It looms over the entire complex and I dare say it was the largest pigeon coop in Ely. I'm talking about the coaling tower. It could be called our signature piece except for the fact the original depot is right across the tracks from the coaling tower and the water tower loams over the coaling tower.
It would be a good idea at this point to go back and explain the function of the coaling tower. During the heyday of steam locomotives, they either burned one of three fuels-wood, coal, or oil. Wood did not last too long because it produced only half of the heat of coal. (There is a beautiful locomotive still in working order that does have a tie to the Nevada Northern and it is a wood burner. It is the Eureka, built by Baldwin in 1875 for the Eureka & Palisade Railroad. Mark Requa, who was the General Manager of that railroad came to Ely to see is he could extend the Eureka & Palisade to Ely. For a variety of reasons that was not practical, so Mr. Requa built the Nevada Northern.) Oil was another popular fuel for steam locomotives but it was not used to the extent as coal was.
Coal was king when it came to steam locomotives. It was by far the most popular fuel but it did have its drawbacks. One for the drawbacks was getting it into the tender of the locomotive. This was usually accomplished with some sort of coal tower or tipple. You needed to get the coal higher than the tender so gravity could be used to fill the tender. This was accomplished two principle ways. One way was to build a ramp that ran up over the coal tipple. Then you simply pushed a loaded coal car up the ramp and unloaded it. There were a couple of problems with this system. Remember you needed to get the coal higher than coal tender behind the locomotive. The tender of locomotive 93 is a good twelve feet off the ground. You need gravity to dump the coal into the tender so you have to build your coal tipple so the bottom of it is at least fourteen feet off the ground. Now this is just the bottom of the coal tipple, of course you want to store some coal into it. That means you need to build a lot higher than fourteen feet. So now you want the top of the coal tipple to be at least twenty or more feet high and then you build your track on top of it. That means your track is some twenty plus feet up in the air and trains are not known for their hill climbing abilities. A steep grade for a train is 4%. That means your train can climb four feet in one hundred feet. So to get to the top of the coal tipple you need a track that is at least five hundred feet long. You need to build the coal tipple strong enough not only to store the coal but also to support the weight of loaded coal cars and a steam locomotive. As you can imagine this was an expensive proposition and it took a lot of room.
The other solution was the coaling tower. This is what the Nevada Northern built in East Ely. Our coaling tower is a concrete structure that includes a wooden coal tipple and sand house. On the north side of the coal tower is a ramp where the loaded coal cars were unloaded over a grate into a hopper. Buckets then took the coal from this hopper to another set of buckets that took the coal to the top of the tower and filled the coal tipple. Then when an engine needed coal it would pull up under the coal tipple, pull down the coal chute and fill up the tender. This was the system that Nevada Northern used for years. After the end of steam on the railroad, it appears that the coal tower was turned into a sand tower for diesel locomotives. The concrete coal tipple is filled with sand along with the loading hopper. Then the entire works were abandoned in place.
Fast forward to 2004 and we now have a problem that is getting worse. For the steam powered excursion trains we are dumping our coal on the ground. We scoop the coal up with a front-end loader climb a ramp and dump it into the tender of 93. The problem we have is that in scooping up the coal off the ground we also scoop up dirt and rocks. The fireman tries to pick out the dirt and rocks but is not always successful. So the dirt and rocks end up in the firebox and cause clinkers, not a good thing.
One of our locomotive renters noticed that this was a poor system to say the least and he offered a solution: build a concrete coal pad in the yard to store the coal on. He also offered the money for the pad. This led from just a pad and developed into a three-sided concrete bunker with a concrete floor. Plans were drawn up, RFP's were sent out, and we were all set to construct a concrete bunker. But then, a funny thing happened. A couple of volunteers and staff started to take a closer look at the coaling tower. What would it take to get the tower back into operation? Good question.
Well if there was a chance that the tower could operate, why build a coalbunker? But was the tower operable? To find out the answer, we needed to clean and examine everything; this was a lot easier said than done.
All of the windows in the tower had been broken out and the pigeons had moved in and had lived there for years. To start the investigation everything would have to be cleaned up. Malcolm Mackey and his son Charles came to Ely to help. Charles is an electrician. Well before anything could be done, the control room needed to be mucked, out and this where Malcolm and Charles started. Once the debris was removed, a close examination of the power panels could be done. And this is where the first problem was located, an intermittent glowworm. This was a special glowworm. There was an electrical box very close to a piece of conduit and in the gap between them there was a little red glowing worm. It was electricity leaking out and jumping the gap. Charles measured the leak and it was over five hundred volts. The first step was to kill power to the building, which was done.
Then Malcolm and Charles brought new power into the building and started getting the lights and light switches working. Upon having light, a new problem appeared, the lower coal bin was filled with water. A pump was rented and the lower coal bin was pumped out leaving an unknown depth of sludge.
During this time two things were realized. If we were serious about getting the coaling tower back into service, it would have to be sealed from the public and pigeons. Sealing the building is easier said than down. The windows are difficult to get to. But screens were made for all of the windows and the screens were mounted. Not having a fear of heights was a must.
While the screens were being mounted wheel barrel after wheel barrel of pigeon guano was being removed from the structure. The idea was also kicked around of the museum starting a new product line, Coal Tower Guano. After much discussion, it was decided that we'd pass on the new product.
So now the control room is cleaned up. The electricity in the building is safe. The building is secured from the public and pigeons. There is still a lot of work to be done but a good start was made. Our next steps are getting the sludge out of the lower coal pit, cleaning the sand out of the loading hopper, and emptying the upper coal tipple of sand. Once this is done we will be in a better position to examine the entire mechanism and make an intelligent decision on whether to put the coal tower back into service or just use it as a static display.
Special thanks go the following individuals, who also helped on the project: Lou and Louie Bergandi, Kurt Dietrich, Don Hepler, Nathan Liebsack, Malcolm and Charles Mackey, Charles Peartree, and David Turner.
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Railway - Ely, Nevada