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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

 


A Life Wasted Chasing Trains
11 June 2004


 

One of the presenters at the Long Steel Rails Festival is John West. John is a supporter of the Nevada Northern Railway and has been coming to Ely for years to photograph the railroad. His presentation is titled, "A Life Wasted Chasing Trains." In his own words I'll let him explain the title and his presentation.

 

Mark Bassett, the Executive Director here at the museum noticed that I was giving a presentation with this title at Winterail, an annual gathering of railfans in Stockton. I guess the title caught his fancy, because he invited me to make the same presentation here. Fortunately or unfortunately, for a bunch of reasons, that specific presentation could not be brought to Ely. But that also gave me an opportunity to put together a presentation that I hope will be more appropriate for this more diverse audience.

I do think it is a neat title. It is a somewhat tongue in cheek poke at both myself and the many other folks who are fascinated by trains. Part of my purpose here is to try to explain why trains are so fascinating.

First off, let me introduce myself. My name is John West, and I have been "chasing trains" since I was a kid. Perhaps I never outgrew my Lionel train set. Trains have always fascinated me, and they have been both my vocation and avocation. Actually, I made a pretty good living "chasing trains" while working for Southern Pacific Railroad and later GATX, a company that leases railcars. And that allowed me to retire early so that I could become a "professional" railfan. Even my somewhat normal wife and son occasionally enjoy chasing trains with me."

The bulk of this presentation is a slide show, put together from pictures I have taken over the last 45 years. I hope it will give you some indication of why I find trains so fascinating.

The first segment covers the Denver and Rio Grande narrow gauge in the 1960's. It was the last of the old time railroads, steam powered to the end and still connecting a rather isolated part of Colorado and New Mexico with the outside world. Even though narrow gauge, it typifies the kind of railroading that opened up western America, and allowed our farms, mines and forests to become an integral part of the national and international economy. There was a cliché about iron men and wooden cars, and indeed this kind of railroading was not only labor intensive, but required great skill and even daring . . . since it was dangerous work. To me it is amazing that this way of life still existed when the rest of America was busy putting men in space. Hopefully these pictures will convey a bit of a way of life that has largely disappeared.

For many people, the fascination with railroading began with the giant steam engines. These machines pulsed with red-hot fire and high-pressure steam. Standing beside one of these engines, even when it was sitting still, could be a bit scary. Would it explode right here and now? Go stand next to the 93 and experience that feeling. And if you were trackside when a steam engine thundered by at speed with a full load, it could be a truly soul moving experience . . . if not down right frightening.

I was born to late to get many pictures of mainline steam in regular service, but hopefully the following pictures of the big mainline engines on special fan trips will suffice to convey the fascination of these machines.

Starting in the 1930's the diesel locomotive starting replacing steam. The diesel electric locomotive was more efficient at pulling trains and much easier to maintain. In some places, especially Europe, steam was replaced by straight electric locomotives drawing current from an overhead wire. By 1960 mainline steam had disappeared in the U.S., and by the turn of the 21st century steam had disappeared virtually throughout the world. Today there is only one regular mainline steam operation left, and it is in China. So soon after retiring I headed out for China to record the end of an era—the very last steam mainline. And it too will be dieselized in the near future.

Finally, I want to show some pictures I've taken over the past several years here at the Nevada Northern. Hopefully they will convey the ability of this museum to recreate the past in a truly dramatic fashion. This is one of the few places where not only you, but your children and grandchildren will be able to experience what steam railroading was all about. And it is a whole lot more dramatic than simply looking at the pictures.

 

John will be presenting all three days during the Long Steel Rails Festival. Be sure to come by and see his presentation.

 

 


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