Historic V&T railcar gets money to finish restoration

With a long nose that comes to a point, one huge headlight and porthole windows along the sides, it looks like something dreamed up by Jules Verne - ancient yet straight out of a science fiction movie.

But according to Chris Dewitt, who's in charge of restoring it, the McKeen car was a very practical addition to the V&T Railroad's rolling stock in the first half of the 20th century. The McKeen car is self-propelled and operated on the V&T main line for 35 years from 1910 to 1945. It carried mail, some packaged goods and upwards of 60 passengers at a time between Reno, Carson City and Minden on a daily schedule.

Dewitt and the rest of the restoration team at the Nevada State Railroad Museum have been working to rebuild the historic car - a gift from the Bernhard family - for a decade. But they've been doing it mostly without a budget.

As a result, they missed the five-year deadline to finish the car. When word spread they'd soon have to give the railcar back, Sen. Mark Amodei, of Carson City, stepped in. While he worked out a new deal with the Bernhards, museum officials scoured the budget for money they could use on the McKeen project.

"We all love the 1870s vintage locomotives but, as a rarity, this thing is near the top of the collection," Dewitt told the Interim Finance Committee last week. "It's a unique piece of equipment."

The committee agreed and approved his request to use $70,000 form the equipment purchase fund to buy and install an engine in the car.

Dewitt said the original engine was a 1910 six-cylinder gas engine that generated 200 horsepower. He said it was designed as part of the front-wheel trucks and can't be replaced. The new $14,000 diesel offered them by railroad buff Dave Kloke, of Elgin, Ill., will do the job very nicely.

"And we'll do it so from the outside it'll look original" Dewitt said.

Amodei told the committee there will still be about $120,000 worth of work to do on the car. That includes building seats for the interior and, probably most expensive on the list, body work and a complete paint job on the exterior of the 723Ú4-foot car.

Inside, the most costly items are the brass, wall-mounted acetylene lamps that must be built - a dozen of them at up to $1,000 apiece if the restoration is to be authentic.

Dewitt said he and his crew have already repaired all the interior panels, put more than 5,000 rivets into repairing the steel exterior, fixed the frame, suspension and other key parts of the car's structure. They've installed new mahogany throughout the interior. They had to recreate the porthole windows, which swing up and in to open. And they had to build from scratch the ornate wooden seat that follows the curved rear of the car providing "party seating" for up to eight.

Dewitt said there were about 200 of the cars made. Other than the remains of one he's using for parts, only two remain - this one and another in Anchorage, which he described as being in terrible condition with both nose and its rounded tail chopped off.

"The self-propelled rail car for moving small numbers of people was a great idea," Dewitt said.

McKeen's design was very practical especially for 1910 and, contrary to some claims, reliable enough that V&T officials kept it in daily service for 35 years, he said. The biggest problem keeping the car in service was that, with almost nonexistent brakes and steel wheels, it had a tendency to run into things.

"They were hitting things all the time," Dewitt said. "My favorite is when the Minden Butter Co.'s pet hog ran out on the tracks and they killed it."

He said during restoration they found evidence of repeated damage to the nose of the car.

Amodei said he will try to get the rest of the funding needed to finish the historic car either in the upcoming governor's budget or through a special appropriation in the 2007 Legislature.

"Since we've got it 80 percent done, I'm not sure why we wouldn't finish it," he said.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.


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