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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 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

 


Facing the Future
15 December 2006

Our railroad heritage is facing a very serious threat: it is disappearing, leaving nothing for the future. The skills and the know-how to keep the steamers steaming are in danger of becoming extinct. If we do not address the problem now, we will lose that heritage forever.

Here at the museum, we are working hard to preserve the knowledge by recruiting young men and women and teaching them the skills necessary to continue operating and maintaining steam locomotives. Why is this necessary? Let me share with you a recent experience of mine.

I was invited to be a guest speaker at a railroad history symposium. There were over three hundred attendees. While waiting for my turn to speak, I sat in the audience listening to the other presentations. Even when some of the presentations were not in my particular field of involvement, I found them interesting. It was obvious that all of the presenters had a passion for their subject matter, which made it interesting for me. Unfortunately, sitting next me was a teenage boy and he was bored out of his mind. He actually fell asleep and started snoring.

When it was my turn to speak, I stood in front of the audience and scanned the room. I was looking out over a sea of gray heads. Don't get me wrong, I have a few gray hairs too. I'm sure if you are involved with the railroading hobby in any way, you have noticed this too—the aging of the participants. The lack of involvement by young adults is very discernible and troubling. It is obvious; we are missing the next generation of rail enthusiasts. If this trend is not reversed, the heritage that we love will become lost. It cannot be maintained without the next generation.

The big question is, "Why is the younger generation MIA (missing in action)?" The short answer: they were not exposed to railroading at an early age.

A person's love of railroading started from some connection to railroading in their life. If not because a close relative worked on one, it could have been that every summer you rode the train to visit family. Or the station agent befriended you, and let you watch him do his job. Or if you were really lucky, some kind engine crew saw you watching them and then invited you into the cab for a couple of switch moves. Railroads were part of everyday life and it was easy to become interested in them and become involved in them.

But for the younger generation, like my young seatmate, railroads have no relevance. The only time that they might notice them is if there is a derailment in the news, or if he is sitting in a car, forced to wait for a slow freight to clear the track so that he can continue on his journey. Neither event tends to create a warm and fuzzy feeling for him or her (railroading is not gender-specific).

Or if perchance he should form an interest in railroading, how will that interest grow? By taking the train to visit family? Sorry but Amtrak would be hard pressed to generate any warm memories. And there are very few station agents anymore. In fact, if you merely take a photograph from some station platforms you can be questioned by law enforcement. And what are the chances of an engine crew inviting anyone into the cab of their locomotive? Slim and none.

So what can be done to involve the younger generation, to show them the relevance of railroading and fire their imagination? We need to reach out to them and show them that railroading is more than fading photographs and memories.

That's where the Nevada Northern Railway Museum comes to the fore as a participant in RailCamp, youth outreach, and our in-house training programs, which are open to volunteers and employees of other tourist railroads. It is time to stop talking about the problem and solve it.

Let's face it, railroads got rid of both steam locomotives and passenger trains because they are expensive to operate (and that was in an era of cheap labor). In the twenty-first century, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum faces two major challenges: where to find the skilled labor needed to maintain steam locomotives; and then how to pay for them.

RailCamp 2006
Here three of the campers are learning about track very up close and personal. The entire length of track in this picture was constructed by the RailCampers for the museum. It was a win-win situation.

 

A steam locomotive requires skilled workers that know and understand techniques that are dying out. In the book The Faces of Railroading, Portraits of America's Greatest Industry it states, "Roundhouse workers . . . were some of the most highly skilled craftsmen in America. They had to be—steam locomotives were high maintenance machines with few interchangeable parts."

With two operating steam locomotives, I can tell you the need for skilled workers is just the same today as it was years ago, although the challenges are even greater today.

The difference? Our society has changed; we no longer emphasize making things with our hands and our throwaway lifestyle has eliminated the idea of repairing much of anything. And for those who do want to learn the skills and techniques from the past, have difficulty in finding anyplace that can teach them what was once called the Industrial Arts.

Where some people espied only lemons, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum saw a chance to make lemonade. We took the proactive approach, i.e., recognize current and future problems and develop solutions.

We went around the country and recruited young men and women with the drive and passion to learn the skills necessary to keep steamers and first generation diesels in operation. They are out there, and we were extraordinarily successful in recruiting these individuals. There are young people out there who do want to learn the old skills.

Our Deputy Chief Mechanical Officer is Jason Lamb. Jason has been around steam locomotives even before he was born twenty-four years ago. Assisting Jason in the shops is Chris Brophy. Chris has been with us for two years and is responsible for the annual FRA inspection on locomotive 93. Chris just celebrated his twenty-first birthday. Taking care of our first generation diesel locomotives is Jered Bissen, eighteen years old. Also working in the shops is Jeremy Harding. Jeremy came to us from the Nevada State Railroad museum where he worked in the restoration shops for over a decade. These young men all moved to Ely to learn steam railroading. And learning they are—all of it.

Because engaging the youth is so important to the future of steam railroading, the Nevada Northern, in conjunction with the National Railway Historical Society hosted the first teen RailCamp west of the Mississippi last year. This was an eye-opening experience for all of us.

One of the activities on the first full day was learning how to fire a steam locomotive. Jason was their instructor. Afterwards, I asked him how it went. (Now Jason isn't a grizzled veteran so I thought that as a young man he would naturally bond with the teenage campers.) "Not so well," he replied. "Only a few of the teens were interested in learning about steam and how to fire."

"What?!" I thought, "Not interested in steam, the Holy Grail of our railroad heritage. How could this be?" Well of course, like my young seatmate, they had no connection to steam. But we built that connection during their week at RailCamp. Throughout RailCamp, the teenagers learned about our railroad heritage and railroading in general. They learned about our rulebook and operations. They worked in the shops and in train service. They also learned about track. In fact, they constructed over 300 feet of track for us.

On Friday, we ran a special double-header with steam locomotives 40 & 93 and the RailCampers had their own special photo shoot. These kids were different from the group that we started with the week before. They were dirty, had blisters, and appreciated what it took to keep a railroad going. And as for the Holy Grail—STEAM—well, we got some new converts. You should have seen them bouncing up and down, taking pictures, and all talking at once—the energy was palpable.

The trend can be reversed. I have witnessed it. You can interest the current generation in steam railroading. But it takes work and commitment of the organization to make it happen. You have to reach out and be proactive. It's not easy but it is doable.

 

 

 

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