Truckee has been a railroad town since the early days of western railroading. In the 1860s, Truckee played an important role as the eastern staging point during the Central Pacific Railroad’s construction of the transcontinental railroad eastward from Sacramento. The Central Pacific used Truckee to further the track-laying across Nevada, as well as supporting the tunneling efforts at Donner Summit.
Tunneling through Donner Summit’s granite was the most challenging part of the trans-American railroad project. Completing this route across the Sierra Nevada was a feat of sheer will. It took two years of backbreaking labor to complete the 1,659 foot tunnel at Donner Summit. Highly volatile nitroglycerin was introduced and used briefly to speed up the work. On August 30, 1867, the bore through the summit was completed and the first train rolled through two months later.
Meanwhile, crews hauled material over Donner Summit and through Truckee on wagons. This enabled rail-laying work through the Truckee River Canyon while the Donner Summit tunnel was being drilled. By December 13, 1867, a train from Truckee rolled through to Nevada. By May 4, 1868, the tracks were connected and trains could run from Sacramento to Reno.
Finally, the westward portion of the first transcontinental railroad was joined with the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869. This allowed Union Pacific trains to connect with other railroads from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
Once the railroad was completed, Truckee became a division point and "helper" district. As a helper district, the Truckee yards provided extra locomotives required to run trains longer than 100 cars over Donner Summit. To house all the locomotives, a twenty-two stall granite roundhouse was constructed in Truckee. Many of the innovative "cab forward" steam locomotives, among other types, were based in Truckee.
In addition, the Truckee Railroad District was responsible for maintaining fire trains in the summer and clearing the snow from the tracks in the winter. Technology to remove snow from tracks has evolved over the years. Snowplow Number 1, a "bucker" snow plow, was built in Sacramento in the 1870s and required as many as six or seven locomotives to push snow off the tracks. Far more efficient rotary snow plows were developed in the late nineteenth century, tested over Donner Summit, and quickly adopted by the Central Pacific which housed several in Truckee.
Today, the Union Pacific has united this transcontinental railroad into a continuous system from Chicago to San Francisco. Truckee continues to be an important staging area for Union Pacific’s deployment of snow removal equipment to keep the railroad operating throughout the winter, and as a base for maintenance operations in the Sierras in the warmer months. Truckee is indeed the "Sierra Train Capitol."