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



A Journey with Outfit Car 06
12 January 2007

When my wife Joan and I first started as volunteers at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in 1999, we discovered a wooden combine car squirreled away in the back of the enginehouse. Someone had started to restore the car and quit, leaving it in the most gawd-awful orangish-yellow color. Not knowing any better, Joan and I volunteered to continue the restoration of the car. What attracted me to the car the most were the end doors, which were arched wooden doors that fit tightly into an arched doorframe. And built into the door itself was an arched window that went up and down; the craftsmanship was extraordinary.

The car was referred to by the museum as the "Willy Car." Upon asking why this name, I was informed that the car, along with steam locomotive 40 appeared in a Willy Nelson movie called Once Upon a Texas Train. While not one of Hollywood's best works, it is one of our claims to fame: The Nevada Northern is a movie railroad too.

The Willy Car. The end door really intrigued me. You can see that the top of the door is arched and fits in an arched doorway. The upper window in the door lowers.


Joan and I adopted the car and discovered that there is a lot to the saying, "ignorance is bliss." Our brilliant idea was to clean up the car, sand the sides, and then repaint it. How difficult could that be? Well, quite difficult when you don't know what you're doing.

You see, the Willy car sat in the enginehouse on track one, right next to track two where the steamers are fired up. The windows and the end doors in the Willy car had been left open for some time, so our first task was to clean out the inside of the car in order to see what we could do next. After applying plenty of hot soapy water, it became evident that car had been gutted. Remnants of the old kerosene lamps were still attached to the roof and a lot of interior wood trim was missing.

In poking around the enginehouse, we found the missing pieces of interior wood trim lying in the back of the boiler shop on the earthen floor in the snow. (At this time, most of the windows in the boiler shop were broken out allowing the weather inside in abundance.) We also found the interior partition wall and door back there. All of these pieces we gathered up and placed inside the car.

It didn't take us too long to realize that it wasn't advisable to attempt any restoration of the car in the enginehouse. The car would need to be moved and arrangements were made to switch the car out of the enginehouse and into the coach shed. Sounds simple; however, I was beginning to learn that any project which sounded simple at the Nevada Northern would surely be anything but.

First off, track one was blocked by the new flues awaiting installation in locomotive 93. These flues are heavy metal pipes about twenty feet long that weigh about thirty-five pounds each. There were hundreds of them—all piled up neatly on the track needed to move the car, and had to be moved one at a time from track one to track two.

The inside of the Willy car showing parts of the original lamps.


Next, after moving the flues, the door to track one needed to be opened. I had been warned that the electric door opener was temperamental. That wasn't quite correct: it was broken. When I hit the "up" button, my very own lightning display erupted directly above my head. Well, after moving all of those blasted flues, there was no going back now—we needed to get that door open. The backup to the fancy electric opener was a chain-pull, meaning that I had to haul up the door with the chain. Understand that the enginehouse doors are very tall in order to allow the locomotives to go in and out. And hauling one of those doors up with the chain made one believe that the door was tall enough to let a 747 airliner roll inside. Because of the weight of the doors, the chain pull mechanism is geared to a really high ratio, which means that a lot of pulling on the chain results in the door moving up only a few inches.

After what seemed like an eternity, the door was finally up all of the way. It was now time to bring in the locomotive to couple up and move the car out. I had roped in other volunteers to help. Kelvin was the engineer and Zana and Joan acted as switchman and brakeman for moving the car. We coupled up, moved the car out of the enginehouse, and headed for the coach house. The track to the coach house is tight, curvy, runs downhill, and suffers from poor visibility. It would take Joan, Zana, and I to relay hand signals to Kelvin in the locomotive. I was the monkey in the middle and Joan was in the coach house and visible to me. I couldn't see Kelvin but I could see Zana and Kelvin could see her. So here we were, slowly rolling the Willy car down towards the coach house. I had looked at Zana, then I looked at Joan, and then I looked back at Zana again, only to witness a sight that is seared into my memory forever. There was Kelvin the engineer running down the catwalk along the long hood the locomotive. One look at the car told me instantly why Kelvin was running: the car had broken loose and was rolling down hill towards the coach house. Without thinking, I ran to the car, jumped on, and tied down the hand brake, which successfully brought the car to a stop.

Inspection revealed the coupler pin had broken, which allowed the coupler be pulled right out of the car. Well, after catching our collective breath, we finally got the car put away. We now had a relatively clean place to work on the car with only a couple of problems remaining: there was no heat, electricity, or water in the coach house. Work was going to be slow going.

A little later, it was mentioned to us that there was a sister to the 06 car in the wrecker shed. The wrecker shed is a long single track building in the very back of the yard and, frankly, the building looks like it's on the verge of collapse. Feeling a little like Indiana Jones, I, along with Joan, her daughter Tauna, and grandson Dustin opened the small door that sits within the big doors in the front of the shed. Peering through it, lo and behold, there was another wooden combine car sitting in the gloom. Climbing into the car, we were surprised to discover that the interior was fairly intact—even the wooden coach seats were still in place. The leather was worn, horsehair stuffing was poking out, and there was a heavy layer of dust on everything; it was evident that we were the first people to enter the car in many, many years. We probed deeper into the car, following the beams of our flashlights, and we found bats! Or rather, the bats found us and they were not all that happy that we were in their home. What we could easily see was that this car appeared to be an identical twin to 06.

This car was numbered 05 and for years had been on display at the White Pine Public Museum. All of those years sitting outside had not been kind to the car: it suffered from heavy weather damage. Yet at the same time, the interior was in good shape. So here we had two cars, which appeared to be twins. The quandary was the one car had a good exterior and the other car had a good interior. Could we rebuild both? Or would it make sense to combine the best parts of the two cars so that we would end up with great example of one car?

A bigger question to our preservationist minds was, "What was the history of the cars?" Surely, there must be some great stories about each.

Stay tuned for part two, where the journey continues and maybe even a question or two is answered.