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"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: director@nnry.com

 


Going to Camp
13 April 2007

 

One of biggest challenges facing the Nevada Northern Railway museum is making the museum relevant to today's society. For a variety of reasons, railroading has gone underground and is slipping out of the public awareness. Oh sure, railroading gets headlines when there is a derailment, but this is not the type of publicity that will generate a warm and fuzzy with society.

And frankly, railroading is getting safer and safer so any headlines, even the derailment headlines, are (thankfully) getting rarer and rarer. For a railroad museum, this creates a challenge. Railroading is dropping out of the public's consciousness. People question its relevance. Why should they stop and visit? What's in for them? How interesting can rusting metal and rotting wood be? What does a railroad do and why should I care?

This is a shame because the story of railroading is fascinating. Railroads and our country grew up together. Railroads were the driving force behind the development of the interior of our country. Without railroads, there would be no cities far from navigable waters. Why? The simple fact is you couldn't support the people who lived there without railroads.

So railroading and society became intertwined. Railroads opened up the interior of the continent; they were a part of everyday life. This is how people traveled, how goods and foodstuffs were shipped, and how the news was gathered and disseminated, all through this industrial marvel.

This is all well and good, but as a sales manager of mine use to say, "I don't care about yesterday, what are you going to do for me today?" And that in a nutshell is the challenge that railroad museums face. Yes, we had a glorious past but what are we going to do about today? How are we going to make ourselves relevant?

We have to create connections. We need to make the past come alive and become relevant for today's society. People for the most part are curious. If you engage their imagination you got'em! So the challenge becomes engaging their imagination. There are many different ways, but one way is sending them to camp and completely immersing them into railroading for a week.

The National Railroad Historic Society (NRHS) has a program called RailCamp. The Nevada Northern Railway Museum partnered with them to offer RailCamp here. We are offering three sessions: two for adults and one for teens. This is our second year of offering RailCamp. Last year was an eye opening experience for us. When you can have teenagers fall asleep during dinner, you know you accomplished something. So what was RailCamp like? What follows is the experiences of one of the adult RailCampers, Joe Virgona.

RailCamp gave the participants the chance to experience all phases of railroading. Here the participants are learning about the cutting torch.

After almost a half century, I returned to camp this summer. Along with ten other "campers," I spent six days in June at the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, Nevada getting a thorough introduction to railroad history, preservation, and operations. The adult RailCamp was devised, sponsored, and managed by the National Railway Historical Society in cooperation with the Nevada Northern Railway and other organizations. Historically, the adult and teen programs were held at Steamtown in Scranton, PA, and this was the first time they were conducted away from Steamtown. A very successful Teen RailCamp followed in July.

The Nevada Northern Railway was constructed in 1906 to transport copper ore from the mines to the mill and smelter. In 1984, several years after their mine was closed, Kennecott Copper Company formally presented the railway, including all buildings, equipment, and records to the city of Ely. Today, the steam and diesel trains operate between downtown Ely to the historic mining district of Keystone to the west and from Ely northwards towards McGill. Also, tours of this working museum, including shops, engine house, and the grounds are available.

At camp, we learned about train dispatching, diesel and steam locomotive operations, maintenance and restoration, railroad history, museum operations, and most importantly SAFETY. We heard about it, read about it, and, best yet, did it! It was fun getting my hands dirty for a few days but I have to admit it would not be as much fun doing it every day. It was a tiring but informative week including lots of hands-on experience (creating plenty of sparks in the welding shop and fortunately not creating any sparks when operating the diesel locomotive). We "assisted" the crew and other employees. They were definitely extremely patient people! We switched, coupled and uncoupled cars, repaired and inspected track in a Hi Rail, "worked" in the shops, lubricated the steam locomotive in preparation for the days trips, shadowed crew members in the cab of the diesel and steam locomotives and in the caboose during the tourist train trips, and even took a test to see how much we learned from the 136-page NNRy Train Service Handbook.

It was not always "work." We rode an antique velocipede and speeders, spent an evening at a hot springs north of Ely, attended lectures and a demonstration by railroad historian and long-time steam locomotive fireman Bill Withuhn, shared personal railroad experiences, and enjoyed a final BBQ celebration. On the last morning as part of our debriefing session, we were passengers on the tourist steam trip to Keystone where we could enjoy the ride and not "work."

All agreed that this was one of those "once in a lifetime opportunities." I look forward to another one in late September 2006, just prior to the Nevada Northern Railway Centennial Celebration, when I "get my hands on the throttle" of the steam locomotive on the mainline as part of their Engine Rental/Student Engineer Program.

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum with the NRHS will have three camps in 2007. There will be two adult RailCamps: the first will be June 11–17 and the second will be September 10–16. There will be a teen RailCamp July 23–29. All sessions are limited to twelve participants. For more information contact the museum at (775) 289-2085 or visit the RailCamp website www.railcamp.com. What are you waiting for—pack your bags and head to camp.

 

 

 

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