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


Starting with a Bang
27 January 2010


Above Ely, you could see twelve railroad cars pulled by a 101 year-old steam locomotive creeping along at two miles an hour. Looking forward towards the cab of the locomotive every once in a while you would see a red reflection as the fireman opens the fire doors to throw in more coal. It's an unusual consist: two passenger cars, an open car, a caboose, six ballast cars, another caboose, and a flat car.

It's quiet. You can hear the cars squeaking. Every few moments you can hear a chuff as steam locomotive 93 pulls the train very slowly up the grade. It is eerily quiet and dark. Another chuff and then BANG, a bright skyrocket takes off from the end of the train and then KABOOM!!! And the sky lights up above Ely. Then another BANG—KABOOM! And once again, the sky lights up.

For the second year, the Nevada Northern Railway in conjunction with Cave Lake State Park, the Bristlecone Convention and Visitors' Center, and the White Pine Chamber of Commerce celebrates the Fire and Ice Festival weekend with the Fire and Ice Fireworks Express.

Fireworks are exploding over Ely. Look closely and you can see the
trainin the bottom of the picture pulled by locomotive 93.
(Photo courtesy of Gust Photography)

What is the Fire and Ice Fireworks Express? It is the only train in the country, if not the world, where fireworks are shot off a moving train pulled by a steam locomotive above a city.

The crazy idea started a year-and-a-half ago as we were talking about how to celebrate locomotive 93's centennial birthday. And to give credit where credit is due it wasn't my crazy idea. The idea originated with Ed Spear of the Bristlecone Convention and Visitors' Center along with Steve Grey of Cave Lake State Park. They thought to make locomotive 93's Centennial special how about shooting fireworks off a train pulled by locomotive 93!

Ed did some research and could not find another railroad that shot fireworks off a moving train (imagine that). As Ed reported his findings I could only say, "You know, that might be a reason for not shooting fireworks off a moving train, especially one being pulled by a steam locomotive that produces embers and burning coals." But that observation did not discourage them. I agreed that firing fireworks off the back of a moving train would be memorable and I agreed to it if they could get permission from the appropriate authorities. Well, they did and we were on a roll.

Since the first time was a success, then why not do it again? Okay, let's go for broke and do it again. Of course, the first time you do something unusual people respond. But would they come again? Good question? Could we convince people to ride a steam train in January in Ely?

At first blush, it didn't look like we could do it again. Up to the Friday before the event, there were no ticket sales, i.e. no income for the museum. Then on Friday morning, we sold our first tickets. All day Friday and Saturday people came in and bought tickets. Finally at 5:00 p.m., All Aboooard! And passengers start loading. The day before we had no ticket sales. Now, we have eighty-seven people waiting to board the train.

Up the hill we go, locomotive 93 putting on a grand show. Waiting for us at Keystone is the Fireworks train made up of the ballast cars, a caboose, and the fireworks car. 93's train runs the wye and stops. The signal is given to the fireworks train to roll down to the passenger train. From the darkness, the ballast cars appear. There's a stop, the crew gets into position and gives the signal. The cars start rolling towards the passenger train. Three car lengths away, two cars, one car, twenty-five feet, twelve feet, five feet—easy, easy, the couplers touch, the knuckles meet, close, and the pins drop. Success. The coupling is made with barely a jolt.

Stretch the joint, get permission to in between, lace air hoses, do an air test, and we're ready to head down the hill to Ely. Just before we get to Ely, the train stops. This is to allow the fireworks people to get on the fireworks car and to let the passengers on the open car. All the passengers get on the open car. The train starts again, in through the old tunnel and out the other side. Slowly the train starts to lose speed. It's getting close to time. Down below the train, people gather around fire barrels. The speed drops some more. It is getting closer; the passengers are waiting. The speed continues to drop until the train is just creeping along and then BANG! For the second year in a row, a bright skyrocket takes off from the end of a moving train and lights up the sky above Ely! It's BANG—KABOOM! BANG—KABOOM! As the sky lights up repeatedly over Ely and locomotive 93 slowly pulls the twelve-car train.

Then the finale. BANG—BANG—BANG—BANG followed shortly by KABOOM!—KABOOM!—KABOOM! —KABOOM! as skyrockets take flight and burst into an incredible light show. Then it's over. The conductor radios the engineer to hiball and head for the depot. The chuffs become more pronounced as locomotive 93 leans into the train.

Back at the depot, the passengers leave the train. Locomotive 93 cuts off and heads for the enginehouse. Locomotive 204 couples up to the end of the train to take the ballast cars, caboose, and fireworks flat off the passenger train.

Soon all is quiet; the passengers are gone. The locomotives are put away. Steve Grey pulls up and asks, "How did it go?" "Great," I said. "Let's do it again next year." Steve agrees. So on January 15th 2011, come to Ely, get tickets for the Fire and Ice Fireworks Express, and experience watching fireworks being shot off of a moving steam powered train. Start your year with a bang!