches on his first album.

Preserving History

Since the golden days of the railroad days in Sparks, much of its history has been lost with a few parts of it being preserved over the years. Lillard Park, just down the street from Victorian Square, opened in 1976 as a city project to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States. The park showcases the Southern Pacific Locomotive No. 8 train, a historic school house, and two historic markers tell the story of how railroads have played a role not only in the city, but across the Truckee Meadows.

As of this summer, Union Pacific has decided to terminate the lease of the land where the old railroad machine shop sits, due in part to their growing operations requiring additional space in Sparks to help meet local and regional economic demand. The current lease expires in the spring of 2024 and the building could be demolished soon after. However, many in the community wish to save the historic building, such as Sparks City Councilman and Sparks native Donald Abbott and Nevada native Congressman Mark Amodei, among others, making their voices heard on the issue. Prior to 2023, there have been other attempts to preserve the machine shops. In the early 1980’s, the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office tried to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places. In the early 1990’s, the City of Sparks looked into turning the old machine shop on Nugget Avenue into the Great Basin Exploration Center. However, those plans fell through for unknown reasons. As of now, efforts are underway to preserve the machine shop, but it is still unclear if these efforts will be able to save the historic structure.

About the Author

Michael Misanik is a lifelong Nevadan, who is currently working on an associate degree in Environmental Science with a minor in history. His enjoyment and knowledge of the natural world is only rivaled by his love of history both local and worldwide. This enjoyment of history and the natural world has been fueled by Michael’s many travels across the United States. Michael has visited 78 museums, 37 different zoos/aquariums, and 54 national park areas. He has studied art and enjoys photographing his travels; this has filled his love for travel. Michael is currently volunteering at the Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation as a Park Historian where he researches and tells the stories of the various public parks found in the Reno Sparks area. Check out his park histories on the Parks Foundation website.


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