Durango & Silverton Railfest 2009

A History of the Eureka

Eureka, an 1875 Baldwin 4-4-0

Around 1864, silver was found about 90 miles of Palisade, NV, a tiny point on the Central Pacific’s standard gauge transcontinental route. By 1869, that tiny spot in the middle of Nevada became a silver boom town virtually overnight. Like many Old West boomtowns, getting a railroad was a high priority, both for hauling supplies in and for moving the finished product to market. Local business interests founded the Eureka & Palisade Railroad in 1873 to string 90 miles of narrow gauge from the CPRR at Palisade over Garden Pass to the mines at Eureka. The road was completed by 1875, and instantly enjoyed the profitability of the silver boom at its terminus.

One of the engines originally built to operate the line was Eureka & Palisades #4 – named “Eureka”. The engine is a tiny three-foot gauge, wood-burning “American” type 4-4-0, built by Baldwin back in 1875. Weighing in at only 22 tons and operating at a boiler pressure of only 120 pounds, it’s a tiny engine by any measure. Through many twists and turns of fate, Eureka survives today as the oldest operating narrow gauge locomotive in North America.

The initial silver mining boom lasted only about ten years. Both smelters in Eureka shutting down in the 1890-91 timeframe and other related traffic trailing off through the 1890s. In either 1896 (most sources) or 1901 (R&LHS Newsletter 22-2, p5), the E&P and #4 Eureka parted ways, as the company no longer needed the engine and it was subsequently sold to the Sierra Nevada Wood and Lumber Company. By 1900, the original Eureka & Palisades Railroad would be bankrupt, and would be reorganized as the Eureka & Palisades Railway. Between 1902 and 1905, the new owners were once again enjoying increasing traffic, almost entirely due to a resurgance in lead mining in the region. In the early months of 1910, the line suffered a crippling amount of flood damage, with up to thirty miles of track underwater at various times. Damage was estimated at nearly $150k, and the owners gave up any hope of repairs. The assets again changed hands, and operations restarted again in 1912 as the Eureka-Nevada Railway Co. The line ran at varying levels of profitability for another 28 years, but by 1938, better roads, a decline in mining, the loss of its General Manager, and the financial pressures of the Great Depression proved to be too much for the little railroad, and the line was abandoned.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Nevada Wood and Lumber Company rebuilt Eureka as an oil burner – so as to avoid throwing sparks in the forest – and was renumbered #5. The locomotive worked the company’s logging lines out of Hobart, CA, near Truckee. The locomotive hauled its last load around 1938 (ironically, the same year its original railroad was abandoned) and was subsequently sold to a San Francisco scrap dealer.

Gerald Best, in addition to being a noted railfan, was working for Warner Bros. around that time. When he found out about Eureka’s impending date with the torch, he convinced the studio to acquire the locomotive for motion picture use. In 1939, the studio officially acquired the locomotive, which went on to appear in such movies as Torrid Zone, Cheyenne Autumn, Finian’s Rainbow, the Great Train Robbery, and briefly in John Wayne’s The Shootist. From there, it was sold to Old Vegas, an amusement park in Henderson, NV, in 1979. It remained there until 1985, when it was severely burned in a structure fire.

A year later, Dan Markoff, a Vegas attorney, stopped by Old Vegas in 1986 and learned of the fire. Seeking to preserve what was left of Eureka, he stepped in and purchased the remains of the engine, which at the time were still under the charred remains of the building. Over the next six years, Dan and friends returned Eureka to her original 1875 glory. In addition to returning it to its original appearance, it was also converted back to a wood-burner and restored to operation. The Eureka made its public debut at CSRM’s Railfair 1991, and has subsequently operated on the Cumbres & Toltec, Durango & Silverton, short stretches of track at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, and on the US Gypsum plant railroad in Plaster City, CA.

The engine had a good fifteen year run, and made its last appearance in Colorado at Railfest 2005. The next year, the flue time ran out as Eureka came due for her 1472 day inspection. FRA requirements dictate that all flues be removed at this point for a thorough boiler survey. Needless to say, it’s a lengthly and expensive process. Given the boiler’s extremely limited service and the excellent storage conditions Eureka was given over those fifteen years, Markoff petitioned the FRA for a waiver on performing the work. After three years, it was finally granted, and Eureka could once again hit the road. Railfest 2009 marks its first return to Colorado rails in five years.

Today, Eureka is the oldest operating narrow gauge engine in North America, thanks to the devotion of Dan, his family, and his friends. I can’t thank them enough for their tireless efforts to keep this living, breathing piece of America’s mechanical history on the road for us all to experience.

Friday, August 14: From Durango to Silverton

Railfest 2009 marked the first time that Eureka & Palisades 4 – aka “Eureka” – had returned to Colorado rails since 2004. Otherwise, Railfest 2009 was a bit of a lean event, with only the regular appearance of Goose 5 and a Presidential Special in addition to the Eureka runs. For those of us who hadn’t gotten the chance to photograph it and ride behind it during its earlier visits, most of us worried we’d never get the chance. Eureka’s flue time had run out in 2006, limiting its operations to non-FRA lines in Nevada where it was still approved by state boiler inspectors. Thanks to its very limited use and excellent care, Dan finally managed to convince the FRA to grant an extension waver in mid-2008, allowing for continued operation. Given that Dan and Eureka both aren’t getting younger, I decided to seize the opportunity to just spend the whole weekend riding and chasing Eureka through the San Juans.

On Friday, August 14, Eureka and train made their way from Durango up to Silverton. I opted to chase rather than ride, which might have not been the optimal decision given that it rained from Rockwood to Silverton.

Saturday, August 15: Silverton to Cascade Canyon and Back

Sunday, August 16: Silverton back to Durango

All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 40D using either a Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS/USM, Sigma 18-50mm, or a Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS/USM.

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

This work is copyright 2022 by Nathan D. Holmes, but all text and images are licensed and reusable under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Basically you’re welcome to use any of this as long as it’s not for commercial purposes, you credit me as the source, and you share any derivative works under the same license. I’d encourage others to consider similar licenses for their works.