Montana Heritage Commission Montana Heritage CommissionDiscovering Montana
#8 Bovey Train

Virginia City

By John D. Ellingsen August 24, 1999

The history of the new locomotive began in 1909 when the Ferrocarril Mexicano (Mexican Railroad) ordered four 30 inch gauge engines from the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia for use on their Zacatlan Branch. The locomotives were to be wood burners with Baker-Pilliod valve gear, 15 x 20 inch cylinders (Baldwin class 10-24 1/2 E Numbers 119, 128 to 130), and 160 lbs. boiler pressure, giving a tractive force of 17,000 pounds. The weight was to be 83,000 lbs. Maximum track curvature was to be 197 feet radius.

1910 Baldwin No. 12 Steam Locomotive

Baldwin serial number 34,313 was completed in February, 1910, and designated "Number 12" of the Ferrocarril Mexicano. The four engines were put in class G-2 (later class E-2) and rated at 134 tons on the branch which had 2.5 per cent grades.

Future research will reveal the adventures of No. 12's life in Mexico. All four locomotives survived the revolutionary disorders of 1911-1920. By 1920, No. 12 had been converted to burn oil. It continued to be used on the Zacatlan Branch until its abandonment in 1957. F. Nelson Blount then purchased No. 12 and moved it to the Edaville Railroad, South Carver, Massachusetts.

The Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad purchased the engine August 12, 1992, to restore it for Virginia City. Restoration involved literally thousands of man hours by the Escanaba Staff and its contractors. For the past several years, John Larkin has had four to six people working full time on the engine, often ten hours a day, five days a week, and eight hours on Saturday. Beginning with the bare frame, every part was rebuilt to like-new specifications. Moorehead Boiler of Minneapolis, Minnesota rebuilt the steam boiler. Every bearing and wearing point was renewed. The cab was rebuilt with a beautiful polished mahogany interior, and outfitted with brass gauges, injectors, oil cups, and other parts whose polish would satisfy even the most critical army sergeant. When it rolled out of the Baldwin factory in 1910 it could not have been more beautiful than it is today.

In 1964, Charlie Bovey established the Alder Gulch Short Line, a mile and a half railroad between Virginia City, Montana and Nevada City. Historically, railroad service never reached Virginia City. It only went as far as Alder, ten miles away. With the arrival of the Baldwin 1910 locomotive, the Alder Gulch Short Line looks more like the real thing. It even sounds like it.

No. 12 steams out of the engine house


Virginia City Missed Out on Rails in 1902, but Railroad Expectations Exciting a Century Later.

A century ago, the coming of the railroad was the biggest news for many Montana communities. When the magic steel rails reached a town, it became connected to the rest of the world. No longer would travel be by uncomfortable and slow stagecoach. Anything from mail to the heaviest mining machinery could be brought easily to town. And every town touched by the rails had ambitions of becoming a "Great Railroad Center."

The mainline rails never reached Virginia City during the great era of railroad building. In May, 1902, the railroad did reach Alder, about ten miles away. But the Conrey Placer Mining Co. was the major customer with the giant dredge they were building at Ruby. The mining company owned most of the land between Alder and Virginia City and did not want to have their dredging operations hampered by working around a railroad right-of-way. Besides, by 1902, Virginia City was but a shadow of what it had been in the 1870's, and having survived its best years without a railroad, it could easily haul anything it needed the short ten miles from Alder.


Virginia City was not reached by a railroad until 1964 when Charlie Bovey's 30 inch gauge "Alder Gulch Short Line Railroad" brought the first train to town (connecting it with Nevada City, a mile and a half away, but still lacking about eight miles of touching the mainline.)

The Virginia City Depot, originally built by the Northern Pacific at Harrison, Montana about 1895, arrived a few weeks later, prompting a Virginia City citizen to remark, " I have often gone down to the depot to see the train pull in, but this is the first time I ever went down to the train to watch the depot pull in."

Steam Locomotive Arrives in Virginia City, Montana

Kids on No 12

There is lots of excitement in Virginia City at present. As is well known, Virginia and Nevada City are famous for being a little "behind the times", so it is not hard to imagine that an event that caused much excitement in the rest of the state about a century ago is now Big News here. The present talk of the town is the arrival of the "new" beautiful, fully restored 89 year old steam locomotive and the completion of the mile and a half of track to Nevada City. A Golden Spike Ceremony on September 10, 1999, will celebrate the completion of the newly rebuilt railroad track and dedication of the steam engine.

Steam Trains Operate 1964-1969

Charlie Bovey had two coal fired Davenport "Dinky" locomotives which had been used at the Anaconda Copper Mining Company's Great Falls Smelter. They were in operation daily between Nevada City and Virginia City during the summers of 1964 through 1969.

Used ties had been utilized to construct the track in 1964, and by 1969 they had deteriorated to the point that Mr. Bovey felt it was unsafe to run the heavy steam locomotives. The train did not run again until 1972, when operations were resumed using the "Work Train," a small gasoline powered speeder engine with four "gang" cars attached. In 1988, an ornamental "boiler" was added to the speeder engine, and the engine was refined and improved during the winter of 1990-91.


At 1:30AM on the terrifying night of August 16, 1991, a couple of the railroad crew entered the Nevada City Round House to steal gas. They used a lighter to see, and when the gas sprayed out of their plastic jug, it exploded, burning the roundhouse, a hundred thousand dollars worth of train artifacts, including stained glass car windows, burning the "work train," and ruining the two operable "dinky" steam locomotives.

Years of Negotiations Take Place

On September 23, 1991, about a month after the roundhouse fire, John Larkin of the Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad of Wells, Michigan, came to Virginia City for the first time. He wanted to buy the three c. 1906 Soo Line passenger cars. Years of negotiations between Mr. Larkin and Ford Bovey followed. In the spring of 1992, Mr. Larkin delivered a beautifully rebuilt version of the former "work train" and four cars equipped with air brakes, seat cushions, and canvas tops. It was operated by Boveys from 1992 through 1996. May 1, 1996, an exchange was finally agreed upon trading the three Soo Line Cars, the Chapel Car, and a Shay locomotive for the rebuilding of the mile and one-half of track between Virginia and Nevada Cities and the fully restored 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive. In early October, 1996, John Larkin had the four cars and locomotive loaded by crane, hauled by truck to Twin Bridges, and shipped by rail to Michigan.

The contracts with John Larkin were included at no cost to the State of Montana when the sale of the Bovey Restoration properties took place in May, 1997.

The years of negotiations and preparations before the State purchased the Bovey properties in May, 1997 finally became a reality when Governor Marc Racicot drove the golden spike to dedicate the Alder Gulch Shortline Railroad on September 10, 1999. The deal was done and Virginia City now has its antique operating steam locomotive.


While Virginia City has had a "railroad" since 1964, lately it seems to have some of the ambitions and expectations of a "Great Railroad Center" of a century ago. The recent activity on the Alder Gulch Short Line no doubt rivals the exciting days of building the Transcontentials.

Tracks at Alder Gulch

Narrow gauge track in Alder Gulch

In May, 1998, Bob Whiticomb, former track foreman and Roadmaster for the Milwaukee Railroad, started rebuilding the mile and a half of track. Original rail was reused, but all four thousand or so ties were replaced with new ones. Widening the curves to accommodate the much larger 1910 Baldwin locomotive was a major problem. Turning the locomotive around at each end of the track was another challenge, solved at last by building two "wyes." All summer a crew of about six men were working daily using methods much the same as a hundred years ago. In late September, John Larkin and a large crew from Escanaba arrived, and the area was buzzing with railroad building activity. Beautiful, sparkling red dolomite ballast from the talc mine south of Ennis was carefully tamped to produce what may be the most beautiful railroad bed in the U.S.A. A steel bridge spanned the cascade of Alder Creek in Virginia City. Mr. Larkin was constantly opening his checkbook to make sure the job was done right.


Randy Kleindorfer with No 12

John Ellingsen and visitor on No 12

While work was progressing on the railroad itself, construction began on a "round house" (since the building is actually a rectangle, "engine house" is a more accurate term) to replace the one that burned in 1991. Paid for by the Montana Heritage Commission with bed tax funds, the new building is 40 feet by 62 1/2 feet with a 16 by 56 ft. shed shop area. It was designed by John D. Ellingsen based on the former roundhouse, and similar buildings built by the Northern Pacific and Milwaukee. Lloyd Harkins of Silver Star, Montana, cleaned up the burned site which had remained a grim reminder of the 1991 fire, and construction of the new building began August 10, 1998. The frame is 10 x 10 timber, cut at the head of Alder Gulch by local logger and saw mill operator David Hansen. Klaus Mackensen cut and notched the timbers and bolted them together in the method of a century ago. Nine 40 foot span riveted steel trusses, originally erected c. 1910 at the hoist house of the St. Lawrence Mine in Butte, were obtained from Lloyd Harkins. A "Cortin" roof covers the structure, which is a suitable, authentic home for the new steam locomotive.


Passengers on No 12

Through the summer of 1999, the Escanaba crew has been tamping the track and correcting various problems, creating anticipation for the engine's arrival. At last, on July 31, Virginia City awoke to find the long awaited locomotive in town. An air of excitement hung over the whole area as locals and tourists gathered above the stone wall near the VC Depot.

The engine shimmered in the morning sun. Polished brass and shining black paint gleamed. The engine was resplendent in a Smithsonian quality restoration! Years of work by the Escanaba crew and John Larkin were at their climax as two cranes lifted the forty ton beauty gently to the track.

Engine 12 took its first run under its own power from Nevada City to Virginia City on August 4, 1999.

Everyone who has seen the engine remarks about its beauty. "Marvelous," "An object of Art," and "Unbelievable" are among the comments. "Compliments and praise certainly go out to John Larkin for a super job."

Virginia City missed out on becoming a great railroad center a century ago, but with the new engine and track, it is now looking forward, with great expectations, to becoming a "Great Railroad Center" in the future.

On weekdays, ride the C. A. Bovey No. 8. This smaller gasoline powered train offers a fun trip down the gulch in open sided cars. A hit for kids of all ages.