Nevada Northern Railway
National Historic Landmark      Ely, NV

"At the Throttle"

A Series of articles on the Nevada Northern Railway
By Mark Bassett, Executive Director, NNRY

Challenges and Changes
09 January 2008


A volunteer recently gave me a small orange traffic cone. Imprinted on the cone is a saying, "Change is inevitable, growth is not." As 2007 ends and 2008 begins, that phrase is resonating through my brain.

2007 was a challenging year at the museum, but that observation in itself is meaningless. It's like saying the sun will come up in the east tomorrow; if it doesn't, well . . . game over. Our years are always challenging, and if they're not, then it's game over for us. For we are doing the "impossible": running a steam railroad in the 21st century, and by its very nature that is a major challenge. If we are not challenged then it means we're not doing anything; hence the allusion to game over.

And notice I said, "running a steam railroad." The Nevada Northern National Historic Landmark is so much more than the steam locomotives. This is the crux of our challenge. If we were just a diesel-powered tourist railroad, our life would be so much easier—but we're not. We're a National Landmark with three original steam locomotives and original passenger cars. There is the original track. The track (of which we currently operate on thirty miles) is so much more than the rail and ties, its switches, the yards, the right of way, culverts, bridges, ditches, and road crossings, plus the need to control vegetation and weeds.

Then there are the original buildings and structures—all sixty-plus of them spread out over 150 miles of railroad. Some are huge like the enginehouse/machine shop building. Others are small like a wooden fire hose reel. Our uniqueness is that these original buildings and structures still exist and complement one another. The challenge is that the vast majority of these original buildings and structures were built cheaply. Now, a hundred years later, the buildings and structures need intense TLC. Part of the challenge is to make repairs that are sensitive to the structure by using tools and techniques that are appropriate to both the building and its era.

When you come to our National Historic Landmark you see the buildings, the locomotives, and the track but as they say on TV, "but wait, there's more!!!" There are the utilities and the paper record!

The Landmark can be described as a small city. And in any small city there are utilities: water, sewer and electricity. That's right, we're also responsible for the utilities throughout the complex, which are old, failing . . . and another challenge.

Finally, there is the paper record. We are literally buried in paper—from the original payroll records, locomotive drawings, and conductor's books, to original rulebooks, repair manuals, correspondence—you name it, we have it here . . . somewhere. And some of this paper has reached its centennial too. It needs to be inventoried and archived, with digital copies made where necessary. Then these digital copies need to be stored on a server so that it is accessible to staff, volunteers, members, and the public, as any good museum does. If all of the above seems overwhelming, it can be at times; but it's like eating an elephant—you do it one bite at a time.

Going back to the traffic cone inscribed, "Change is inevitable, growth is not." The only way that the full potential of this national Landmark can ever be realized is through growth. But there is no guarantee on growth as we enter this era of high gas prices. Growth will help us raise the tens of millions of dollars that are needed here. Growth itself is a double-edged sword. It will bring recognition and money but at the same time it will also put more wear-and-tear on the equipment, staff, volunteers, and financial resources. The trick will be balancing growth with preservation. This will be a moving target.

And changes are coming. The management board hired a facilitator to assist the board in developing a strategic plan. Work has started and part of the plan is the creation of four committees. The goal is that they will assist in the development of the railroad. These committees are Operations and Training, Restoration and Rehabilitation, Interpretation, and Financial and Fund Development. As these committees organize and develop, we'll keep you posted and invite you to participate.

Another change was the Polar Expresses. They were diesel powered this year. Frankly, I didn't know if that was a good idea, turns out that it was. We carried 3,139 passengers to the North Pole—a 46 percent increase over last year. We had very, very few complaints about no steam. So, learning from this, there will be no steam powered Polar Expresses in 2008. Again, all part of the balance.

And these trains were successful only because of the dedication of the volunteers. For a Polar Express to leave the station we need Santa and elves, hot chocolate and cookie servers, narrators, track crews, maintenance people, engineers, brakemen, and conductors. Only when all of these people are in place can the train run. Our volunteers, ably supported by staff, were responsible for the thousands of smiles that were generated from a visit to the North Pole, not to mention the making of 200 gallons of hot chocolate. This issue of Ghost Tracks highlights our volunteers.

The biggest news is we have an anonymous benefactor who will match all donations and memberships received between now and January 31, 2008. If you have contributed already, THANKS! If you haven't yet, please do before January 31 and your contribution will be doubled.