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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:


Saving the Enginehouse/Machine Shop Complex — Part II
20 May 2005


Two-hundred thousand dollars is a great deal of money until you look at the needs of the enginehouse/machine shop building. Seventy-nine thousand dollars had already been invested in the building and we had barely scratched the surface. The engineering studies had been done and we knew what we were facing. Our two biggest challenges were the east wall with the locomotive size doorways and the deteriorated mortar throughout the building.

The east wall is the entrance for the railroad rolling stock. Naturally, these doors needed to be big enough to allow a locomotive to go through. There are six doors in the enginehouse and two doors in the machine shop. These doors are separated by a brick pillar. In the event of an earthquake, the concern was that the pillars would collapse. This in turn would bring down the roof and then pull in the sidewalls until the entire structure was just rubble.

The solution for strengthening the brick pillars was pretty straightforward. The door openings were shielded in steel and formed a large "C" channel that ran up both sides of the brick pillars. The fix was to tie the "C" channels on both sides of the pillar together. To do this, holes were drilled through the metal and then the brick. Threaded steel rods were than pushed through the holes. Then a nut and washer was placed on each side and tightened. What this did was to bolt the two steel "C" channels to the brick pillar. Now these three separate pieces would act as one unit and strengthen the entire east wall.

Each doorway is twenty-four feet tall. The metal rods were placed every foot. That meant that there were twenty rods placed in each brick pillar. There are nine pillars so 180 holes needed to be drilled. Doesn't sound too bad until you realize that some of these holes are over twenty feet in the air.

In drilling the holes in the brick pillars, we solved one mystery. On the inside of enginehouse door number one, we were getting a water leak. We thought this leak was coming from the roof. When the holes were being drilled into this pillar water started coming out the holes. Water had infiltrated the entire brick pillar. Where was the water coming from? It turns out the downspout was plugged. So the water from the roof was creeping into the brick pillar. When the holes were drilled, the water started flowing out. By having the downspout plugged and letting the water penetrate the brickwork we were setting ourselves up for a disaster. The disaster would be that the water would go through a freeze thaw cycle. The freeze thaw cycle is Mother Nature's great equalizer. It can wear down mountains and destroy brick structures. We were fortunate that not much damage had been done. So crisis number one passed and was repaired.

After stabilizing the east wall, it was time to attack the deteriorated mortar and the concrete windowsills. There were places in the wall between the machine shop and enginehouse where the mortar was gone and you could see daylight coming through the wall. This was the same wall that supported the seven and one-half ton overhead crane—not a good combination. In other places on the exterior wall, moisture had eroded away the mortar and destroyed the bricks. At couple of the building corners, the two walls that make up the corner were beginning to pull away from one another.

Repairing the mortar and brickwork in a building approaching its centennial is a job that not just anyone can do. There are different types of bricks and mortar. If you don't match the mortar in strength and texture, you start a whole new set of problems. Fortunately, in response to our request for proposals, a company in Salt Lake City (Abstract Masonry) had the skills we were looking for. They had the skills, the expertise, and the experience to tackle the enginehouse/machine shop building.

Abstract tackled the worst places of the walls first. In places, they had to completely remove the old bricks and mortar and relay the wall. In other places, they could just remove the loose bricks and relay them. In places where just the mortar was bad that could be removed and new mortar put back in. In places where the walls were separating, the mortar and bricks were removed, stainless steel stitches were installed, and the wall rebuilt.

Northeast corner of enginehouse

Repairs underway on the northeast corner of the enginehouse.

Worked started in December and continued through February. Small problems came up and were solved; after all, portions of the building were approaching being 100 years old and problems were to be expected. Then it happened. As we were nearing the completion of the project, we found two major problems.

The first problem was at the top of the interior of the west wall of the enginehouse—part of the brick wall was failing. The wall was failing all the way across the enginehouse. When the wall was built, a piece of structural steel was embedded in the wall. Steel and brick react to heat cold at different rates, so over the years the steel was beginning to force the bricks out of the wall.

The second problem we found was even worse and verged on being disastrous. The northwest corner of the enginehouse was on the verge of collapse. From the ground, the corner looked fine. But in doing other work near the corner, it was realized that looks were very deceiving. The corner was failing due to inadequate draining of the water from the roof. The first down spout in that corner had failed years ago. The wall had become saturated with water and went through countless freeze and thaw cycles. This had destroyed the mortar and the building blocks of the corner. Earlier repairs to this corner were not done at the level of professionalism that was seen throughout the building. It was as if an apprentice did the repairs and didn't know how to do them properly. The result was gobs of mortar filling voids that was just covered over with more mortar and one course of bricks. Starting at the top of the corner it was all beginning to crumble. It would only have been a matter of time before a northwest wind (like the 75 mph winds that we have recently had) hit that corner just right and started to peel and blow the bricks away. That corner would have come down like a row of dominos. As the corner began to fail, that would have impacted the north and west walls. Without the corner tying the two walls together, the wind would have hit both walls hard and the walls would have failed. With the walls going down the wind would have gotten under the roof and then that would have been the end.

Northwest corner of enginehouse

Deterioration evident at the northwest corner of the enginehouse.

As it turns out, due to the generous support of the State of Nevada's Commission of Cultural Affairs, the catastrophic collapse of the enginehouse was avoided. It was a near thing. On his last inspection of the enginehouse, the structural engineer reviewed all of the repairs and his parting comment was, "This building will be here for another 100 years." We had won the race to preserve the building.

When the work is complete on the enginehouse/machine shop building we will have invested close to three-quarters of a million dollars in the building. For the most part, this investment is invisible. It went into the fabric of the building and it was done in such a way so it would not call attention to itself. Frankly, for seven-hundred fifty thousand dollars we could have torn down the old building and build a modern metal building. Of course, this would have defeated the purpose of preserving the complex.

Preservation is not for the faint of heart.




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