a dry, hot summer's day and the air is thin up here in Ely, Nevada,
at its lofty 6500 foot elevation. Not much stirs under the cloudless
blue sky, and then breaking the silence comes the lonesome whistle of
the next train up to the copper mine workings seven miles away.
its high-intensity headlight beaming through the heat haze, 1910-built
Nevada Northern Railway Baldwin 4-6-0 'high stepper' No 40 comes into
view, drawing a rake of carriages that were built for the same company
in the early 20th century.
could so easily be any time between 1907, when the NNR first opened
to serve the copper mine in Ruth, and 1941, when passenger services
ceased. The engine and train (together marketed today as Ely's 'Ghost
Train') and most of the infrastructure is original; they were built
for the NNR, delivered here and have never left.
time capsule that is the NNR is, in fact, so complete that William L
Withuhn, curator, Division of the History of Technology at the Smithsonian
Institution, summed it up as follows: "Among all railroad historic
sites anywhere in North America, the Nevada Northern Railway complex
at East Ely isno question in my viewthe most complete, most
authentic, and best cared-for, bar none. It's a living American treasure
and a stand-out one."
simple terms, the NNR and the copper mines that it serves just shut
up shop when the mines closed in 1983, and gifted the track and all
equipment to the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, which is
the parent organisation of the present-day NNR.
No 40 and its historically accurate train, the NNR collection includes
two other steam locomotives (No 93, an Alco 2-8-0 of 1909, and No 81,
a Baldwin of 1917), two branch lines comprising over 18 miles of track,
the extensive NNR workshops and locomotive servicing facilities, original
station building, office and freight depot, rotary snow plough, steam-powered
breakdown (or 'wrecking') crane, numerous freight cars and a brace of
diesel-electrics that were brought in by the copper mines to replace
steam after 1948.
been actively involved with UK steam preservation from a very early
age (the first picture of me with a steam engine was at three weeks
old), the opportunity to move with work to St Louis, Missouri was greeted
with both enthusiasm for the potential adventure and trepidationwould
I be able to find anywhere to get my hands dirty with live steam? It
transpires that, while St Louis has an impressive historic collection
of static railroad exhibits in its Museum of Transportation (including
examples of the truly massive 4-8-8-4 Big Boy and 4-6-6-4 Challenger
classes), and a very popular and welcoming 12-in gauge line, there is
no standard gauge live steam in the area.
farther a field, there are a number of world-famous tourist lines in
the US (Durango and Silverton, Cumbres and Toltec, Grand Canyon Railway,
to name but a few) that have very extensive operations but very little
reliance on, or demand for, volunteers in their operating departments.
the NNR does have a small and dedicated full-time staff, it also has
a healthy demand for volunteers at all levels within its organization.
This is especially true during the summer months when trains run daily,
and my offer of help for five days in August was readily accepted by
NNR's executive director, Mark Bassett, in return for his assurance
that I would return to St Louis tired and happy.
has the distinction of being the most remote incorporated city in the
United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), being approximately five
hours drive from both Las Vegas, Nevada and Salt Lake City, Utah, so
I chose the once-a-day, 60-minute flight from Las Vegas as my means
of getting to the railway.
arrived to a warm welcome, and rotated through a number of departments
and a training session that introduced me to the railway and the people
who run it. At the same time as probing my capabilities and giving me
the knowledge to work safely in a railroad environment that has some
subtle (and some not-so-subtle) differences to its railway equivalent
in the UK.
first duties were to assist general foreman Dave Griner with the placement
of a newly delivered horizontal boring machine in the already-extensive
NNR workshops, in which virtually all aspects of mechanical and boiler
work (with the exception of new boiler manufacture) can be undertaken.
also helped to prepare the locomotives for service in the mornings,
with more than the usual amount of TLC being expended to get everything
ready for a visit by PBS, the American equivalent of the BBC, for a
filming assignment the following week.
40 and No 93 are usually used on an alternating basis and, in preparing
them for service; it really became clear just how big these engines
are, even though they are considered relatively small by US standards.