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


Experience History and Technology Hands On
17 June 2009

You've dreamed it of being in the cab of a steam locomotive. You've wondered what it would be like to pull out the throttle on 100-tons of steam locomotive. Well, you can stop dreaming and actually do it.

As part of the outreach program at the Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark, you have the opportunity to actually operate a steam locomotive as the engineer!

After instruction and testing, you are in the locomotive cab. The instructor gives you a copy of the train orders and track warrant. You both read the orders and warrant. You discuss what they say; the instructor wants to make sure you understand what will happen.

You are now in the engineer's seat—the ground looks far away. Your hand is on the throttle. Checking to make sure the track is clear, you give two toots on the whistle. You open the cylinder cocks, move the reverser to the forward position, and gently open the throttle. Instantaneously, you hear a whoosh of steam escaping from the open cylinder cocks. With one eye on the ground, you pull out another notch of throttle. Slowly, ever so slowly, the rods and wheels begin to turn. Another tug on the throttle lets more steam into the massive cylinder up front. Then you hear it—chuff, chuff, chuff. Slowly the enormous locomotive picks up speed. Another pull on the throttle puts even more steam into the cylinders. The chuffs are coming faster, a plume of steam and smoke is above the smokestack trailing the locomotive.

Al Baker, renter engineer, is ready to head up the hill under the close supervision of the instructor engineer.


The instructor engineer tells you to close the cylinder cocks and notch up the reverser. Things are happening faster now. The fireman is shoveling coal into the firebox. You are approaching your first road crossing. The instructor nudges you. Yes, you remember now, you need to blow the whistle for the road crossing.

The fireman yells out, "Clear!" and begins to pull on the bell cord. You pull the whistle lever and a long mournful sound emanates from the whistle with a plume of steam. The whistle signal for the crossing is two longs, a short and a long as the locomotive enters the crossing whistle screaming and bell ringing.

Now the action is building, the tempo quickening. The track grade begins to steepen. The fireman is like a whirling dervish as he throws coal into the firebox. Every time the firebox door opens, you catch a glimpse of hell. The instructor tells you pull out more throttle, letting more steam into the cylinders. The chuffs from the stack are getting faster and louder. The noise is deafening.

You peer out your cab window. You're shocked to see how much your visibility is restricted by the long boiler of the locomotive. The locomotive enters a left hand curve and you can't see a thing, the track just disappears. You feel like you're in a metal drum with someone beating on the outside. The wind changes direction. Coal smoke and steam blows into your face.

Up ahead is another crossing. You reach for the whistle level and blow for the crossing. Then everything changes. The locomotive crests the hill at the crossing. The engineer tells you to push in the throttle. Gravity takes over. One hundred tons of steam locomotive is now heading down hill. Your hand goes from the throttle to the brake handle.

You apply the brakes slowly like you were taught. The speed drops a little; you release the brakes. Speed begins to increase again. As you roll down the hill, up ahead you see the first tunnel. Another brake application controls your speed. The tunnel is coming closer; you release the brakes. You blow the whistle for the tunnel. The fireman is ringing the bell. You need to reduce your speed to eight miles an hour as specified in your train orders.

The track curves to the right; you have a great view of the tunnel. Then the front of the locomotive enters the tunnel. The tunnel swallows the entire locomotive. You're pitched into a dark world of noise, smoke, and steam. Slowly up ahead, you can see the other portal with daylight streaming in. As you burst out of the tunnel, the instructor tells you to open the throttle. The grade steepens here. The fireman continues to throw coal into the firebox. Up ahead is the second tunnel.

Into the second tunnel you go. It is larger then the first and has no speed restriction. The fireman is throwing coal for everything he's worth. The chuffs are echoing off the tunnel walls and the cab is filling up with smoke again.

Out of the tunnel, you enter an "S" curve. On your right is U.S. Highway 50, nicknamed the "Loneliest Road in America." The track parallels the highway. You're up in the cab, high above the cars. People stare and gawk. You're an apparition out of the past, a black fire-breathing ghost. After the shock wears off, people wave to you and you reply with a short toot on the whistle. You feel like you're the king of the road.

The locomotive continues uphill. By now, you're relaxing a little. The fireman is doing a great job; you have a full head of steam as you continue up the mountain.

Now the track heads into a narrow canyon and drops below the road. The grade is increasing and the track is curving back and forth as you continue climbing. Out of the canyon, you meet Highway 50 for a short period and then the track enters a sharp left hand curve. It's Keystone, you've been the engineer for seven miles. The instructor engineer takes over the controls to run the locomotive through the wye. This turns the locomotive getting it ready for the down hill trip.

With the locomotive turned, the instructor engineer relinquishes the seat to you. He gives you a few words of caution. Since leaving East Ely, you and a one hundred ton locomotive have come up 323 feet. That's as tall as a thirty-story building. Now that you've come up the hill you need to come down the hill—you and 200,000 pounds of steam locomotive.

Gingerly, you open the cylinder cocks, move the reverser to forward, give two toots, and give a pull on the throttle. Instantly, the locomotive starts rolling and picking up speed. You develop a whole new appreciation for gravity. It's been said that anyone can bring a locomotive up the hill, but only those who know what they're doing can bring it down the hill safely.

You leave the throttle open a little so steam enters the cylinders for lubrication. You hand feels glued to the brake handle. Under the watchful eye of the instructor engineer, you're now reversing you trip. No throttle, just brakes—apply, release, and apply again, then release again. Watch your speed!

It feels like the mileposts are flying past. But in actuality, you're only going 15 mph. Watch that speed. Set the brakes. Release the brakes. Watch your air. Back through the canyon, down past U.S. 50, back through the "S" curves, tunnel up ahead, blow your whistle, watch your speed. Pop out of the new tunnel and minutes later back through the original 1907 tunnel. The cab fills up with smoke again and you can't see a bloody thing. Pop-out back into daylight, the grade changes, now it's uphill until Schoolhouse Crossing.

Now it's past the brothels. Give a long whistle and see if the girls will come out and wave. You're on top of the world. You hit Schoolhouse, wave to Dale, push in the throttle, and get ready once more to fight gravity. You're high above Ely, tooting at anyone who waves to you.

Now it is Lackawanna crossing, you let loose with the whistle like you've been doing it your entire life-two longs, a short, and another long as you enter the crossing. The trip is coming to an end. Soon the instructor engineer will take over. Just before East Ely Junction, you bring the locomotive to a stop. The instructor engineer takes the locomotive around the East Ely wye and heads for the depot.

It has been fourteen miles. Time has sped up and then stopped. Reality has changed. Is it the 21st century or the 1900's? You took a century old iron horse up the hill and down again. You were the engineer in control of 100-tons of steam locomotive. You left from the original enginehouse following the original track through the original tunnel up the hill to the copper mine. Then it was downhill, fighting gravity all the way. It was dirty, sweaty work. It was only two hours long, but it seemed longer. During the heyday, engine crews might work sixteen hours. You shake your head, how did they do that?

You experienced what it was like to operate a steam locomotive on a mountain railroad. Through tunnels, over road crossing, blowing the whistle—it was your hand on the throttle.