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


Ghosts, Ghouls, UFOs, Trains, and Preservation
14 October 2009

It happened again, and when it does, it never ceases to amaze me, and I, of all people, should know better and not be surprised.

The second Haunted Ghost Train of the season pulled into the station at 8:53 pm last Saturday. If you weren't on the train, you missed an incredible event; we outdid ourselves, if I say so myself and we raised the bar, again. Now we need to keep it up there.

Nothing down at the railroad is an individual action; results are the combined efforts of many people over time. One of the largest improvements was our sound system. In the past the sound system either hurt your ears because you were sitting to close to it or you couldn't hear anything at all. Terry Gust donated new speakers and Steve Campbell installed the speakers. This was a major improvement but we weren't there yet. Our speaker system is a low voltage system. The power, hence sound drops the further you get away from the source. So again, we had the problem of passengers in car in one car being blown away and passengers in the second car going, "what was said?"

A Spookily Good Time!

Join us for a spookily good time

Then Bruce Palmer stepped up to the plate. He installed volume controls on each speaker and made weatherproof connections for the speaker jacks between the cars. This was another vexing problem; the speaker connections would get dirt in them and degrade the sound quality the further you got back in the train. I might not care for his choice of weatherproof containers (plastic food containers) but they work.

And this was only part of the process. Then Joe Baxter, Bruce and Rae Nell O'Donnell, our chief narrator, spent hours adjusting the individual speaker volumes. They needed to do this for a train standing still, a full train with lots of activity, i.e. people talking and a noisy steam locomotive on the point. What they came up with was a compromise, but one that works. For the first time it doesn't matter where you sit in the passenger cars, you can hear the narration in comfort. The sound on the flat car is still a little weak but, hey, its outdoors. Now we have good sound through the cars so we could tell our stories.

Just like your household, every month the museum gets bills—the electric bill, the water bill, the trash bill, etc, etc, etc—the list seems endless and on top of that we have payroll that has to be met every week. Just like you to pay these bills and to meet payroll obligations, the museum needs cash.

Traditionally it was thought that the tourist season ended with Labor Day. But oddly enough, our bills and payroll did not end with Labor Day. They kept coming every month but if the trains weren't running, the dollars weren't coming in. So what to do? In 2003, we offered two Haunted Ghost Trains; both were a smash.

The trains departed after dark and out along the tracks the ghost stories of White Pine County came alive, acted out by volunteers. Since 2003, every year more stories were added read by an on board narrator. And every year more Haunted Ghost Trains were added until this year we're up to five.

Five trains don't sound like a lot until you realize the amount of effort that goes into creating the haunting vignettes. For starters, you need people who are willing to devote five Saturday nights to standing out in the cold weather that can feature everything that Mother Nature can throw at you from blizzards to downpours to dust devils. Then there are the costumes, props and oh yes the generators for lights.

All of this is wrangled by our Chief Ghost Linda Bellander who is ably assisted by Sally Gust and Debbie Larson. Then there is the coordination of the different vignettes with stories and sound. All of stories have been written and researched in-house; some of them are based on actual historical occurrences and some of them are just made up. The stories range from the traditional—the Headless Horseman—to a maniac with a chainsaw and one from Project Bluebook, a UFO sighting in White Pine County.

Once we had the stories and an improved sound system, we needed a more consistent delivery system. Steve Campbell came to rescue again. We had an older computer and Steve recorded of the stories with sound effects. But then we discovered a new problem.

October can be chilly if not down right cold on the high desert. Years ago, pellet stoves were installed in the coaches. We had a generator on the train to provide power for the pellet stoves and the coach lights. On the coaches, light dimmers had been installed so the lights can be turned down low. For the Haunted Ghost Trains, we turn down the lights so people can see out the windows with a minimum of reflection in the glass. But the stoves and the computer were on the same circuit so when the lights were turn down, the stoves died along with the computer. The coaches were rewired to install a permanent circuit to prevent that problem.

This year the pieces came together—twenty-one vignettes, twenty-one recorded stories, sound effects and music, a sound system that worked, dedicated ghosts, ghouls, aliens with lights, and a train load of customers who were willing to be scared.

And worked it did. The train left East Ely and headed into the unknown. Stories and creepy Halloween music were played as the train headed up the tracks. As the story was being told; lo and behold, you could actually see the ghosts, ghouls, flying saucers, and aliens just outside the train windows. WATCH OUT!

So what do ghost stories have to do with preservation? Simple—it all boils down to dollars. Five Haunted Ghost Trains will carry about six hundred passengers. The activity on the weekend brings people in for the excursion trains, too. This increases gift shop sales and donations. Overall, it raises awareness of this Nevada treasure, which serves as the catalyst for raising more revenue. And this revenue is needed to fund projects across the complex.

In the shops, work continues on our very large artifacts (i.e. steam locomotives and passenger cars). Additional work is being done on our interpretation and strategic plans. We're raising the bar on how we tell our story. Across the property, buildings and utilities are being rehabilitated and improved. Work continues on keeping the grounds picked-up and weed free. And if we didn't have enough to do there is always the track—all thirty miles of it—that needs work. Running the Haunted Ghost Trains provides funding for some of these projects.

I just love it when hard work and planning coalesce; the Haunted Ghost Trains are just one success story. And last Saturday, the staff and volunteers really outdid themselves. Everything clicked. One hundred people were taken over fourteen miles of mountain railroad safely and at the same time they had an enjoyable experience. Ghosts, goblins, aliens, and UFO's were out in full force. Revenue was raised and the work of preserving this National Historic Landmark continued. It was a nice tidy package.