A V&T train becomes a diner.
Written by Sharon Honig-Bear
Denny’s diner around carson: Denny’s Diner exterior. Photo courtesy of Around Carson
What happens when you cross Jules Verne, Steampunk, and food? It sounds like a Burning Man installation, but it also describes a diner that had a short life in Carson City. First known as Denny’s Diner and then renamed the V&T Super Chief Diner, it was housed in a converted railroad car with spectacular porthole-like windows, a curved ceiling, and a tapered section front like the prow of a ship. It was a fantastical design — and a seemingly unlikely match for something as humble as a diner serving comfort food.
Many of the earliest diners were rehabbed trains. Their popularity led in the 1920s and 1930s to prefabricated constructions that were delivered directly to a site. The Carson diner was housed in the real thing: a rehabbed beauty called the McKeen Motor Car #22.
Super Chief color postcard. Photo courtesy of Western Nevada Historic Photo Collection
The year was 1910 and the V&T Railroad made daily runs from Reno to Carson City and Minden. The railroad turned to the McKeen Co. of Omaha, Neb., whose internal combustion-engine railcars were less expensive to operate on “commuter” lines. McKeen only produced 152 of these cars, with the V&T purchasing #22. Distinctive with their aerodynamic design, round portholes, and extraordinary “wind-splitter” styling, they were scattered all around the country. Most of them were scrapped after they had outlived their usefulness, according to a 2006 Nevada Appeal article by Scott Schrantz.
McKeen #22 had a better fate than most. You wouldn’t expect a railroad car that weighs 32 tons to be moved easily, but that’s precisely what happened — several times. After its life with the V&T, it was sold in August 1946 and transformed into Denny’s Diner near the corner of Carson and William streets. The wheels were removed and it was mounted on a foundation. It was named after proprietor Alva H. Dennison, not the national restaurant chain.
Denny’s Diner interior. Photo courtesy of Nevada State Railroad Museum
The railcar was surprisingly long at 70 feet and accommodated two distinct dining spaces. The enormous porthole windows, extending the full length of the car, made the space unique. There were tables in one section of #22, making it feel like you were sitting in the bow of a submarine. On the other end was a classic eight-seat diner counter, with gleaming metal and a curved ceiling. A pinup calendar graced the wall, and two slot machines nearby reminded you that this ship had landed in Nevada. Those machines caused trouble in January 1947 when burglars stole them. Days later, a highway maintenance crew found the wrecked remains in Washoe Valley, minus $120 in nickels and dimes kept by the thieves.
On the move again
By 1947 the diner was for sale. A June 29th classified ad in the Nevada State Journal read, “V&T dining car completely equipped now operating/ground rent $60/price $7,500 or will lease.” Roy Brown, with 10 years of experience in the restaurant business, took the offer. Expanding his empire, he and his son Ben became the proprietors of the Bank Club in Fallon, specializing in a “home cooked style of food.”
Super Chief exterior with women, early 1950s. Photo courtesy of Western Nevada Historic Photo Collection
Brown moved the diner again in 1948 and renamed it the Super Chief V&T Diner. An awning was added to add class and weather protection. The diner touted pan-fried chicken and “breakfast all hours.” In a touch of self-promotion, signs outside said it was “serving fine food” along with “tourist information.”
But again #22 couldn’t find rest. In 1955 it was moved again, this time ending up at 1400 S. Carson St. By 1958, its days as a diner ended, becoming a pottery shop, then an office for a moving company, and, finally, Al’s Plumbing.
After a decade of negotiation, the car was donated to the Nevada State Railroad Museum where it underwent a 10-year restoration. Subsequently, its first run was on May 9, 2010, the car’s 100th anniversary.
The fully restored car is a wonder to behold. It can be visited at the Railroad Museum in Carson City, and although it is a feast for the eyes, you’ll have to find another place to serve you coffee or pan-fried chicken.