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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

 


Still Steaming and Open!
15 October 2008

 

On October 8, the Ely Times front-page headline was "State to Close East Ely Railroad Museum after $1.4 million Renovation." The article went on to say that "the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum is at risk of being closed by the state [because of] state budget cuts wrought by economic problems…" and continues with the statement that; "If that happens, the museum's collection could be moved to Carson City or Las Vegas." Here's a quote from a different news source: "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."—Mark Twain and the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.

So what is going on? First of all, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum is NOT closing. We are the museum that is responsible for the other sixty-four buildings and structures on the complex, the steam and diesel locomotives, the rolling stock, the track, and the historic steam powered excursion trains. It is the East Ely Depot Museum, which is owned by the State of Nevada, that MAY close.

Having two museums on one railroad in the same city is confusing. So why are there two museums? The Nevada Northern Railway Museum was formed by the City of Ely and the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation (a private non-profit Nevada corporation) in 1984. Its purpose was to accept the incredible donation made by Kennecott to the community: the Nevada Northern Railway East Ely Shop Complex with sixty-six buildings, along with thirty miles of track and all the power and rolling stock.

The donation was in itself a dichotomy; this national treasure was being given to the community by the principle employer of community who, at the same time, was closing down their operations that made the donation possible.

The closure dried up all of the once available money in the community. With minimal financial resources on tap, the community was looking for help to develop the complex and draw tourist dollars to the depressed area.

In 1985, the Nevada Division of State Parks was asked if it was interested in purchasing the complex as a means of keeping it open and operating, with the resources of the state backing it. An evaluation of the site by State Parks determined (correctly) that millions of dollars would need to be invested in the site before it could be operated in a manner attractive to the public. This money would have to come from the legislature. At the time, it was believed that this just wasn't possible. After all, the legislature had refused to fund the purchase of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad roundhouse in Carson City on numerous occasions. The end result was that the building was destroyed and a piece of Nevada history irrevocably lost.

Steam locomotive 93 is in front of the East Ely Depot at the Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark. There are two museums: the East Ely Depot Museum operated by the State of Nevada and the locally operated Nevada Northern Railway Museum. The state has proposed that the East Ely Depot Museum be closed because of budget issues. The plans will not affect the adjoining Nevada Northern Railway Museum and its popular train rides on vintage steam equipment.

With State Parks out of the picture, the community approached the Nevada Division of Museums and History. Negotiations ensued and the result was the deeding of the depot and the freight barn to the state as a gift in 1990. The legislature then appropriated $280,000 for the initial restoration of the depot. Included with the depot was the transfer of the corporate records of the Nevada Northern Railway that were in that structure. These records date from the inception of the railroad in 1905 to its closure in 1984; one of the most complete collections of records of any closed—or possibly still operating—railroad in the country. In April 1992, the East Ely Depot Museum opened to the public.

Negotiations continued with the state on deeding the rest of the complex to it, but hit a snag over issues created by state budget limitations. Foundation board member Bob Nichols said, "There's no purpose to give it [the railroad] to the state if they have no more money than we have."

Discussions broke down in 1992. The result was now two museums sharing the complex side by side: the East Ely Depot Museum and the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.

Now, eighteen years later, the state is in a budgetary crisis and the East Ely Depot Museum is on the chopping block. With 20/20 hindsight, it would appear that the depot and the freight depot should never have been deeded to the state. But since 1990, the state has invested over $2.4 million in those two buildings. Both buildings have received foundation work, utility upgrades, and new roofs.

During this same time period, against the staggering odds, the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, managers of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, flourished. We were able to raise and invest almost $3.2 million into the remaining sixty-four buildings of the complex. Then we raised an additional $7.5 million that was invested in the locomotives, rolling stock, right-of-way infrastructure, and track. This work by the Foundation included a re-tube of both steam locomotives, overhauling our three diesel locomotives, reconstruction of three road crossings, and saved both the engine house and McGill Depot from certain collapse and permanent loss. And as a couple of plums, we received National Historic Landmark status in September 2006. National Historic landmark status is the highest honor the federal government can bestow on a museum or property. And in 2008, we won recognition as the best museum in rural Nevada!

And we aren't sitting still. Currently, locomotive 93 is undergoing a complete (and very expensive) running gear rebuild. The axles that we are replacing were head stamped 12/30/08, as in 1908. The new axles will once again be head stamped 08, as in 2008. When the job is done, the Nevada Northern Railway will be operating under steam power for yet another century. And once that job is complete, we'll be starting the same extensive repairs on steam locomotive 40.

I should mention too that our support base has been growing. Currently we have 2,332 dues paying members with at least one member in every state of the union and from three foreign countries. Our volunteer base has increased and now stands at over 150 volunteer workers.

I can state without qualification or exaggeration that the Foundation and the railroad are in the best shape ever since the Foundation was formed and we received the railroad back in 1984. The Foundation has proved beyond any doubt that it is a good steward of this national treasure.

We've been successful because of our unique structure. We are a private non-profit corporation that is in partnership with the City of Ely. This allows us to fund raise by seeking private sector grants, donations, and members. At the same time, because of our government ties, we're able to access government grants and programs. It's the best of both worlds.

Bill Withuhn, Curator, Smithsonian Institution said it best: "The Nevada Northern Railway and Museum is not only a unique treasure of Nevada's, it's a unique National treasure for all Americans. Across the country, those who honor our national legacies won't throw away National treasures. We all, every one of us, stand on the shoulders of those who built America before us, and we can't forget that."

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is vibrant and growing. In the past, it has been through some pretty tough times, yet it has prevailed and grown. It is ironic that now it is the East Ely Depot Museum that is in trouble, the property that we gave away eighteen years ago. Back then it appeared that the state that would be stronger of the two organizations. Now the tables have turned. The reality is that the local resources are in a better position to preserve the railroad and make our dreams come true.

The closure of the East Ely Depot Museum is at this point only a proposal; no firm decisions have been made. The status won't be known until the end of the legislature session in March 2009 unless Governor Gibbons convenes a special session, as he has been reported to be considering. Any legislative session held now, during the worst of economic times, would no doubt result in a great number of budgetary reductions and outright closures throughout Nevada.

At a recently held Foundation management board meeting, we adopted the position that the ideal course of action is for the state to keep the museum open under their auspices. In support of that course of action, the Foundation is writing a letter to the state requesting a continuation of our current arrangement, if possible.

It is too soon to know what the future holds for the East Ely Depot Museum. We can, however, be certain that trains will continue running on the Nevada Northern Railway as they have been doing for over a century. And we can be equally certain that the locomotives, rolling stock, and equipment are not going anywhere. All of it will continue to be housed right here as it has been for the past century. And we have no doubt that the depot and the freight barn will somehow remain open—as a part of the Nevada Northern Railway.

 

 

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