Nevada Northern Railway
Home Links Contact Us


"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in the Friday edition of the Ely Times 
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, operator of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. He can be reached at the museum (775) 289-2085 ext. 7 or e-mail:


Time Travelers Wanted
17 February 2006


Most people think of time travel as science fiction. That it is physically impossible. That is not necessarily true. Time travel into the past is possible and one of the time portals is the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.

Imagine being transported to a railroad complex in the late 1940's. As you walk the grounds, cinders crunch underfoot. You approach the engine house and notice that diesels have made inroads here just like in the rest of the country.

Locomotive 105, an RS-2 is brand new from the American Locomotive Company (ALCO). It is a diesel-electric locomotive. This means that it has a diesel engine under its long hood that turns a generator. The electricity from the generator is fed into four traction motors, one on each axle. The locomotive engineer controls the amount of electricity fed to the motors, which controls speed and direction. Painted a bright Swamp Holly Orange about the only similarity between locomotive 105 and its stable mates is that there is a long hood in front of the cab. Locomotive 105 is the harbinger of the drastic changed that will be fall the railroad industry in the next decade.

In the engine house with locomotive 105 is another product from ALCO and this is what you want to see. It is steam locomotive 93. Steam locomotives are identified by their wheel arrangement. In the case of locomotive 93, it is a 2-8-0. This means that the wheel arrangement consists of two pilot wheels, one on each side and eight driving wheels, four on each side. This wheel arrangement is call a Consolidation.

Locomotives 109, 93, and 40 (left to right) in front of the passenger depot at East Ely

Locomotives 109, 93, and 40 are lined in a timeless scene in front of the East Ely Depot. These locomotives have been stable mates for 96 years in the case of 40 and 93. The 109 is the new kid and has only been around for 56 years. The track is now almost 100 years old and the depot is 99 years old. It is this unique combination of the original locomotives on the original track combined with he original structures that make the Nevada Northern so special.

As a steam locomotive, 93 is technically an external combustion machine. The power to turn her wheels comes from the expansive effort of steam. When you first look at locomotive 93 you notice that she is made up of two sections. There is the steam locomotive and then immediately behind it is the coal car or tender. The tender carries twelve tons of coal and seven thousand five hundred gallons of water for the steam locomotive.

The fireman will literally shovel tons of coal into the firebox during his shift. The burning coal heats the water in the boiler. The boiler is the long cylindrical tube that is in the front the cab. Filled with water, the boiler has a series of tubes that run through the boiler from one end to the other. These tubes carry the heat and the smoke from the fire to the smoke box in the front of the locomotive. As the heat passes through the water-filled boiler, it heats it. At atmospheric pressure, water boils at 212 degrees. The water in the boiler of a steam locomotive is under pressure. This pressure raises the boiling point of water until in locomotive 93 the boiling point is over 350 degrees. Then the steam is send through superheaters. This raises the temperature even higher to over 600 degrees. This hot steam is now under tremendous pressure. In fact, the expansive force of steam is approximately the same as black powder. The steam is ready to do some work!

To move the locomotive, the engineer will open the throttle valve. When he does that, the steam in the boiler will flash down the dry pipe to the large cylinders that are between the pilot wheels and the driving wheels. Coming out of these cylinders is a large steel rod. This rod is connected to the third driving wheel. There is a cylinder and a driving rod on both sides of the locomotive. The driving rods are connected to a large piston that is inside the cylinders. Over the cylinder are four valves, two inlet valves and two exhaust valves.

Once the engineer has opened the throttle valve, steam flashes to the valves over the cylinder. If the inlet valve is open, the steam will enter the cylinder and push against the piston. Remember that steam has about the same expansive force as black powder gunpowder. This expansive force then pushes against the piston and drives it out of the cylinder. The piston is connected to a rod that is connected to the third driver. As the rod is pushed out, it starts to turn, the third driver. The third driver is connected to the other four drivers on its side by the main rod. The main rod connects all of the wheels together so they work as a unit. As the third wheel begins to turn, the main rod causes all of the wheels to turn.

Once the piston is at the end of the cylinder, the inlet valve closes. A second inlet valve opens on the opposite side of the piston. Also, an exhaust valve opens. The second inlet allows steam to enter the on the opposite side of the cylinder from the initial opening. This new squirt of steam moves the piston in the opposite direction. As the piston moves back, the steam that had moved the piston is now exhausted into the stack.

There are four valves: two inlet and two exhaust. As the piston is moved back and forth, the four valves work in unison allowing new steam in and exhausting the spent steam. This moving of the piston back and forth is what gives a steam locomotive its characteristic chuffing sound. It is pretty amazing how boiling water can move hundreds of tons. Locomotive 93 weighs about 100 tons. It would be coupled on to an ore train of thirty 70-ton ore cars and will pull this train with the energy of steam.

Locomotive 93 was built in 1909 for the Nevada Northern Railway. She was built to haul the ore trains from the mines at Ruth to the mill and smelter at McGill. She spent most of her life going back and forth between the two locations. It wasn't a long trip about twenty-four miles each way. Where the shortness of the trip might lead one to believe it was an easy trip, it wasn't. It was mountain railroading. The loaded ore trains would drop down from the mines on grades approaching three percent. It was downhill all the way to East Ely. To control the loaded train coming down the hill, the engineer would be applying the train brakes. Each car has eight steel brake shoes that are pushed against eight steel wheels.

This braking would cause friction that would slow the train down. It would also cause heat and smoke. A smoke plume would follow the train down the hill. Once the train arrived at East Ely, the train would be stopped and car men would inspect the cars. They would check every car inspecting the brakes and the wheels. Once their inspection was complete, the conductor would give the highball to the engineer and off 93 would go with her ore train.
This would be different. Now 93 would be climbing to the unload chute at McGill and it was all up hill. Now the fireman would really be working, shoveling coal into the firebox. He'd need to keep the fire hot to produce steam for the engineer to use as locomotive 93 climbed the hill.

The reason to say that time travel is possible is because you can witness in East Ely the struggle of man and machine over gravity just about everyday using technology that is over two hundred years old now. Locomotive 93 and 105 are still in operation. So are steam locomotive 40, a 4-6-0, built by Baldwin in 1910, and diesel-electric locomotive 109 built by ALCO in 1950 as an RS-3.

This fifty-six acre complex is much the same today as it was during the heyday of the railroad. The complex consists of over seventy buildings and structures. Some are huge such as the RIP Building. (RIP stands for repair in place not rest in peace as some people might think) where others are small, such as a fire hose reel—this small wooden structure has a small roof to protect the fire hose from the weather.

For the most part these buildings are the same today as when they were built. As you walk through the complex, you can still hear steam locomotives whistle off. Cinders crunch underfoot, the owl in the coaling tower still hoots. These are timeless scenes that you can witness at the Nevada Northern Railroad museum.



Call Us 1-866-40STEAM or 1-866-407-8326

Copyright © 2006 Nevada Northern Railway - Ely, Nevada
All Rights Reserved - Page Last Updated 17 February 2006
Site maintained by Keith Albrandt