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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in the Friday 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 ext. 7 or e-mail: director@nnry.com

 


Getting Ready—Cleaning and Painting
05 November 2004


 

I recently filled out a grant application; on it was a typical question. The question asked me to describe the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. I've answered this question many times but after my recent trip to Colorado riding on tourist trains, the question took on new meaning.

The short answer is that we are a fifty-six acre complex with fifty surviving buildings and structures of which forty-seven are historic. The Nevada Northern Railway rolling stock collection consists of three steam locomotives, eight diesel locomotives, a steam powered rotary snowplow, a steam powered wrecking crane, eight passenger cars, and over fifty fright cars. What makes the collection unique is that 99% of the collection is original to the Nevada Northern. Then there is the paper record. The paper records of the railroad include payroll records, employee records, building plans, and locomotive blueprints just to mention a few.

But this is not what the general public sees and perhaps if one of the more interesting challenges facing the museum. When the public comes to the museum, they see the trains and they especially want to see the steam locomotives. Because of this desire by the public, a majority of the museum's resources are channeled to keeping the steam locomotives operating. But it doesn't have to be this way, as pointed out by two of the museums volunteers--the Greens. The Greens live in Reno and spent a week in Ely volunteering at the museum. Where most of the volunteers want to work in train service, the Greens spend their time taking care of some of the smaller buildings. What follows is their story on their experience in Ely this past summer.

 

I think that very few would argue with the statement that most people who visit the Railway Museum come to view and to ride the trains; and not just any train, but especially one pulled by a steam engine. What the visitors see however is more than what they came for; it is instead a huge complex of trains, tracks, and buildings that is not found at historic railroads around the country. In fact the first view of the Museum new arrivals generally see driving down 11th Street is not the trains but the old East Ely Depot with the coal and water towers in the background highlighted against a vivid blue sky (at least in the summer!)

Because of the overriding importance of steam trains--coupled with the financial and labor requirements to maintain them in a safe operating condition--much of the money and volunteer efforts expended by the museum are directed toward the engines and the rolling stock. It's hard to fault this allocation scenario since without the trains there would be a drastically reduced flow of visitors to the Museum and therefore reduced justification for its continued existence. Present FRA regulations require more stringent periodic boiler inspections than were required in the past, and they can be horribly expensive to perform.

While this plan is economically necessary, it has the side effect of routing most of the volunteers toward work on the trains themselves and tends to neglect the huge investment the Museum has in its properties. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has little regard for buildings and other infrastructure exposed to the elements whether they are historically important or not, and without any tender loving care many of the buildings are suffering the effects of her disregard.

When Kennecott Copper ceased operations in 1983, they essentially walked away from the entire rail system and 56-acre Ely yards leaving it as a frozen picture of railroad operations at that time. I was born in Michigan where all the relics of early pioneer life had long since succumbed to rot and decay. It was possible to visit restored sites like the old fort on the Straits of Mackinaw, but it was always known that these were not the real thing; they were only re-creations. Here in the West, where the dry climate allows buildings to stand for a century or more before falling prey to decay and destruction, it is possible for one to see the actual buildings and equipment used long ago.

However wonderful the climate is for preservation, it doesn't preserve wood and metal indefinitely: dry rot, solar destruction and rust eventually gain the upper hand. Many of the old buildings at the East Ely yards are on the verge of requiring expensive repair if they are to be preserved. I'm a great believer in sound roofs. If a building has a good roof, the likelihood of its survival is increased greatly. Unfortunately many of the old building roofs have not been repaired in years and require immediate attention if the buildings are to remain in reasonable condition. Paint of course is the savior of both roofs and walls, but requires someone to apply it.

My wife and I first became interested in the necessity of preserving some of the old buildings when we visited the Museum several years ago and noticed a small building that had been moved from the yard and been dumped temporarily near the depot until it could be set up in a permanent location near the Transportation Building. Thinking of roofs, as I am wont to do, I noticed the metal roof was rusted, but could be salvaged with some elbow grease applied toward sanding and painting. We therefore decided to tackle those jobs the following year when the building was scheduled to be moved to its new permanent location.

Our Executive Director certainly has a thousand more jobs than he has money or personnel to complete and the building had not been moved when we arrived to work on it this year (i.e., 2004). Not lacking available buildings to work on, we directed our efforts to another structure in the yard, a small building used by the coach cleaners and car repairmen.

Sanding, scraping, and painting are certainly not high-tech jobs, and even my wife and I feel qualified to handle them. I'm happy to say that, as a result of our efforts, the roof and outside walls have a new coat of paint, the door has been at least boarded-up to prevent rain and snow from entering the building, and the window will be glazed and ready to install next year. Is the building finished now? Hardly--we've managed to stabilize the outside, but have plans to clean up the inside and restore it to a condition it might have been found in during its "glory days."

Before attacking those tasks however, we feel a desire to save some of the other structures from encroaching decay. Our next task (at least to our present way of thinking) is a small building located right next to the tracks where the outbound trains stop for switching while on their way to Keystone. Passengers have an excellent view of the building as they wait for the switch to be thrown, and the scene would provide a much better impression of the operation with a clean, freshly painted building.

There are a lot of further possibilities to explore; in addition to simply preserving what the Museum has inherited (a necessary first step), there is the interesting possibility of developing interpretive displays involving these building that would allow visitors to walk about the Museum and gain a better appreciation of life in an early 1900s rail yard in remote Nevada. If you feel the goal of historic preservation is important, your assistance would mean a great deal. Even if you don't feel qualified to replace boiler tubes or repair injector pumps in vintage steam engines, there are plenty of tasks that are within your capabilities. Consider a few hours of your time when you are in the area.

 

This past year the buildings of the museum are beginning to receive the attention that they deserve. The year started off with the Engineer's Building receiving a new roof. This roof will help preserve the structure. The McGill Depot received emergency repairs to its roof. In the near future, the building will receive a new roof and be made weather tight. The enginehouse/machine shop building continues to be the focus of an intense effort. Windows have been replaced, overhead doors repaired and the entire structure has been examined to develop a plan to stabilize the structure. Construction on the building will begin in the near future. The airbrake building's roof suffered wind damage this fall. Volunteers and staff members repaired it.

The coaling tower was cleaned out, made safe and is now being evaluated to see if it can be put back to service. The scale house was adopted by the Rotary Club and has received a new door and windows. It too will receive a coat of paint. Then there is the building the Greens painted. My personal favorite is the RIP building; over 600 windows were repaired recently. The building now goes from looking abandoned to useful. Of course, with any project, there is an upside and a downside. The new windows really point out how dirty the original windows are. If you know of someone who does windows, send them our way.

Last year the Ely Lions Club cleaned up and painted the car inspector's building that is on the east side of the yard. This was the first building painted after I became Executive Director. There are plenty of other buildings that need to be scrapped and painted. If you're looking for a project, we have plenty. With the Centennial Celebration scheduled for September 2006, there is a lot of work that needs to be done, come join us.

 

 


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