Dayton, Sutro & Carson Valley Railroad

From Carsonpedia

Joe Douglass Historic.jpg

The Dayton, Sutro & Carson Valley Railroad was a historic short line mining railroad that ran in the Dayton Valley in the late 1800s. The railroad was built to efficiently move ore from tailing piles in the foothills to a company stamp mill in Dayton. It started as a horse-drawn railway, then later upgraded to steam locomotives, although its roster of equipment was always quite small. It shut down around the year 1900, after 30 years of operation.

While the name may seem misleading today, in the 19th century "Carson Valley" referred to the Carson River valleys and canyons extending all the way from today's Carson Valley in Douglas County through Churchill Canyon ENE of Dayton. (According to Thompson and West's 1881 History of Nevada, p. 492, the area around Dayton was considered the "Carson Valley bottom" and extended all the way to Fort Churchill.) From humble beginnings, the Dayton, Sutro & Carson Valley eventually went from Old Town Dayton to the Carson Valley Mill, which was located in Dayton Valley in the vicinity of the present-day Mark Twain neighborhood.


In 1865 Fred Birdsall and a partner built the Lyon stamp mill in Dayton to process ore from mines on the Comstock. Business was good, and over the next four years they had processed over 68,000 tons of ore. In 1869 Birdsall decided to switch gears, and instead of processing the ore directly from the mines he would process tailings that had been discarded from some of the older mills in the area. These tailings were piling up in Gold Canyon, and they were still rich in recoverable metals. So in May of 1869 Birdsall hand-built a horse-drawn railway to transport the ore the half-mile from the tailing pile to his mill. The railroad tracks were made out of half inch strap iron placed on top of 4x6 lumber, but it was very effective at moving the horse-drawn carts and production at the mill skyrocketed to over 50,000 tons per year.

In April of 1881 the company was doing well enough to consider building a real railroad. The Carson and Colorado Railroad had just been run through Dayton the year before, so Birdsall set to replacing his handmade tracks with real iron and ties, and included a connection to the C&C track at Dayton. After a total expenditure of $15,000, the line was completed in June 1881. The first engine, named Ernie Birdsall, arrived on July 11 of that year, and immediately an excursion was put together to carry townsfolk all over the extent of the new railroad. it was a short trip, but great fun and a big occasion for the town. The second engine arrived on October 18, named Fred Birdsall, and the mill's output skyrocketed yet again.

The Douglass Mill

Less than a year later, though, Fred Birdsall set his sights on California. He bought the San Joaquin and Sierra Nevada Railroad in California's Central Valley, and moved his two locomotives over there. He then sold his mill and his short piece of track to Joe M. Douglass of Virginia City, the sale being completed on April 26, 1882. Douglass wasted no time expanding operations of the mill. He first renamed the mill from the Lyon Mill to the Douglass Mill, then he set about to get a new locomotive to run on the rails he had bought. He ordered from the H. K. Porter & Co a small industrial engine, a 0-4-2T capable of hauling about 30 tons. The engine was shipped from back East and first achieved steam in Dayton on September 14, 1882. This engine he named the Joe. Douglass, also after himself. Douglass also decided to expand the reach of the railroad, and started surveying a line to the town of Sutro, where the Sutro Tunnel had just opened a few years before. He also aimed to reach the Carson Valley Mill east of Sutro, where there were large piles of tailings ripe for the picking. Construction started immediately, reaching Sutro by November and the end of the line at the Carson Valley Mill by February of 1883. Thus did the little railroad live up to the name Douglass had given it when he first bought it, the Dayton, Sutro & Carson Valley.

The Joe. Douglass at the Nevada State Railroad Museum

The railroad operated for about fifteen years after Douglass took over. The Joe. Douglass and its consist of three ore cars would make the trip out to the Carson Valley tailings and back as many as six times per day, trying to keep up with the Douglass Mill, which could process 160 tons of ore every day. They contracted with the V&T Shops for repairs to the locomotive, and at times the Joe. Douglass would find itself riding on a flatbed car into Carson City to be overhauled.

The exact date that operations shut down is not known, but production at the mill tapered off in the last few years of the century, and it might have closed as early as 1896. In 1900 Douglass sold his namesake locomotive to a company in southern California, which used it in the construction of the Lake Arrowhead Dam. The locomotive then spent several decades on display, and fell into the hands of private owners who restored it to its 1882 appearance. In 1994 it was purchased by the Nevada State Railroad Museum, which now has it on display at its Carson City facility.



No. Name Type Year Status Notes
1 Joe. Douglass 0-4-2T 1882 Restored On display at the Nevada State Railroad Museum.

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