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


Nothing Like It
20 May 2009

There is a book written by Stephen Ambrose titled Nothing Like It in the World. It's a long title; the book describes the building of the transcontinental railroad one hundred and forty years ago. It's a great book and I highly recommend it.

My career has been varied. But in that career, I have never experienced working with a more dedicated, hard-working bunch of people than the staff and the volunteers of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. They put their hearts and souls into preserving this piece of White Pine and American history. They work long hours doing heavy work for either little or no pay. I have never experienced a higher level of perseverance and dedication than the men and women of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.

I've been a volunteer firefighter. I thought it was pretty nuts entering a burning building when everyone else was running out. But truthfully, we did that very, very rarely.

Volunteers and staff being instructed on the operation of the air brakes at the operational training in April.


Yet here at the Nevada Northern we have people in the cab of the steam locomotive on hot summer days every weekend. Going up the hill, the firebox temperatures can hit 2,000 degrees. One trip up the hill will burn 2,000 pounds of coal. And more often than not, if a steamer is hot then we're planning on three trips up the hill on any given day. That's 6,000 pounds of coal for one day's operation. In the summer, we operate the steam locomotives four days a week, three trips a day. That's twelve trips and 24,000 pounds of coal that has to be shoveled.

The staff and volunteers in train service are lucky: federal law limits their time on duty to only twelve hours. (This is said with tongue firmly planted in cheek.) Yet there is a loophole: if an employee or volunteer is not in train service, there is no limit to the amount of hours they can work.

When the wheel sets for locomotive 93 came back to Ely on Friday, April 3, it was an all hands drill. We needed to get the wheels under that locomotive as soon as humanly possible. Yet at the same time, on April 4th and 5th the annual operational training had been planned a year ago. So what to do? We did both. A select number of staff and volunteers went to the machine shop to put the wheels under locomotive 93. Meanwhile the rest of the staff and volunteers went to the Elk's Club for two days of training and testing.

The staff and volunteers at the shop worked straight through until everything was ready for test runs on April 11. Meanwhile back at the Elk's Club we had forty-nine staff and volunteers attend the training.

It is a privilege to work with such devoted people. The most visible are the staff and volunteers that make up the train crews—the engineers, firemen, brakemen, and conductors. Day in and day out they get the trains up over the hill and back again safely. In the seven years I've been the executive director, we have not had a passenger injury (other than the occasional cinder in the eye) and only once did a train crewmember receive injures that required medical attention. This is an enviable safety record. It is a testament to professionalism of the staff and volunteers.

Where the train crewmembers might get the accolades and be the most visible, trains would not run and projects would not get done without a small committed army of volunteers and equally committed small staff. Before any train moves, the paperwork must be done. The gift shop and ticket office need to be open. The concessions put on the train, administration and dispatching need to be complete. In addition, there is the mountain of paperwork that needs to be addressed—federal, state, and local reports need to be done. Fund raising activities, membership recruitment, and tour group solicitations are always ongoing.

Our duties include a lot more than just running trains. Our overall mission is the preservation and interpretation of the entire railroad. The running of trains is only part of our mission. Behind the scenes, equipment needs repairing along with buildings, utilities, and track. There are tons of documents that need to be inventoried and preserved. Part of the preservation process is creating digital records of the drawings. On of our largest projects is just making a photo inventory of our railroad artifacts. And these artifacts come in all shapes and sizes from a one-hundred ton steam locomotive to a simple original business card. All of these items help us understand the railroad better.

During the heyday of the railroad, hundreds of individuals were on the payroll. They worked long hours and received a good wage for the time. But now, as society has changed and the railroad has evolved into a non-profit corporation, we can't afford hundreds of individuals on the payroll.

The museum only exists because of the dedication and perseverance of our small staff and large volunteer pool. Annually we recognize a few of these individuals that have given above and beyond the call of duty.

Our oldest award is the Volunteer of the Year. This is recognition for our top volunteer. First given in 1994, the most recent recipient was Joe Virgona.

In 2002, we started with the Silver Hammer or Silver Wrench Award. The original intent of the award was to recognize volunteers who worked on different projects. The award has evolved to include the Silver Paint Brush for painting, the Silver Bell for serving as Santa Claus, and the Silver Tray for serving food and wine on the train. In 2008, it reverted back to the Silver Wrench to acknowledge the assistance of Ken Keels for his work in the shop.

In 2002, another award was created to recognize extraordinary dedication of service and to express our appreciation for a person's contributions over time. In 2008, John Gianoli was so acknowledged for his service on the Management Board.

The Silver Lantern Award was unveiled in 2005 to celebrate the contributions of individuals who shed a light on the inglorious parts of the railroad. Previous winners were recognized for helping with the concessions on the train, with the paper work, training, and last year Ed Shurtleff was honored for his assistance in keeping the railroad running both in the shops and out on the track.

Day in and day out our success is the result of the combined efforts of many, many different men and women. They invest their hearts and souls in keeping the Nevada Northern Railway operational both out on the line and behind the scenes. We may not be building a transcontinental railroad, but we are preserving a very special place—the Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark. And I'm here to tell you—There Is Nothing Like It in the World.