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 Steaming Miracle
10 February 2010

It is 7:00 a.m. on a cold February morning. It’s not quite light yet.  The sky is threatening snow. Fog surrounds the entire rail yard. But magic is about to begin. In the century old enginehouse sits two hot steam locomotives that are both a century old. The radio squawks in the cab of locomotive 93, “Locomotive 93, follow locomotive 40’s lead and leave the enginehouse at the same time as 40.” Kurt Dietrich, the engineer, radios his acknowledgement of the order.

The radio squawks in the cab of locomotive 40, “Engineer 40, when ready head north, stop at your discretion.”

John Tyson, locomotive 40’s engineer, radios back, “Engineer 40, understood, head north and stop at my discretion. Engineer 40 out.” With his fireman vigorously ringing the locomotive’s bell, huge billowy white clouds steam erupt from the locomotive, slowly locomotive 40 starts moving.

In the next stall a similar eruption occurs. Locomotive 93’s fireman starts ringing his locomotive’s bell. More huge clouds of steam surrounded the locomotives. Slowly, very slowly, both locomotives started to head out of the enginehouse together. Momentary the enginehouse disappears as huge clouds of steam envelop both locomotives and the enginehouse. Gradually, with bells ringing, both locomotives reappeared through the steam, moving down the track and come to a stop.

“Okay locomotives 40 & 93, looking good, at your discretion head back to the enginehouse and we will do it again.” With both firemen vigorously ringing their bells both locomotives start moving back into the enginehouse.

Witnessing the scene, hearing the pealing bells, it was as if both locomotives were celebrating! And maybe they were. The reason for the celebration was because both original Nevada Northern Railway locomotives were now both back in service.

So why were the locomotives all steamed up on a February morning? It was our yearly photo shoot. Annually during the first two weekends of February, we host two and a half days of …well let me quote a participant who was here this year, “The most comprehensive and diverse RAILROAD PHOTOGRAPHY EXPERIENCE in the United States today. TWO operating STEAM LOCOMOTIVES · ORIGINAL freight and passenger rolling stock · ORIGINAL yards, right of way, 66 historic buildings · OPERATING steam crane and full wreck train · NIGHT SHOOT · An UNFORGETTABLE weekend of FRIENDS and FUN.” As you can tell he’s a little excited.

And actually he has the right to be. It is an unforgettable weekend. There is no where else in the country where you can experience and photograph steam railroading as it was (and is, more on the ‘is’ part later) than at the Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark.

We are a time capsule. And no where is that more evident than at the winter photo shoots. And this year with our record snow fall, the photo shoots were, well, simply – OUTSTANDING!

On the first night we start with a night photo shoot. Steve Crise and Mike Massee, professional photographers from California set up and orchestrate the night shoot. This year they out did themselves.

Using the RIP building as a background, they positioned locomotives 40 and 93 in front of the building. Steve’s studio lights are set up. Remotely triggered by Steve, they will illuminate the scene. In the foreground, kerosene switch lamps are placed on switch stands. Volunteers in period dress are positioned at the switch stand with kerosene lanterns. Slowly the daylight begins to fade. Photographers from around the world form a line obliquely to the locomotives. Steve gives a briefing, assuring everyone that they will get great photographs and to ask if they need help.

It’s dark now. Locomotives 93 and 40’s headlights are piercing the night. Steam swirls round the locomotives. Count down is given, “3...2...1…open!” Shutters open, lights flash and magic is created. With digital cameras, you know right away what you’re shooting. Time and time again the flashes go off – a glimpse of the past right before your eyes.

The next morning the locomotives come out repeatedly. Then locomotive 93 coupled up to a hopper train, the photographers were loaded into a caboose and it was out to line. Photo runbys were set up. The photographers formed a line and 93 did her magic.

After hours out on the line it was back to East Ely for lunch. In years past after lunch, we would bring out Nevada Northern steam-powered wrecking crane A for a demonstration of re-railing a rail car. This year it was not a demonstration. On Thursday, while making up the photo trains we had one more coupling to make. We were pushing a cut of ore cars through deep snow. All of a sudden the last car made a left turn where there was not a left turn. The deep wet snow had started rolling under the car like it was making a snowman. The snow kept rolling and lifted the car off the rails – derailment. Great. We tried rerailing the car with no luck. So we decided to move the crane demonstration from the ore yard and rerail the car on Saturday.

As we come back into the rail yard, the crane is already set up. Right after lunch, the photographers head to the derailment site. The big hook swings to the car. A sling is hung around the coupler. Then perhaps the only operating steam crane in the United States begins to lift the car. A few moments later it’s all over. The derailed car has been put back on the track.

The photographers load up in the original Nevada Northern Railway passenger train being pulled by locomotive 40. It’s back out on the line with what seems like a gazillion photo runbys. 5:50 a.m. Sunday morning locomotive 40 is back out in the yard getting ready for the final day by making up the boxcar train.

Four original boxcars built in 1912 are coupled to a century old caboose and locomotive. There is heavy fog in the yard. You’d swear you’ve been transported back in time. Shots a posed all over the yard and out on the line. After a full morning of tramping through the snow it is time for lunch.

The grand finale is the wreck train. Locomotive 93, wrecking crane A, tool car A-1, flat car, hopper car, boxcar, outfit car, and caboose 3 is ready to head out of the yard. This is my favorite train. Here is a train where the newest car is 98 years old and the oldest is 138 years old. It doesn’t get better than this. Back out on the line. Just listening to locomotive 93 climb the hill is worth the price of admission. It’s great!

As the sun goes down we’re back at East Ely, locomotive 93 cuts off with the steam crane and heads to the enginehouse. The photographers thank the crew and grab some last shots. The switch crew puts the rest of the train away. Soon the yard is quiet again. The first photo shoot is over. Photographers from around the world came to Ely to capture a glimpse of the past. Next weekend we’ll do it all over again.