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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

 


Come Celebrate Long Steel Rails
27 May 2005

 

On June 17, 18, and 19 the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in conjunction with the East Ely Depot Museum, the White Pine Public Museum, and the White Pine Chamber of Commerce celebrates the Long Steel Rails Festival.

This festival will explore the impact railroads had in the building of America. These parallel long steel rails changed America but nowadays it's hardly given a second thought. Like so many things in modern life, we expect results with minimal effort—throw a switch and you have lights. Need groceries? Hop in your car and head to the store where there's fresh meat, fresh vegetables, and fresh dairy products. Of course, it wasn't always like this and especially out West where great distances and horses made for slow going.

The railroad tracks that conquered the West were built one stick of rail at a time. Across the high desert of Nevada ties were placed one at a time, then the rail came forward. Thirty feet of steel weighing hundreds of pounds was lifted by four men and placed on the ties. Then the spikers moved in and started driving the spikes two per tie. As the spikers started their work the rail carriers went back for another stick of rail to place on the ties opposite their first one. The second rail was placed 4 feet 8 1/2 inches from the first and then another team of spikers came forward driving in two spikes per tie. A different crew came forward and bolted the rails together joining the new rails to the new track that stretched on until it disappeared over the horizon. This ballet played out over and over, again and again, covering immense distances and tying the country together.

The railroads were the catalyst that led to the lifestyle that we now enjoy. Once upon a time in America every town of substance had a rail connection. If the railroad missed the town then the town picked up and moved to the railroad. It was the railroads that allowed for the development of the interior of the country. The railroads touched just about everyone. Today that is still true but it is not as obvious as it once was.

There is a place where this connection is still very obvious—Ely, Nevada. Ely is the home of the Nevada Northern Railway, a place frozen in time. The two-story sandstone depot stands at the end of a broad street. Looming above the depot is the original coaling tower and water tank. The yard is unique: it consists of fifty buildings and structures, the majority of them constructed shortly after the arrival of the railroad.

On June 17, 18 and 19 the complex comes alive as the Nevada Northern Railway celebrates the sixth Long Steel Rails Festival. The three-day event will illustrate the influence that railroads exerted on everyday life in America using songs, stories, and pictures.

To tell the story will be a series of singers, speakers and artists. They are:

  • Larry Penn, Folklorist, who hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This gravelly-voiced folk singer has written songs that have been recorded by at least thirty other artists. For more than three decades, Larry has played a wide range of venues that have taken him from hobo jungles fires to the Fiat plant in Torino, Italy. He sings and tells stories of hard work, working people, trains, life on the road, love, and pink flamingos.

  • Pop Warner, from St Paul, Minnesota, has quite the reputation as a picker, singer, lasso twirler, and downright funny guy. He appeared frequently on the nationally broadcast live radio show "A Prairie Home Companion." And for the last quarter-century he has worked his cowboy music throughout forty-four states and ten countries. His cowboy anthems crackle with the warmth of a prairie campfire and his old time fiddle tunes set toes a tappin' while he serves up spellbinding rope tricks and tall stories all with a good dose of friendly humor.

  • Bob and Diana Suckiel live in Kansas City, Missouri. Bob sings railroad songs with rare authority having worked for four different railroads over the past thirty years as a gandy dancer, brakeman, switchman, conductor, and now an engineer. He both entertains and instructs with a mingled collection of railroad songs, stories, terms, and hand signals that only a true train hand would know. With a strong natural country voice, Diana can belt a rough and tumble blues, shout the praises of the gospel, or render a country ballad with the best of them.

  • David E. Bourne, piano player extraordinaire. Dave has been playing the piano since his first job at Knott's Berry Farm in 1958. He is a graduate of USC with a degree in music education. Among his claims to fame is the saloon piano player in the HBO series "Deadwood" where he can be seen playing the piano in the Gem Saloon.

  • John Tyson, steam locomotive engineer, cowboy, guitar player, storyteller. You name it and John has probably done it. Working for KOLO television as their Rural Reporter, John has traveled the state in search of the interesting, little known stories that he shares with the public. John can spin a story to make your hair stand on end and also get a laugh out of you.

  • Joel Jensen, photographer, lives in Summerland, California. Joel began railroad photography in earnest after his first freight train ride. After about six or seven thousand miles, he figured out that he could take better train pictures if he wasn't actually riding on the train. Now several book covers and many magazine covers later, he is considered by many to be the most controversial and creative railroad photographer in the business. His photographs will be on display in the East Ely Depot.

  • John West, speaker/photographer, has spent a lifetime in the railcar leasing industry. But before that, growing up, he was captured by the allure of railroading. Starting in college, John chased railroads around the West recording disappearing images before they faded into the background. Now retired from a career in railroading, John still chases trains but now it's around the world.

  • William Withuhn, speaker/author, is the author of The Spirit of Steam, a book that is for anyone who was ever fascinated by the railroad. A careful selection of images combined with thoughtful commentary makes The Spirit of Steam appealing to a modern, general audience. The commentary is special with challenging and insightful ideas about the significance of the railroad in the twentieth-century life. In concise, lively talks, Bill provides the larger, essential context so often missing. Bill uses the power of the image and puts images and interpretation together in a fresh way. His evocative imagery of both trains and the people who ran them, combined with the concise, lively essays, offer a fresh and powerful perspective on the significance of the railroad in the twentieth-century. Bill is the Curator of Transportation History at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

  • Steve Swanson, speaker/author. Steve Swanson has been called Nevada Northern railfan number one. Steve worked for Kennecott during the heyday of mining in White Pine County. Steve researches the nuts and bolts on Nevada Northern equipment. He thinks nothing of spending hours in the Nevada Northern Railway vault reading dusty documents on the mundane day-to-day operations of the railroad. But, it is through his research that we solve the mystery of the scale test car and "Old Slobbermouth."

  • Keith Albrandt, researcher/historian. Keith also spends days in the Nevada Northern vault uncovering information on the day-to-day operations of the railroad. Not only is Keith familiar with paper but he also serves as webmaster for the museum as well as maintaining his own award winning website on the Nevada Northern Railway. If you have a question on the Nevada Northern Railway, chances are you can find the answer on Keith's website.

  • Larry Bute, cowboy illustrator, has spent most of his life out on the open the range. This unique perspective has allowed him to capture in paint a fading way of life. Larry's artwork ranges from small pen and ink sketches to huge murals that painted on the sides of buildings. Larry is the artist who has created all of the Long Steel Rails Posters.

In addition to the speakers and the entertainment there is plenty else to do during Long Steel Rails. Not all of the people who rode the trains paid for the privilege. Some rode the freight trains as unpaid passengers commonly called hobos. A Hobo Camp will be set-up for the public to learn what it was like jumping trains and traveling the country.

For the children there will be a workshop where they will be able to assemble a whistle made out of wood.

Of course, when people think of railroading the image that comes to mind is that of the engineer. During the festival, you'll be able enjoy the ultimate opportunity a ride in the cab of a diesel locomotive. This will be an opportunity for the public to experience what its like to be in a diesel locomotive going down the rails.

To experience railroading up close, guided walking tours of the rail yards, blacksmith shop, and buildings will be available. These tours show the machinery and skills necessary to keep the iron horse running. There will also be speeder rides. Before the days of cars and trucks, gandy dancers (track workers) used lightweight gasoline powered track cars to travel the track to inspect it. And of course there will be steam and diesel excursion train rides all weekend long. On Saturday evening, there will be a very special train the Steptoe Valley Flyer. From 1906 until 1941, passengers traveled in great style on the Nevada Northern Railway. The train was pulled by steam locomotive 40 and consisted of first class coach 5 and baggage/Railway Post Office car 20. For years, these cars traveled from the transcontinental railroad connection at Cobre to Ely. While today we will not be able to go to Cobre, we will be able to travel over some of the original track as we travel back in time. There is very limited seating and passengers are encouraged to wear period dress for this trip.

Come join us for what promises to be an exciting weekend exploring the connection of railroading and people.

 

 

 

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