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



Come Celebrate Long Steel Rails
13 March 2004


On June 11, 12, and 13 the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in conjunction with the East Ely Depot Museum, the White Pine Public Museum, and the White Pine Chamber of Commerce celebrates the Long Steel Rails Festival.

This festival will explore the impact railroads had in the building of America. These parallel long steel rails changed America. Nowadays, not much is given a second thought. Like so many things in modern life we expect results with minimal effort; throw a switch and you have lights. Need groceries, hop in your car and head to the store, where there's fresh meat, fresh vegetables, and fresh dairy products. Of course it wasn't always like this and especially out west, where great distances and horses made for slow going.

The railroad tracks that conquered the west were built one stick of rail at a time. Across the high desert of Nevada ties were placed one at a time, then the rail came forward. Thirty feet of steel weighing hundreds of pounds was lifted by four men and placed on the ties. Then the spikers moved in and started driving the spikes two per tie. As the spikers started their work the rail carriers went back for another stick of rail to place on the ties opposite their first one. The second rail was placed 4 feet 8 1/2 inches from the first and then another team of spikers came forward driving in two spikes per tie. A different crew came forward and bolted the rails together joining the new rails to the new track that stretched on until it disappeared over the horizon. This ballet played out, over and over, again and again, covering immense distances, tying the country together.

The railroads were the catalyst that led to the lifestyle that we now enjoy. Once upon a time in America every town of substance had a rail connection. If the railroad missed the town, then the town picked up and moved to the railroad. It was the railroads that allowed for the development of the interior of the country. The railroads touched just about everyone. Today that is still true but it is not as obivious as it once was.

There is a place where this connection is still very oblivious: Ely Nevada. Ely is the home of the Nevada Northern Railway, a place frozen in time. The two-story sandstone depot stands at the end of a broad street. Looming above the depot is the original coaling tower and water tank. The yard is unique; it consists of fifty buildings and structures with the majority of them constructed shortly after the arrival of the railroad.

On June 11, 12 and 13 the complex comes alive as the Nevada Northern Railway celebrates the fifth Long Steel Rails Festival. The three-day event will illustrate the influence that railroads exerted on everyday life in America using songs, stories, and pictures.

 

To demonstrate this influence there will be photography displays that graphically illustrate the connection between people and railroads.

To show how track building was done a track building demonstration—Steel Rails, Steel Hammers and Steel Men—will be ongoing in the yard. Opportunities to swing a spike maul and drive a spike will be available.

To tell the story will be a series of singers, speakers and artists. They are:

LARRY PENN, Folklorist, who hails from Milwaukee Wisconsin. This gravelly-voiced folk singer has written songs that have been recorded by at least 30 other artists. For more than three decades, Larry has played a wide range of venues that have taken him from hobo jungles fires to the Fiat Plant in Torino, Italy. He sings and tells stories of hard work, working people, trains, life on the road, love, and pink flamingos.

JOEL JENSEN, Speaker/Photographer who lives in Summerland California. Joel began railroad photography in earnest after his first freight train ride. After about six or seven thousand miles, he figured out that he could take better train pictures if he wasn't actually riding on the train. Now several book covers and many magazine covers later, he is considered by many to be the most controversial and creative railroad photographer in the business.

GREG DAHLGREN, Speaker/Photographer is a retired firefighter from Colorado. His specialty is large format black and white photography. Greg travels the west capturing imagines using a large format camera, which is not the easiest piece of equipment to use. Greg's perspective is unique and one that the public will find intriguing.

JOHN WEST, Speaker/Photographer, has spent a lifetime in the railcar leasing industry. But before that, growing up, he was captured by the allure of railroading. Starting in college, John chased railroads around the west recording disappearing images before they faded into the background. Now retired from a career in railroading, John still chases trains; now it's around the world.

GORDON CHAPPELL, Speaker/Author was a college roommate of John West's and joined John in chasing trains throughout the west. Gordon went on to join the National Park Service and do historic research into railroads. This expertise led Gordon to write books on railroads. The National Park Service recognized Gordon's expertise on railroads by assigning him to research and write the application for National Landmark Status on the Nevada Northern Railway.

WILLIAM WITHUHM, Speaker/Author is the author of the Spirit of Steam a book that is for anyone who was ever fascinated by the railroad. A careful selection of images, combined with thoughtful commentary makes the Spirit of Steam appealing to a modern, general audience. The commentary is special, with challenging and insightful ideas about the significance of the railroad in the twentieth-century life. In concise, lively talks, Bill provides the larger, essential context so often missing. Bill uses the power of the image-and puts images and interpretation together in a fresh way. His evocative imagery of both trains and the people who ran them, combined with the concise, lively essays, offer a fresh and powerful perspective on the significance of the railroad in the twentieth century. Bill is the Curator of Transportation at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian.

LAWRENCE HERSH, Speaker/Photographer is a photographer who did a comparative photographic study of the now Union Pacific Railroad and the then Central Pacific Railroad. Lawrence went across Nevada and located where Alfred A. Hart made his photographs recording the Central Pacific Railroad in 1868. The author set his camera up to record the same views in 1997. There is a striking comparison in that some areas look the same today as they did 129 years ago.

SEAN PITTS currently works for the State of Nevada as the Director of the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum. He has nearly two decades experience in working in museums in the American West. He has earned a Masters of Art degree from Utah State University in American studies with an emphasis in Museum Administration and Folklore. He also completed a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History from Brigham Young University. For the past fifteen years he has studied eastern Nevada's history and shared that with locals and tourists alike. He is a published author in Nevada Magazine and other publications. He has contributed to numerous articles of railroad history and eastern Nevada folklore; most recently to "White Pine County, Where the Great Basin Highway Meets the Loneliest Road in America." He has been featured in television documentaries of eastern Nevada history and regularly serves as a tour guide for the Nevada Department of Tourism familiarization tours. Sean is a frequent lecturer and presenter on the history and heritage of the Silver State.

LARRY BUTE, Cowboy Illustrator, has spent most of his life out on the open the range. This unique perspective has allowed him to capture in paint a fading way of life. Larry's artwork ranges from small pen and ink sketches to huge murals that are painted on the sides of buildings. Larry is the artist who has created all of the Long Steel Rails Posters.

 

In addition to the speakers, the public is invited to record their railroad experiences for future generations. The White Pine Public Museum will be hosting an Oral History Program. This is designed to capture the remembrances of what it was like to work for the railroad. This program will concentrate on recording the experiences of the people who worked for the Nevada Northern Railway.

Not all of the people who rode the trains paid for the privilege. Some rode the freight trains as hobos. A Hobo Camp will be set-up, for the public to listen, to what it was like jumping trains and traveling the country.

For a remembrance of the Long Steel Rails Festival, children will be able to assemble a whistle made out of wood.

To experience railroading up close, guided walking tours of the rail yards and buildings that show the machinery and skills necessary to keep the iron horse running will be available. There will also be speeder rides. Before the days of cars and trucks gandy dancers (track workers) used lightweight gasoline powered track carts to travel the track to inspect it. Of course the ultimate opportunity will be to ride in the cab of a Diesel Locomotive. This will be an opportunity for the public to experience what its like to be in a diesel locomotive going down the rails.

Come join us for what promises to be an exciting weekend exploring the connection of the railroading and people.