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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in the Saturday edition of the Ely Times 
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the White Pine Historical Foundation, operator of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. He can be reached at the museum (775) 289-2085 or e-mail: info@nnry.com

 


Why Preserve?
02 November 2002


This past summer I had the opportunity to conduct walking tours of the Museum. It was during the course of these tours someone asked, ĎWhy preserve the railroad and yard?í Iíve been reflecting on that question since it was asked.

There are two reasons. Frankly, without railroads civilization as we know it would not exist. Secondly, the Nevada Northern and Ely are intertwined; you canít have one without the other; the railroad reflects Ely and Ely reflects the railroad.

At the turn of the millennium, the railroad industry and all of the railroad museums in the world missed their biggest chance, of all time, to publicize themselves. We should have declared ourselves the invention of the millennium! Thatís right. The foremost invention in 1,000 years (and no, Iím not sniffing the steam oil.) On the surface, it might appear to be a pretty outrageous claim, but I can substantiate it.

First, think about how, we as humans move across the planet. Since our earliest beginnings as a race, until the first steam locomotive what was the fastest a human could go? Our top speed running is what, 6 or 7 miles per hour? And how long can we keep that up? And how much can we carry running? Answers, not very long and not very much. Then we domesticated the horse. Great! Yet there were still limitations on speed and what we could carry. Again the answers were not very long and not very much. So for thousands of years the top speed of the human race was the top speed of a horse. From the time of the Pharaohs to Napoleon not much changed, and then came the railroads.

It may look like just two pieces of rusting rail, but the railroad changed civilization.

Starting in the early 1830ís railroads were built in England and the United States. And for the first time on this planet humanity can go faster than a horse for sustained distances. We can carry people and goods at speed for sustained distances. (As a side note, it was believed that if people traveled faster than 25 miles per hour they would die from asphyxia because they could not breath!)

This transformed civilization. Up until the railroads most people never traveled farther than a days journey from where they were born. With the railroad, millions of people traveled from one side of the continent to the other. Even the Nevada Northern Railway carried over six million passengers from 1905 until its last run.

Then there are the goods transported by the railroads. Everything that civilization needs goes by rail. Without the railroads there would not be cities. How would you feed, clothe, and shelter millions of people without the railroads?

In 1840, there were only 6,500 freight cars in service. In ten years the number is over 30,700. By 1860 over 100,000 freight cars are rolling on rails and they are carrying 3.2 billion-ton-miles of freight. By 1870, the transcontinental railroad is built linking both coasts of the United States. There are now 300,000 freight cars carrying 10 billion-ton-miles of freight.

By 1880, fifty years of intense railroading delivers 32.3 billion-ton-miles of freight in over 500,000 freight cars. At the turn of the century railroads deliver 141.1 billion-ton-miles of freight in over 1.3 million freight cars. That is our past, but the present is just as exciting.

As I sit here typing away at my computer, there is a good chance that the electricity was generated in a coal-fired power plant that is hundreds of miles away from the coal mines. Today a coal train may be over a mile long hauling over 1.2 million-ton-miles of coal by itself. Merchandise from around the world crosses the country in containers. Automobiles, oil, industrial chemicals, grain, lumber; just about any item you can think of is moved by rail.

This is just part of the story. The real exciting part of the story is the how. As the trains became bigger, how did they stop them? Without radios and cell phones, how did the crew in the engine communicate with the crew in the caboose? As trains became heavier, how were the bridges, rail, and locomotives designed? Why is a brakeman called a brakeman? Without airplanes and satellite photos or even jeeps, how were the routes laid out? There are hundreds of questions just like these, which tell a story, a story that is worth preserving and sharing with our visitors.

So when visitors come to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, it might appear that weíre just playing with trains. When in fact, we are the custodians of the past millenniumís greatest invention, the railroad. It is our responsibility to preserve and educate our visitors as to the importance of the railroads in the development of civilization. We just canít help it, if we have a smile on our face.

 

 


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