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



Snow and the Nevada Northern Railway
10 January 2004

The year has just barely started and it is already off to a good start for the museum. On January 8th we had our first locomotive rental of the New Year. What makes this event so unusual is that the museum rarely operates in January. And then to spice it up was all of the snow that we have had so far this year. In fact we took locomotive 204 out of the engine house on the 7th and went to Adverse to check the track and to make sure we could get through the snow. As we broke through the drifts and threw the snow to the side it got me to thinking about past winters when railroads had to fight snow. As I mentioned before, I just recently read Mr. Peterson's autobiography. Mr. Peterson was one of the last General Managers of the Nevada Northern Railway. I thought I would share with you some of his railroading experiences in the snow.

From Mr. Peterson's autobiography:

"Probably the wildest experience, during the five years I was in Elko, was fighting the snow along the railroad. While we generally did not have a heavy snow of more than 8 or 10 inches, we had lots of trouble, because of the high winds blowing the snow into big drifts over the tracks. We had only steam engines in those days, and some of them were equipped with small snowplows on the front end. We also had a large plow mounted on the front of a flat car, which we called a spreader. This car had large air tanks about 15 feet back of the snow plow, and with air pressure we could raise and lower the snow plow a few inches when we were passing over road crossings, or switches. Ordinarily, a trainman went along to operate the air valves to lift or lower the plow. The spreader also had air-powered wings, which could be moved out from the main body, then lowered, to plow snow away from the side of the track. In some cases the spreaders were used to clean snow from an entire train yard, such as Portola, where they where experienced three and four foot snowfalls.

Mr. Beem put me at the air valves whenever we went out with the spreader. We had many hair-raising rides on the spreader, but one of the worst was a winter day when part of the railroad between Elko and Wendover had trouble with drifting snow. Part of this line was double track, used by both Southern Pacific and Western Pacific. By noon on this day, word came that some of the cuts between Elko and Wells had six feet of snow in them, and there was fear the Southern Pacific passenger train would get stuck on the east bound track, which was owned by Western Pacific. By 1:00 p.m. I was on the spreader with Mr. Beem. He stood on a platform looking over the front. I was 15 feet behind him at the control valves. We had a rope tied around Mr. Beem and back around my waist, so he could pull me signals. One pull was to raise the snowplow, two pulls to lower it. Pushing us was a big freight locomotive and caboose. Off we went ahead of the passenger train. When we got into snow I could not see Mr. Beem, but when he jerked the rope I lifted or lowered the snowplow. We must have been going along about 40 mph and Mr. Beem had to be sure we lifted the snowplow before we hit a road crossing or went over a switch. If we had left the plow down, we would have torn out the rail and ended up in a wreck. This went on for 30 or 40 miles, but finally we reached the end of the double track, and when we pulled off on the Western Pacific line near Wells, we stopped to watch the passenger train go by. Mr. Beem was completely covered with snow, and I had snow up as far as my hips. I had many days on a spreader while I was in Elko and also at Sacramento on the Western Division. Snow in the Sierra Mountains was higher, wetter, and rolled off the plow like cheese. I had some hard days around Portola and Keddie in the Feather River Canyon."

A few years later Mr. Peterson relates another story about his first experience with a rotary snowplow. (The museum has a rotary snowplow as part of its collection.)

"Then snow trouble started and I was marooned in Portola with everyone else on that end of our Division. Mr. Beem had already left Elko and I was working for Mr. Curtis, the new Superintendent. Portola had three feet of snow on the level. We were using the spreader to clean the snow off the main track through the mountains. My first experience on a rotary snowplow occurred with the two-branch lines from Portola out though the woods to two large lumberyards that were blocked. In some places the snow was six feet deep. I remember standing on the deck of the rotary, five or six feet above the track and the snow was level with my feet. The rotary was powered by steam, and had a huge 8 ft. wide steel wheel with flanges, which turned at high speed and could throw snow 50 feet high and 100 feet away from the track. We took two days to reach the two lumberyards and clear the tracks so we could reach the carloads of lumber being shipped out, then spotted empty cars to be loaded."

After Mr. Peterson's experiences on the Southern Pacific he came to work for the Nevada Northern.

"We did not have much snow in the winters, but the heavy wind built up big snowdrifts. We also had a spreader at the Nevada Northern and we used it several times to clear the ore line. This spreader had a large snowplow on the front and it would throw snow out 20 or 25 feet if you were moving at our speed limit of 30 mph. The winter of 1949 turned into a big mess. It was called 'Hay lift' winter, because the snow was so deep and the drifts so high many sheep and cattle were marooned out in the valleys. We ran special freight trains from Cobre and Shafter to East Ely with 15 or 20 carloads of hay. The hay was unloaded from boxcars onto trucks and taken to the airport, where the bales of hay were loaded into big cargo airplanes, which flew out to the stranded sheep and cattle and dropped the hay out of the plane.

At the same time, the highway from East Ely to McGill had snowdrifts 15 or 20 feet high on both sides, where the highway snowplows had built them. In the meantime, we had trouble all along the railroad. In the middle of the night, the dispatcher called me to say we had an ore train stuck in the snow near Hiline (three miles east of Ely). We called out an ore crew and went with two steam locomotives from East Ely until we located the caboose of the train. We hooked on to the caboose and tried to pull the train out of the snow, but nothing moved an inch. So we uncoupled the rear ten cars and were able to get them back to East Ely ore yard. On our next attempt we were only able to pull back three of four cars at a time, then we had to shovel around the locomotive to clear enough snow away from it's wheels so we could move it. The snow was at least ten feet deep and in a narrow cut with banks up 20 feet.

By this time, the ore trains were far off schedule and the Mill was asking when we would be able to deliver more ore to them. I went with the ore crew and two freight locomotives and started for the mill. The front engine had a fairly large snowplow on the front and we traveled fast, throwing snow high and wide until we got within three miles of the mill. Then we got stuck again in a big cut full of snow. We discovered that the leading engine had become derailed at a switch two miles behind us and we had been running along the top of the frozen ties. If the track had not been frozen we would have torn out a lot of rail. Well, we all got shovels, including the trainmen and enginemen, and dug around all the wheels of the rear locomotive until it was able to back out of the snowdrift. Then we shoveled the track clear until we could couple on to the leading engine. After we dug out all along the inside of the front engine, we were able to move it back, then put down a pair of rerailing frogs and the wheels went back on the rails. What a relief. From there to the mill we made good time. The conductor and I went to the phone and reported we had made it though to the mill and were ready to return."

As I rode out to Adverse, I thought about Mr. Peterson's experiences getting to the mill. The mill location would have been beyond our current end of track at Adverse. On this particular day we had it easy. The sun was shining, there was no wind and 204 just plowed through the drifts, rather spectacularly but easily, all I had to do was watch. I found it hard to image myself on a spreader being pushed at 40 mph with a rope around my waist for signals. Knowing if I missed a signal, I would cause a train wreck. And they called that the good old days?