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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in 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

 


Saving Our Bacon
18 July 2007

We never seem to run out of challenges at the railroad and at times, they become nearly overwhelming. Right now, the bridge repair project is finally in progress, steam locomotive 93 is down for repairs, and steam locomotive 40 is hanging in there while carrying the load, but at ninety-seven years of age, it could go down at any moment. In the middle of all this, diesel locomotive #105 went down and diesel locomotive #109 is handling all traffic on the McGill line, but doing so while dealing with a governor problem and could fail at anytime. All of this is happening during July our prime tourist month, which equates to be our prime revenue month. Our current challenge: urgent repairs need to be made at the same time as the trains need to be running.

So how will we accomplish everything we need to do? Good question; the answer is to prioritize, work long hours, and get a few lucky breaks (which have been in short supply of late). But what will really save our bacon is the dedicated staff at the museum.

I've written about our volunteers in the past, ever praising them. I've called them our secret weapon and they are. But after the volunteers go home (as they must), it is the staff that confronts the seemingly insurmountable challenges that the museum faces on a daily basis. The staff is made up of magicians and wizards who keep the doors open and the equipment rolling.

Our challenges were there waiting for us with the donation of the railroad. Kennecott Copper Co. generously gave the community a living, breathing time capsule: fifty-six acres of land containing sixty-six buildings and structures, the original locomotives, rolling stock, and every piece of paper ever generated by the railroad. What wasn't included was the money to maintain and improve the facility; for the past twenty-three years, the major battle has been chasing the almighty buck to keep the buildings standing and the wheels rolling.

Over the course of the last five years, the museum has had the very great fortune to attract the highly motivated individuals who currently make up our staff. These individuals are generally found in the background handling the daily grind necessary to showcase this marvelous technology—steam railroading.

When I was hired as Executive Director, there were three people on the payroll who are still on the payroll today: Evva Scheafer, Sharon Tilley, and Al Gledhill.

Evva has been with the railroad for over a decade and it has been exhausting work. She not only keeps the books straight but is also the driving force behind the genesis of our wine and dinner trains. When those trains returned from their first runs at 9:00 p.m. each evening and discharged their happy customers, someone had to clean up the cars and do the dishes. This was Evva, putting in yet more hours before day was done. Through the ups and downs, when others might have given up, she was there doing her part (many parts, actually) to showcase this marvelous railroad to the public.

Sharon Tilley could be described as Evva's right arm. Sharon has done it all from working in administration and the gift shop to helping with the wine trains—Sharon has been there too. She is now on the front lines, answering visitors' questions repeatedly, always with a smile on her face. Need help? Sharon is right there ready to be of assistance.

Down at the enginehouse, there is another person who I can count on: Al Gledhill. Al too has been on the roller coaster ride called the Nevada Northern. In the early days of my tenure here, all we had was Al and one helper to keep things running. No matter what broke, he'd somehow get it fixed. Something else broke, no problem, he'd fix that too. And there were times when he'd come in at o'dark-thirty, hostle the locomotive, operate the steam locomotive, put it away, and then work on through the night so that it could go out again the next day.

A little over two years ago, I hired two young men whom I believed had incredible potential: Jason Lamb and Chris Brophy. They were hired for the shop and also to operate locomotives. Over the course of the past two years it has been pleasure to see then live up to their potential.

Jason's duties at that time were to keep the locomotives running and also operating the locomotives, either as fireman or engineer as needed. Over the past two years, Jason has made remarkable contributions to the museum and has advanced in responsibilities. He is now both the Deputy Chief Mechanical Officer and our Road Foreman of Engineers.

Jason is the only member of the operating crew who is qualified for all positions. In addition to his operational duties, Jason is also responsible for the training of all staff and volunteers. He is also improving the training program here; in fact, during a recent Federal Railroad Administration inspection, our training program passed with flying colors mainly due to his efforts. And when he isn't operating or working on training, Jason turns wrenches to keep the wheels rolling.

In just two years, Chris has moved up from being a shop helper to shop foreman. He is a hands-on type of guy. An example: since my first day here, the railroad was vexed with air brake problems. No longer-through his initiative and drive, our air brakes are now all in tip-top shape. This past winter Chris rebuilt the valve mechanism on locomotive 40 and it's a pretty safe bet that the last time the valve mechanism was lowered was over sixty years ago. He works hard to keep this ancient equipment running.

I also need to mention that both Jason and Chris are crackerjack operators as either engineers or firemen. Watching either one of them fire a steamer is like watching Michelangelo paint. They are both shovel-artists, they have the gift. And not only can they fire, but they can operate with the best of them; smooth couplings, smooth roll outs, and smooth stops—again the sure signs of artists.

Every job has a special challenge and for my wife, Joan Bassett, that special challenge is probably working as an employee of the railroad with me as her boss. Joan's title is Curator; she was my administrative assistant but proved herself even more valuable as the museum's first curator. She is working on cataloging all of the artifacts here at the museum. This is a tremendous undertaking and she'll make tremendous progress if she ever gets the time to complete the job, as her additional duties are slowing down her progress. In addition to being curator, Joan is also our membership coordinator, chief dispatcher, and also pitches in to help with the books.

Natasha Bettis has been a part of our merry little band for almost two years now. She is the Buildings and Grounds Manager, and this high falutin' title sure sounds impressive, but in reality, she is a department of one. She's the one who built our North Pole, was our firing trainer, and then found time to spray for weeds this past spring. Natasha oversees the building projects and also manages the various grants. And as if that wasn't enough, she is also a conductor and dispatcher. When push comes to shove, she can also pitch in either at the gift shop or as a server on the wine train.

Trains run on tracks; no real surprise there. Keeping our track in shape is Kurt Shaull. Track is hard, dirty work—no two ways about it. Twice a week, Kurt heads out on an extensive track inspection, literally going over every foot of the railroad that will bear trains or equipment. Then, in between inspections, there is the actual work of repairs and maintenance to be completed, and it can't be done with half measures, but properly. If it involves track, it's going to be heavy, rusty, and dirty, complete with stuck bolts and recalcitrant spikes, switches, and more. Add to the equation that there is no controlling the environment. It doesn't matter is it's hot or if it's raining or snowing, the track needs to be inspected and kept to standards. Winter presents its own challenges with the additional chores of sweeping out all of the switches and clearing out the guardrails at crossings—it all needs to be done.

Our chief wizard is Chief Mechanical Officer Marty Westland. If Marty can't figure out a way of fixing something, then it is well and truly broken. On a well-funded railroad of similar size and composition, Marty's job would be a challenge. We're not a well-funded railroad and that makes his job even more difficult. He constantly needs to balance what merely needs to be done with what truly needs to be done all without wasting time, money, or materials and all the while ensuring that the repairs are done as professionally and in as enduring a manner as possible. Marty strikes that balance day in and day out.

While performing all of those minor miracles, our chief wizard is also teaching and training staff members and volunteers on the intricacies of keeping the steamers and our antique diesels going. When Marty pulls off another one of his miracles, he usually says it was nothing.

Jared Bissen joined us last summer and is an anomaly: he would be quite happy if we never ran another steam locomotive—his love is for the diesels. You can usually find Jared around one of the diesel locomotives, either operating it or repairing it. He has a particularly challenging job. The workmen who knew the easiest ways of getting things done on these old diesel units are gone now. So Jared must figure it out for himself. His challenge is to rediscover by himself why it is easier doing a repair this way rather than that way. Along with fixing them, Jared operates the beasts too. Periodically, Jared is pulled away from his beloved diesels and fires the steamers, at which he is equally adept.

We have five incoming phone lines and a constant stream of customers walking up to the ticket office. There's a good chance that their first contact will be Gwyneth Palmer, Sales and Marketing Manager. Her bailiwick is the gift shop, the ticket office, locomotive rentals, and the specialty trains. If she has answered the question, "When is the next train?" once, she has answered it a thousand times and that's before lunch. But she answers all questions with a smile. Gwyneth, like the rest of us, is being pulled in hundreds of different directions at once. In addition to her gift shop duties, she also serves as brakeman and conductor.

Jeremy Harding came to the Nevada Northern from the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City. He brings knowledge and experience with wooden equipment and buildings; which is great because we have lots of wooden equipment and buildings that all need repairing. He is also into lettering; he made the stencils for lettering all of our boxcars. Making stencils is boring yet exacting work. After all, we are a museum and the equipment should be lettered in the original size and style. Well guess what—not every car in the series was lettered the same over the years. Thanks to Jeremy, all lettering is now standardized and helps us to look more like a railroad with pride. In addition to working in the shop, Jeremy can also be found in the cab of a steam locomotive working as either an engineer or fireman.

Keeping steamers running takes dedication and skill. From the Heber Valley Railroad we obtained one Greg Udolph. Greg works in the shop and helps keep the fleet running and is also a skilled fireman. Currently in training as a steam locomotive engineer, Greg's background in web site design and video production will be an asset to the museum. Greg will be helping on the redesign of our website once we pry the wrench out of his hands.

Brad Lester came by the enginehouse one day and asked, "How can I help?" The response was a wrench being placed in his hand, whereupon he pitched right in to help make repairs on one of the steamers. This was several months ago and after working for a few weeks, Brad had other business to attend to but promised to come back. Come he did, right when we had an opening in the track department. So now, Brad is the track foreman and is responsible for thirty miles of track. Of course these 95-degree days we're currently experiencing isn't making things any easier, but Brad's right in it getting the job done.

We've been short handed all summer. Luckily, we had the cavalry come over the hill and save the day in the personages of Amy Pescio and Mary Williams.

Amy went right into the gift shop to help Gwyneth and duly received her baptism by fire. Amy is a fast learner, which is great because we threw it at her fast and she too now answers the proverbial "When's the next train?" question a hundred times a day. Her smile and enthusiasm is contagious yet we'll be losing Amy at the end of this month as she moves to Reno to attend school. We'll miss her.

Mary is our jack-of-all-trades and goes where she's needed the most, be it the gift shop, answering phones, or organizing our 4th of July BBQ. Mary was thrown into the deep end of the pool, bobbed right to the surface, and got after it. Another fast learner, we're piling the work on, including helping me with fund raising. Her skills and attributes are ideal for this vital job at this critical time. As the Aussies' say, "No worries mate."

Yes, locomotives are down, tracks needs work, buildings need repairs, grants need to be managed, and a million-and-one other important jobs need to be done in order to keep the wheels rolling and the buildings standing. The team that is currently working at the museum is committed to keeping the place going (some people would say they need to be committed). They are the best chance for saving the bacon of the railroad. And they are our best means for not only the survival of the railroad but rather its renaissance and it is an honor to work with them.

 

 

 

 

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