There is a tradition at the Nevada Northern Railway that predates the formation of the museum: open access. Railfans relate stories about coming down on to the property in the 60's, 70's and 80's and just wandering through the buildings and taking pictures. If they did bump into an employee, the employee would take them on a tour of the grounds.
In fact, one person told a story of how he came on to the property and was taking pictures and an employee started giving him a tour. They went into Baggage Car 20 and the employee opened the conductor's desk and showed the visitor the conductor's ledger. The employee asked if the visitor wanted it and gave the ledger to the visitor. The way I know of this story is that the person who received the ledger contacted me recently and asked if the museum would like it back. I said yes and the museum received the ledger, which is now part of our collection again.
This season the museum started something new. Everyone who purchased a train ticket also got a free walking tour of the machine shop and enginehouse if they wanted it. The tours were very successful. The public enjoyed going into the machine shop and enginehouse. On most trains anywhere from a quarter to one-half of the passengers would get off the train to take the tour. One train came back to the depot with no passengers; everyone had gotten off at the enginehouse.
I should back-up here and explain the rational behind the enginehouse tours. It is one of the museum's goals to move away from people coming to Ely for just a train ride. What makes the Ely complex truly unique is that the buildings, track, equipment, and records all survived. A person can see the interplay between buildings, tracks, and equipment.
The tours of the machine shop and enginehouse show the public what it is like to maintain the railroad equipment. Currently we have steam locomotive 40 undergoing restoration. The public can get up close and personal with the locomotive. They can see the lathes that we still use to maintain our equipment. In the enginehouse we have our other locomotives all lined up and ready to start the day. The tour guide explains why the diesel locomotive replaced the steam locomotive. We show off our rotary snowplow. Occasionally while the tour group is in the enginehouse, steam locomotive 93 will come in for either water or to be put up for the end of its day. This is always a showstopper.
From the enginehouse the tour group goes towards the RIP building. After the RIP, the tour group goes to the historic equipment in the yard and listens to explanations on switching, airbrakes. and what standard gauge track is. As we go back towards the depot other people are wandering around the rail yards. Some are just looking at equipment while others are photographing it.
Finally, we end up at the depot and explain the pyramids on the hand railings. Then the tour guide will launch into his commercial message about how the museum is run by a non-profit, needs volunteers, and how purchases in the gift shop support the museum.
So what have we done here? Well, we kept the people in Ely longer. Now they will either have a meal or stay the night. We also gave them more than a train ride. We educated them about the importance of railroading in the building of the country and in their daily lives. We tried to take them back to the early 1900's to show what life was like at the beginning of the last century.
When people come to the museum when there is not a train running or a tour going we allow them walk the yards and visit the shops. After all this has been the tradition of the Nevada Northern. But this is the last year of the tradition of free access. Next year, there will be an entrance fee to go on to the grounds and into the buildings.
Why end the tradition? The principle reason is that the museum is attracting more people every year. In 1998, 1999, and 2000 museum ridership capped at 6,000 riders per year. This year our ridership is currently at 9,477 and the year isn't over yet. The ridership has grown almost 60% in four years. And this is just ridership. Comparing visitorship to ridership what we find is that for everyone who rides the train another 1.5 people visited the complex. What that means for this year is that we'll have about 25,000 visitors. If the trend continues, by 2006 we should have almost 36,000 visitors. We just can't have 36,000 people wandering through the facility without some sort of control.
To handle this amount of people we will need to define where the public can and can't go. Trails will need to be developed, interpretive signs mounted, hazards put behind barriers, and tour guides hired. Of course, all of this will cost money. And that money will come from the admission fee.
There are those who will mourn the ending of the free access tradition. To be truthful, I am one of them. Yet on the other hand, I recognize that to preserve and improve the last remaining complete standard gauge railroad facility in the country will take a great deal of money. This money will come from increased visitation. More visitors will mean the need for more safeguards. At the same time, more visitations will also mean more money for preservation projects.
The tough job ahead will be to strike the proper balance between protecting our visitors and safely showing the fascinating story of railroading. Here at the Nevada Northern we let people experience the nitty-gritty side of railroading. That is a tradition that we don't want to lose.
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Railway - Ely, Nevada