Virginia and Truckee Goes Hollywood
By Robert Rollins
Long after most short line railroads would have been sleeping out eternity in the archives of local historical societies, the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was still whistling for the yard limits in Culver City and rolling in remembered splendor down tangents of Hollywood movies.
The very existence of the locomotive and cars is due to the desire of the major motion picture companies to acquire their own historic railroad trains. Had it not been for this interest by the studios, it’s likely that a number of V&T’s engines and cars would not have survived the drives of World War II.
The exodus began in 1937, when Paramount Studios’ Property Department Chief, Oliver Stratton, was asked to find authentic 1870’s steam engine for use in filming High, Wide & Handsome. The search led to the V&T at Carson City, where Stratton was told there were several suitable locomotives. The studio sent Norman Lacey to purchase the “Inyo” (No. 22); a Baldwin 4-4-0 built in 1875.
Upon arrival in Carson, Lacey was told that the engine had been in the process of being overhauled when she was retired to the Great Stone Fort engine house in 1922. Ed Peterson, the V&T’s venerable Master Mechanic assured Paramount they could have her put back together and in good shape within two weeks. Following a break-in run to Reno, the studio purchased No. 22 for $1,250 and she left behind a Southern Pacific local on March 13th. The “Inyo” was used in the filming that summer. Paramount soon saw the need for a complete train, so they purchased the V&T’s Kimball built coaches (3 and 4) on June 14, 1937 and a month later obtained matching Kimball baggage car No. 1. The studio paid the princely sum of $300 each for the 1872 cars. The first use of the “new” train was in Wells Fargo, which was released later that same year. This was only the beginning.
In May 1938, Cecil B. DeMille was making plans to film Union Pacific, so Paramount again set Norman Lacey to Carson City to buy equipment. This time he took an option to lease or purchase some 18 pieces of rolling stock, plus harp switch-stands, spare wheel sets and other assorted railroad items. The V&T also agreed to lease the 4-4-0s “Reno” (No. 11) and “Dayton” (No. 18) for use in the filming. Consideration was given to filming the movie on the V&T itself. DeMille hired Lucius Beebe as a technical consultant, but decided to most of the location work on a Union Pacific branch in Utah.
Paramount ended-up purchasing not only the rolling stock, but the “Dayton” as well. They leased the V&T’s former Baldwin 2-4-0 “J.W. Bowker from the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, after the group had obtained the engine from the Hobart Estate. Thus the classic film used four V&T engines: “Inyo,” “Reno,” “J.W. Bowker,” and “Dayton.”
Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer was the next studio to acquire V&T equipment. In March 1945 MGM (Lowes, Inc.) bought the “Reno” for $5,000. It was planned to use the “Reno” for filming The Harvey Girls (1946), but the 4-4-0 did not arrive in time, so the studio rented Paramount’s “Inyo,” “Dayton” and several cars as they had done a number of times before. Needing more rolling stock, MGM obtained the renamed Club Car “Julia Bulette,” V&T coach 19 and combine in 1947. In the meantime, Paramount had returned in March 1947 to purchase the V&T’s wrecking crane (No. 50) for use in filming Whispering Smith, an Alan Ladd western with some excellent railroad scenes. The V&T equipment was re-lettered “Nebraska & Pacific” for this film.
The next locomotive to leave the V&T was 4-6-0 No. 25, which was leased to RKO-Radio Pictures in April 1947. RKO the purchased the engine in August. She appeared in a number of “B” westerns filmed on the two thousand feet of track at the studio’s backlot ranch near Encino, California. The 25 was also used on a Los Angeles to San Pedro excursion on January 30, 1955, honoring the completion of Union Pacific’s San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake in 1905. The 25 saw little or no use after the filming of Wichita by Allied Artists in 1955. She was retired to a siding in the Union Pacific’s Los Angeles Taylor Yard, along with much of Paramount’s equipment, to suffer from rot, rust and neglect.
Each studio kept spare smokestacks and headlights on hand to change the appearances of their locomotives. A repainting and relettering resulted in many different variations for the former V&T equipment. The studios frequently rented their trains to each other and it has been said by motion picture historian Larry Jensen, that Paramount’s equipment spent as much time on the MGM set as it did on its own backlot.
The V&T’s own rails were used in five movies, beginning with Courage of the West (1937). Chicken Every Sunday (1946) was the only major production to have scenes filmed on the railroad itself, using 4-6-0 No. 26 and a short train. The Minden depot was renamed “Tucson,” and the equipment “Southern Pacific Lines” in this 20th Century-Fox production. Shortly after the official last run, No. 5 was used to film Train to Tombstone. This “B” western saw the 2-8-0 with a very unrealistic “sunflower” stack, pulling RPO 23 and Combine 18. The No. 27 was used un filming a Saturday morning “serial” named Roar of the Iron Horse in September 1950, just before the rails were removed.
The equipment of the V&T has appeared in over one hundred and twenty-five motion pictures, television programs and commercials. When the major studios began to divest of their huge backlots, many of the railroad items were sold off to smaller studios, museums and private individuals. Old Tucson Studios in Arizona purchased MGM’s “Reno” as well as a number of V&T cars from the Paramount collection. An April 24, 1995 fire on the Old Tucson set destroyed several pieces of historic V&T equipment. Lost were Kimball Baggage Car No. 1 and Coach 19, along with the depot, sound stages and western town. The “Reno” was badly burned, loosing almost all of her wooden parts, but the engine could be rebuilt. The former V&T Derrick (No. 50), “Blacksmith Car” (box car 1007) and another boxcar (1001) were undamaged, as was the former Central Pacific coach. However, fate had different plans for “Reno,” in 1999 the engine was restored for the Barry Sonnenfeld production of Wild Wild West to its magnificent glory.