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


Telling the Story
15 July 2009
by Steve Bechtold

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum has picked up a nationally organized battle cry for museums and historic spots. That cry is, "This place matters." Well of course it does, but the first question that pops into anyone's head is, "Why?" In asking this, I am reminded of my child who always wants to know the "Why" of the world. Unfortunately for him, and I, "Because I said so," was never acceptable.

One thing that has often been missing from the Nevada Northern Railway Museum has been the story. This is not because no one wants to tell it, but rather because of the simple fact that it takes tons of time and energy to just run trains and keep them in good repair. That is a whole different story. The story of the Nevada Northern is not a story of trains, or of cars and locomotives and the associated buildings. The story is simply about people. Without the people, it wouldn't be history (or even her-story) and most of all none of this stuff would really matter at all.

So, how is a story in a museum told? In the late 1940s and 50s a gentleman by the name of Freeman Tilden, a playwright, began to write about National Parks when he "tired of writing fiction." He was not trained nor schooled in working in parks and museums; he was a "happy amateur" with a love for the real meaning of it all. The interesting thing about Mr. Tilden is that he was able to boil down the most effective means of delivering a park or museum message to people—all people—in six simple principles that are as true today as they were in the 1950s. These principles became the cornerstone of museum interpretation. Interpretation is the key to visitor understanding. Visitor understanding in turn is the key to preservation and conservation (and of course funding). Without understanding, nobody cares as to why anything matters. The greatest tool and often the least expensive goal of any quality museum is effective interpretation.

Volunteers and Staff

Telling the story requires dedicated individuals (from left to right): volunteers Steve Bechtold, Nolan Bechtold, Lou Bergandi, Louie Bergandi, and museum staff Al Gledhill and Skip Allen standing in front of locomotive 93 in the enginehouse.


When introduced as working as an interpreter for parks and museums I am often asked, "What language do you speak?" My reply is simple, "I speak history, mostly a cultural dialect with a smattering of natural." People look at me like I am from Mars. I then say, that, "I enlighten people," and they really think that I am one rock shy of an ore carload. So I now simply say, "I am a storyteller." Then they smile, everyone loves a good story.

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum's story only begins in White Pine County, in the copper mines at Ruth, in the McGill Smelter, in Ely and in East Ely. It continues and gains strength as the story of fathers and sons and of mothers and daughters. It is the story of immigrants from all walks of life. It is the story of ranchers and farmers who could easily move their products to market. It is the story of every one of us trying to improve our life through opportunity offered in the tremendous growth of White Pine County at the beginning of the last century.

On a larger level, the Nevada Northern Railway is the story of a nation growing. It is the story of a people finally being so connected, so intertwined, that a fantastic fabric of society would be woven as the result of the building of railroads. That fabric came to be known as being American. Our society today is the result of great deeds done by ordinary people using the tool of the railroad in many ways, other than the obvious, to improve their lives. Up until the 1950s, if you needed it, it probably came by rail. The mail moved by rail, groceries moved by rail (there was even a rule in the 1940s that all cars bound for points on the Nevada Northern that carried cigarettes and alcohol had to inspected prior to movement!), new automobiles moved by rail, as did lumber to build communities, anything that could possibly be imagined moved on the great steel roads of the nation. If you personally didn't build it or grow it, it came by rail, and then maybe even the supplies to build it or grow it came by rail anyway.

When the Federal Government really got into the road building business in the 1950s with the Interstate Highway System, railroads began to lose their daily contact with the public and the personal side of railroading was soon forgotten. By the 1970s, it was thought that railroads were close to their death knell. Then the oil crisis of the mid 1970s brought a resurgence that has steadily brought railroads back to profitability.

Unfortunately, they took on another look, an impersonal more bottom line look. Gone were the station agents in small towns who had daily contact with residents. Gone was the once vast passenger rail network, it had been boiled down into one agency with limited stops and service. Railroads today are often seen as a nuisance by a twittering public who are held up by yet another train blocking the road. Heck there isn't even a conductor in a caboose to wave to anymore. Impersonal? I'd say so.

This summer, we at the museum, have begun working to generate an interpretive plan to tell the story of the people impacted by the railroad. This is a huge endeavor and great care must be taken so that we "get it right." There is nothing worse than no interpretation as bad interpretation. Visitors to the museum have already begun to see changes. We are installing new exhibits and refreshing old ones to tell the story of the people who made the railroad. A friend once described the museum to me as a "collection of old rusty junk." It is up to us to humanize the story, as all of that "rusty junk" represents the lives of our people, this county, and this nation in a period of incredible growth and community building. It is the story of the formation of a closely connected American Society that we still live with today.

Why does this place of all places matter? It matters because this is probably the last wholly complete place in the nation where people of today can touch (and not look through a glass case at) the people of yesterday. It is here that they can begin to understand just how much the people of the railroad (and the people of White Pine County) changed the lives of us all. These people just happen to be the fathers, sons, uncles, cousins, mothers, and daughters of White Pine County. This story might have been told from any other place in the nation. But it is not; we are the last unique spot that it can be told from. It is their story, it is our story. It is up to us to tell it and do our best to tell it accurately. It is up to us to honor their work, sacrifices, successes, and failures. Authentic interpretation is the goal of any credible museum. When visitors leave, they want to leave understanding what they have just seen and experienced. The greatest payoff for anyone in interpretation is when suddenly the eyes of a guest light up and they exclaim, "OH! I get it! Yes, of course this place matters!"