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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

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

 


Be a Time Traveler at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum
27 March 2004


 

There is a place in Ely where you can witness what America was like just after the turn of the last century. When civilization harnessed the iron horse and transformed the country. The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is not your customary museum. There is no display building per say; the museum encompasses a forty-acre outdoor national historic site containing forty-nine buildings and structures; steam locomotives, electric locomotives, diesel locomotive, historic passenger cars and over fifty freight cars. In addition to the yard and shops the museum owns thirty miles of railroad track.

The story that the combination of buildings, original equipment and track conveys is matchless. It is not some tale from history books or some relics on display that have been prettified and are stored behind glass. The Nevada Northern Railway is an operating historical railroad. It is dirty and gritty. It smells of coal smoke, creosote, and sweat. It is noisy at times, locomotives whistle off, cars clang as they are coupled together, and wheels squeal as the locomotive is turned on the wye. At other times it is eerily quiet, where the only noise is the wind and the hooting of the owl that lives in the coal town. Walking through the museum you can experience first hand what it took to move a mountain of copper ore.

The knowledge, skills, buildings, tools all still exist and are used today to tell the story of when steam locomotives ruled the rails. You are welcome to experience this first hand by exploring the museum. Before you start you explorations, take a look at the logo of the Nevada Northern Railway: prominent on the logo is the motto of the railroad, Safety First. You will also see this motto on the RIP building and machine shop and enginehouse. There is a reason for the motto--railroading is dangerous. The equipment is big and heavy and with the steam locomotives it is hot, big and heavy. A moment's inattention can cause serious injuries or death. At one time railroading was the most dangerous occupation in the country.

You are welcome to explore what is the best-preserved, standard gauge short line railroad left in America. You can walk the yard, peer into the buildings. and view the equipment. You are welcome to tour the enginehouse and machine shop building. Come down early, and you can watch the crew prepare steam locomotive 93 for its day's work. Observe the shop crew work on restoring steam locomotive 40 so she can operate again. Marvel at the size of the equipment and tools used to keep the railroad running.

As you explore the Nevada Northern Railway complex, please remember our motto, Safety First and these rules:

1) Stand back at least six feet from any moving equipment.
2) Do not park your vehicle closer than six feet to any track.
3) Do not climb on any of the equipment.
4) Look both ways when crossing a track; a train could be moving on any track, at any time, and in either direction.
5) Do not enter any of the museum buildings unless museum personnel are present.
6) Do not pick up or move any artifacts that are scattered through out the museum grounds.
7) There is no smoking allowed on the museum equipment or grounds except in designated smoking areas.
8) Wear comfortable closed toe shoes and clothing you don't mind getting dirty.
9) If you have a question be sure to ask the museum staff.
10) Enjoy yourself as you step back in time.

The best place to start your visit to the museum is at Preservation Plaza, the open area located between the East Ely Depot and the square tan brick building that is the Transportation Building.

On the ground floor of the depot you will find the gift shop and ticket office. Helpful staff members can provide you with a map of the yard, a train schedule and answer any questions you might have. The second floor of the depot of the general offices of the railroad when Kennecott owned it' today it is maintained to show the history of the railroad. Tours are available and there is no admission charge.

To the west of the depot at the end of the yard is the machine shop and engine house building. Here is where the locomotives are maintained and service. Included in the museum collection are three original steam locomotives. The oldest is locomotive 93, ninety-four years old and still in operating condition. Joining locomotive 93 in the enginehouse are sister steam locomotives 40 and 81, diesel locomotives 105, 109, 204, 801, 802, and 310 and two rare steeple-cab electric locomotives 80 and 81. The Nevada Northern Railway as a subsidiary of Kennecott Copper Company was one of the few railroads that used steam, electric and diesel-electric locomotives to power their trains. Also on display in the enginehouse are a steam-powered rotary snowplow and three cabooses.

Adjoining the enginehouse is the machine shop. It was here that shop crews maintained the locomotives. One of the first buildings built when the railroad came to town, the building and the machines contained inside are still used to maintain and repair the locomotives today.

Standing in front of the enginehouse and facing east you see a large metal building. This building is the RIP building. It does not stand for "Rest In Peace", but rather "Repair In Place". Moving a mountain of ore was hard on the equipment. The huge steam shovels would scoop up the ore and drop it into the cars. Rocks and boulders would hit the cars damaging them. The trip down the hill from the mine would take its toll on the brake system, brake shoes, and wheels. The railroad needed a place to maintain the ore cars. Before the RIP building was built, the cars were repaired out in the open, in the broiling sun or in the winter winds.

Of course the ultimate experience at the museum is the train ride. This is your ticket to the past. There are two trips that are offered. One trip retraces the route of the ore trains from East Ely to the mines and return. This trip leaves East Ely and heads west above Ely, through two tunnels and then up picturesque Robison Canyon to the mines at Keystone. On the trip watch for two foxes who make their home over the east portal of the first tunnel. Once through the tunnels, the route parallels the Loneliest Road in America, US 50. Now the train is climbing hard. This route will go past Lane City, a ghost town, Garnet Hill where you can find garnets, and the Chainman Mine, which Stephen King used as inspiration for his book Desperation. Nine miles later is the end of the line at Keystone. Before you are the huge waste dumps, which conceal the mine pit. This is the turn around for the train, then its back to East Ely.

The second trip follows the route of the ore trains to the mill and smelter at McGill. The train leaves East Ely and heads east towards the mountains. Three miles out of town the track makes a broad sweeping curve towards the north and runs parallel to the mountains and starts climbing. The train is following the Hiline towards the mill and smelter in McGill. Soon you will see why this route is called the Hiline. The train has been climbing steadily since the curve and now you are high above the valley floor. You have a wonderful vista to the west showing the valley and mountains. At Lavon siding, the train will stop. Here the locomotive is uncoupled and pulls away from the train. It runs up to the switch and backs down on the siding running next to the train. It will run around the train and couple up to what was the end of the train. The train crew performs an air test and then whistles off. Now the locomotive is pushing the train as you climb higher above the valley floor. The vista off to the west is ever changing. If there are clouds in the sky the sun will start playing hide and seek and create a wonderful tableau of light and shadow across the valley. Be sure to watch for jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, antelope, deer, hawks, and eagles on this trip.

As you arrive back in East Ely, the Nevada Northern provided you with a glimpse of the past. It was trains like these that allowed the development of the United States. It is the mission of the museum to preserve this wonderful piece of American industrial heritage.

The railroad offers two very unique opportunities. For an additional ten dollars you can ride in the caboose. You can see the route from the back step or ride up in the cupola. Seating is limited. Then there is the ultimate railfan experience: you can operate either our steam or diesel locomotive. That's right, it is your hand on the throttle, as you head up hill in charge of an iron horse. Details are available in the gift shop or ticket office.

The museum is open six days a week from 7 AM to 7 PM; it is closed on Tuesdays. Excursion trains operate weekends in May. Then from Memorial Day through Labor Day the excursion trains run twice daily at 9:30 AM and then at 4:30 PM. On Saturdays there are three trips at 9:30 AM, 1:00 PM and 4:30 PM. After Labor Day through the end of September the afternoon trip is dropped. Then into October operation are just on the weekend. Then in late November and early December, the Nevada Northern Railway offers its popular Polar Express Trains to the North Pole to visit with Santa Claus.

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is a non-profit corporation. Membership is open to everyone. You are welcome to join us.

 

 


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All Rights Reserved - Page Last Updated 29 March 2004
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