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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

 


Nevada Northern Railway Museum Is Alive and Kicking
19 November 2008

 

In 2008, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum was hit with a perfect storm. Starting in the last quarter of 2007, steam locomotives 93 & 40 were taken out of service for repairs. The Adverse branch was also taken out of service for repairs. The Keystone branch had a series of slow orders. And the north wall of the material storage building was blown down. Locomotive 204 had prime mover problems. Locomotive 105 had truck problems. Locomotive 109 had governor problems. Then in the summer of 2008, we were hit with record gas prices. Then the economy tanked and just when I thought it couldn't get any worse the State of Nevada announces the closure of the East Ely Depot Museum. And as luck would have it, the story was picked up by the AP and it even made USA Today. The East Ely Depot Museum and the Nevada Northern Railway Museum are both on the railroad grounds. So people made the assumption that the railroad was shutting down. Nothing could be further than the truth.

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is open and working hard on lots of projects involving locomotives, track, and buildings costing millions of dollars. This is a scrappy community that loves this railroad. Since being taken over by the community twenty-four years ago, the railroad has had its ups and downs but has always managed to survive. I can state unequivocally that the railroad is in the best shape since its founding in 1984. And no, I'm not sniffing the steam oil or blowing smoke.

Let's start with locomotive 93; she went down with bearing problems in late 2007. When we began repairs last year, it was going to be the same way we had always done it—just enough to get the locomotive running again and out the door. But it was soon evident that if we were going to do the repairs that way it would be a fool's errand. The locomotive was nearly one hundred years old and, frankly, the running gear was worn out.

It was time to do away with our mantra of the past; this time there would be no baling wire and bubble gum repairs. We were committed to a revolutionary concept: it was time to make repairs that would last for decades. After all, locomotive 93 is turning 100 years old in January 2009; we wanted her in tiptop shape for another century of steaming.

The project has taken longer and cost more than was initially thought that it would. But if you have ever worked on something old, you know the more you get into it the more you find wrong. And that's what we found. The deeper we went into the running gear the more that we found that needed to be made right. The problems weren't just the axles. Frankly, it was just about everything concerning the running gear. Considering the locomotive is nearly a century old this isn't a real big surprise.

The axles are complete. The new axles have the refurbished wheel centers on them with new crankpins and refurbished tires. We still have some additional work to do but the axles will be back by the start of December. Then we put the locomotive back together. She'll be steaming by her 100th birthday, January 17, 2009.

The repairs that are being made will last for decades. Remember, two of the original axles were still under the locomotive. They were head stamped 12-30-08, as in 1908. With modern steel and a light schedule of operation, how long will new the axles last? Pick a number: 50 years, 75 years, or 100 years? And locomotive 93 doesn't need boiler work until 2017.

The locomotive tires may look brand new but they have been refurbished. They are now installed back on the axles.

Locomotive 40 went down with pilot truck problems. In January, we found out that 93 had cracked axles. At the same time, we managed to get 40's pilot truck repaired and 40 steamed for the first photo shoot. Once we found a cracked axle on locomotive 93, it was decided to test the axles on locomotive 40. The testing revealed that two of her three axles were cracked too. According to federal regulations, cracks condemn a locomotive. This took locomotive 40 out of service just before the photo shoot. Could have waited until locomotive 93 was repaired before we tested locomotive 40? Yes, we could have, but that course of action was deemed irresponsible. Our job is to protect the artifacts that were left in our care so we could pass them on to the next generation. Once the repairs to locomotive 93 are done, we'll begin the repairs to locomotive 40. She will get the full treatment too.

The combination of no steam and high fuel prices was a one-two punch to our ridership and it hurt. Our weekday ridership remained strong, but the weekend dropped off like a rock. Most of our weekend riders come from Las Vegas. Without steam and with high gas prices they stayed home.

It's easy to focus on the steam locomotives, but we did a lot of work this summer. Our biggest project was the Club 50 crossing on US Highway 93. The old track and pavement was taken out and new track and paving was installed. The project isn't quite done yet; we still have lights and gates to install.

Along with the Club 50 project, we rehabbed the track from McGill Junction through the Club 50 crossing up the hill to Hiline Junction. Dennis Winger and Leonard Cassieri were in charge of that project. As part of this work, money was spent to repair the track from Hiline Junction to East Ely Junction. The mainline is currently open to MP 130 (about ½ mile from the Club 50 crossing). This spring work will continue: the track to McGill Junction will be finished and the McGill wye put in service. This opens miles of formerly unused track to operation. Meanwhile work was also being done on the Keystone branch. Hundreds of ties were installed. All of the slow orders on this branch were removed.

Next year, we'll be able to access $1,000,000 dollars to continue the investment in our track. Work will continue on the Keystone Branch, the mainline, and the Adverse branch.

On the motive power front, we rebuilt the prime mover in 204. All sixteen cylinders received new minipacks. A minipack consists of a refurbished cylinder, piston, piston rings, and valves. Locomotive 109's governor was repaired as well as some water leaks. Locomotive 105 is still out of service but should be in operation for the photo shoots.

This past summer, in addition to locomotive repairs and track repairs, we also did building repairs and rehabilitation. We have a beautiful ADA public restroom next to the depot. The transportation building, airbrake building, carpenter shop, engine house, material storage building, and the McGill Depot all had work being done on them this year. Literally hundreds of thousands of dollars were invest in the buildings this year.

Work was also done on the historic rolling stock. Caboose 3, which turns 100 next year during the February photo shoots, was repainted this summer by volunteers. It will be operating during the photo shoots. The tank car frame is done and we're in the process of putting the tank back on the car.

Work continues on the McGill Depot.


Gas prices have come down but the economy in Las Vegas is bad, which means the economy in the State of Nevada is bad. This led to the announcement by the state that the East Ely Depot Museum could close. The East Ely Depot Museum is a state agency that controls only two buildings on the rail complex—the depot and the freight barn. After the announcement was made, the deeds that gave the depot to the state were reviewed and produced this surprise: the state can't close the depot building. A clause was put in the deeds that states, "…the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation [has] the right to perpetually use the East Ely Depot…for the purpose of selling tickets…and for any other business or activities…."

The East Ely depot will remain open-run either by the state or by the Foundation. The East Ely Depot Museum may close, but the important thing is that the depot will remain open for the public.

So how are we sitting? Ridership is down, but donations are up an astounding 68% so far this year. Our overall operating revenue is down just 5%. Yet at the same time, our grant income for the year is an astounding $2,400,000. Next year grant funds will be about $1,500,000 and we have $1,354,950 in grants pending.

To recap, locomotive 93 will be operating by January 17. Locomotive 40 will be repaired. Locomotives 204 and 109 are in service and 105 should be operating by February. Operating money is tight and ridership is down, but grant money is way up. We have sixteen miles of track in service, including a section that hasn't seen a train for almost ten years. We have a new road crossing almost done and lots of work was done on the buildings. We have 2,335 due-paying members; every state in the union is represented. And our volunteer program is very healthy with over 150 volunteers.

The Nevada Northern Railway continues to thrive because of the combined efforts of thousands of people. How can you help? First, if you're not a member of the railroad become one, today! Memberships start at $15 a year. Your membership helps in innumerable ways. If you're already a member, then give a gift of membership this holiday season to a friend or grandchild.

When you hear a person say that the railroad is closing, correct them. Send them to our website or have them call me. If you hear a rumor, contact me directly and I'll give you the straight information and I'll make the information available to everyone.

We have accomplished a phenomenal amount of work. We still have a phenomenal amount of work that needs to be done. As I look ahead to 2009, I can state that we'll be steaming again. Passengers will be boarding Nevada Northern Railway trains from the East Ely depot just as they have been doing for the past 101 years.

 

 

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