The Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail offers a 7-mile trek through the open desert southeast of Las Vegas. While such a landscape may sound bland and uninteresting, it actually offers magnificent panoramic views of the surrounding region, including the Mt. Wilson Wilderness Area and Lake Mead National Recreational Area. During your hike or bike ride, you will pass through the trail’s five tunnels, all cut through solid red volcanic rock, which ends at the impressive Hoover Dam. The history of this corridor is unique among railroads; it was constructed by the federal government, Union Pacific, and a private contractor in the early 1930s to move materials to build the massive Hoover Dam. The line saw continuous use only until the mid-1930s, when the dam was finished. After this time, the rail continued to be used sporadically to haul equipment until the early 1960s when the corridor was abandoned and the tracks removed.
The idea of building a railroad for the express purpose of building Hoover Dam was first proposed in 1922. On December 21, 1928, President Coolidge finally signed the legislation as the Boulder Canyon Project Act. The purpose of the dam was threefold: flood control of the Colorado River, irrigation, and hydroelectricity. At the time of the project, paved roads and highways were still sparse, and the Interstate system was decades away. Officials quickly realized that the best way to move materials to the construction site was by rail and set about laying out the right-of-way. While the location was roughly only 30 miles from the Union Pacific’s (UP) main line at Las Vegas, the region was quite rugged and had to negotiate both Boulder and Black canyons.
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Officials decided to build the project using three different entities, one of which was the UP, whose help was integral in the process. The major western system built its Boulder City Branch roughly 25 miles from Las Vegas to Boulder City, located near the construction site. From this point the government built a 10-mile addition running from Boulder City past Hemenway Wash and to the historic location of Himix, along the rim of the Black Canyon on the western side of the dam. While this distance was less than 7 miles, as the crow flies, the rough terrain resulted in surveyors adding numerous curves into the route to keep grades reasonable. Regarded as the U.S. Government Construction Railroad, or the Hoover Dam Railroad, it served a concrete plant located at Himix. The entirety of today’s Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail is converted from the government’s leg of the system.
Finally, there was the corridor built by Six Companies, Inc., the contracting consortium that was charged with building the entire dam project. It was named by the six companies that composed it: Henry J. Kaiser, Bechtel Corporation, MacDonald & Kahn, Utah Construction Company, Morrison-Knudsen, Pacific Bridge Company, and J.F. Shea. The Six Companies Railroad was also named for the consortium and branched from the government’s line at Hemenway Wash (at a location then known as Lawler, Nevada). It headed north roughly 7 miles to Saddle Island then turned east to serve a gravel plant located at Three-Way Junction. From this point, the line continued in two different directions: one leg headed southward nearly 5 miles to serve the Low Level Concrete Mixing Plant and High Level Concrete Mixing Plant near the dam face; the other leg negotiated northward through the Las Vegas Wash, crossed the Colorado River into Arizona, and served the Arizona Gravel Deposits pit, whose aggregates were used in making concrete for the dam. Most of the Six Companies Railroad now lies at the bottom of Lake Meade under hundreds of feet of water.
Operations over all three railroads continued in earnest during the construction of Hoover Dam from 1931 through 1935, moving stone, sand, and other various materials to the site. After the dam opened, the Six Companies section could no longer be used, and with little other purpose, the remaining two lines saw only sporadic service for three more decades. Finally, trains ceased running in 1961, following one last movement to transport a generator to the hydroelectric plant at the dam. The next year rails were removed from the property, and in 1984, the section from Boulder City to the dam was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During the early 1990s, efforts were made to convert this into a hiking and walking trail. In 2001, the fifth—and last—tunnel was reopened to the public after being damaged by an arsonist.
For railroad history, consider visiting nearby attractions Eureka & Palisade Railroad in Las Vegas and Nevada Southern Railway in Boulder City. Additionally, a few hours away in the neighboring states of Arizona and California is the Arizona Railway Museum in Chandler; Grand Canyon Railway in Williams (AZ); Verde Canyon Railroad in Clarkdale (AZ); Calico & Odessa Railroad in Yermo (CA); Fillmore & Western Railway in Fillmore (CA); and the Laws Railroad Museum in Bishop (CA).