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


Perils of Progress at the Nevada Northern
09 March 2007
by Natasha Bettis, Buildings and Grounds Manager


As we accomplish more here at the Nevada Northern one thing becomes clear; we need more space. More space to work on locomotives and cars, more space to safely and securely store assets, the list goes on.

Some of you may be aware of the recent work on outfit car 06, which along with the steam crane and a few other cars, made up the wrecking train for this winter's photo shoots. Until very recently, this car was a basket case but through the efforts of our staff and volunteers, the car has a new paint job, the broken glass has been replaced, and the old paint has been stripped from the brass hardware.

While we are lucky to have the machine shop house outfit 06's partial restoration, work remains to done on the inside of the car. Unfortunately, having the car in the shop slows work on the locomotives. With our locomotives ranging from 50 to almost 100 years old, there is much work to be done.

In a perfect world, we would build a new shop saving the historical shop for interpretive displays and demonstrations; however, being an operating, non-profit railroad there aren't funds for such a project currently available. We should just grin and bear it, right? Well, not so fast. The museum has more than 99,000 square feet under roof, an area equal to more than 21 basketball courts, with much of this space concentrated in and near the engine house. We have space; it's just not being utilized in an optimal manner. For instance, the coach shed is presently used for storage of cars, diesel parts, car parts, and spare building windows and doors. If a home were found for these spare parts, the coach shed could be used to restore cars, freeing the machine shop for locomotive work.

Meanwhile the machine shop could also use more space for locomotive work. This large room is supported by the boiler room, the boiler shop, and the warehouse. Presently these spaces are used to store locomotive parts and car parts as well as items completely unrelated to daily railroad activities. All of this rarely and never-used stuff is taking up real estate that would be better used to support daily operations. For example, the boiler room is a large two-story space directly adjacent to the machine shop; it is now filled with flotsam and jetsam that certainly could be stored elsewhere. With that out of the way, parts bins, tool boards, and shelving can be built to house the most often-used tools and materials close to the work area. These tools are now primarily stored in the machine shop and in the warehouse occupying space better used otherwise.

By the way, if you haven't seen the warehouse/master mechanic's office you're in for a treat. The building contains fascinating remnants of the railroad; it's almost as if the walls could talk. It is a fascinating and unique place that was built to support the engine house and continues in that role today. Ideally, the warehouse portion of the building should contain interpretive displays to help visitors better understand what took place here. Unfortunately, this is difficult because the space is still used for to store parts and documents as well as many irreplaceable items the railroad needed over the years. Moving modern-day functions to the boiler room and relocating documents elsewhere will allow this space to truly excel at telling the Nevada Northern story.

Relocating documents and records in the warehouse/master mechanic's office will afford these irreplaceable items protection from theft, vandalism, moisture, rodents, and bird excrement. Once cataloged and duplicated, copies can be returned to the initial locations while the originals remain in a safe place. Scores of boxes containing documents, books, artifacts, and other materials can also be moved to long-term storage. Primarily stored in the railroad's main office, more records await attention in the McGill depot and other locations where they are commonly exposed to weather, rodents, and worse. These items should be removed from these hazards and safely stored until they can be properly cataloged. The boxes now in the office constitute an ever-growing collection that really has no other place to go. Meanwhile additional office space is needed as more people are hired to help run the place. Removing rarely used items from the office will allow more space for daily tasks while presenting a less cluttered, more historical appearance for our many visitors.

Other items that need safe and secure long-term storage currently occupy flat cars on badly needed indoor track space. Many of these items are rare and irreplaceable yet they are threatened by damage or theft as well as harm from poor loading. Most of this material is almost never used and can certainly be stored elsewhere; doing so would release the flat cars for other uses while opening indoor track space for wooden boxcars. Bringing these cars inside will protect the cars and provide an extra layer of safety and security for their contents. These cars currently contain rarely accessed diesel parts, which can be stored elsewhere making the boxcars available for less demanding uses.

In place of storing heavy and rarely needed diesel parts in the boxcars, they can house lighter-weight articles to ease strain on their historical structures yet provide much needed mobile storage. Holiday decorations are a perfect candidate, they could be stored in a boxcar rather than in garages and other areas in and near the depot. This would afford the decorations a safe and secure home while allowing ready access when needed. The boxcar can easily be moved to the depot, the train, or the North Pole as needed greatly reducing the task of readying for the holiday.

We also have a steel boxcar in service as diesel parts storage. It too could be used otherwise, ideally as a maintenance-of-way tool car. Track repair tools and equipment would be securely stored in an organized manner, allowing easy movement to any point on the line.

The railroad's maintenance-of-way roster includes three hirail trucks. The workhorse of the group is hirail 12, which is currently stored in one-half of the icehouse. The other half of the building is filled with items rarely or never used. Removing these articles from the building will allow storage of another hirail truck. This will either liberate space in the RIP building for a boxcar or create space in a depot garage for items more frequently used in that area.

At this point, you may realize the railroad has countless items to keep track of. The oft-mentioned diesel locomotive parts are a particularly good example of what we're facing. In addition to being stored in boxcars and on flat cars, they are also found in the boiler shop, the boiler room, the warehouse, and in several small buildings near the engine house. In many cases, these parts are rare and valuable items that are now exposed to theft and/or irreparable damage by weather, vandalism, rodents, and birds. Moving them elsewhere will free space and protect them while allowing repairs to the buildings in which they are now housed. There are many similar situations of historical items in need of better homes.

Throughout this discussion, mention of moving items "elsewhere" has been made. Where is the place that will provide a suitable home for our belongings? Frankly, that answer isn't yet known. One solution is to build new buildings. Documents, books, and artifacts deserve the ideal storage conditions of a modern library/archive. Our current stock of parts and materials calls for a warehouse. The museum's collection of historical cars requires indoor storage away from weather, thieves, and vandals. While these ideas may be in the museum's best interest, presently we lack funds and there is no long-term plan to guide the location, size, and configuration of said buildings.

What are our options then? Leave everything where it lays? As a museum we are called to care for all we are entrusted with, which means we don't let our collection rust away or allow it to be carried away by souvenir hunters. Airtight, watertight, and lockable structures are required to get us by until more suitable accommodations can be arranged.

Despite their non-traditional appearance, in many ways shipping containers fill our current needs. Containers are locally available, inexpensive, and each provides almost 3,000 cubic feet of storage space. One container can safely and securely accommodate more than 1,000 linear feet of documents, equal to 800 banker's boxes. Additionally containers can be quickly set up in an orderly manner and located to be visually removed from the main part of the yard. With that done items can then be stored out of sight, safe from thieves, vandals, weather, rodents, and birds. Our existing forklift can be used to load heavier items and in the process, things can be organized and inventoried.

Although there will be relatively small initial costs associated with this project, over time it will save money. We currently order parts with no certainty that we don't already have them on hand. Once everything is organized and inventoried, time will no longer be wasted combing the property looking for a part. Despite being further from the machine shop, the combination of gaining needed shop space with having an inventory of our parts will more than offset the inconvenience. Additionally, some cost may be recovered by selling containers once no longer needed.

As we accomplish more we must continue to make the most of what we have. A bit of effort now will pay dividends by providing existing workspace efficiency while providing better care for items we need to keep long-term. We may someday have the buildings to properly care for all we have been entrusted with; meanwhile we must simply do the best with what we have.