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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 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

 


The Spirit of Steam
27 December 2003

 

The museum was host to a location photographer that discovered our little corner of the world recently. He and his assistant could not believe what we have here at the museum. The photographer and his assistant spent the better part of seven hours photographing the Nevada Northern and the grounds.

In standing in the enginehouse with all of the locomotives silent, I couldn't help but realize that the photographer was missing what we really are. We are a time machine that can transport you to just about anywhere in America from the turn of the last century to the mid-1950s. The reason that I say this is because of a book that I just recently read called The Spirit of Steam by William L Withuhn.

In his book there is a paragraph that really struck me:

 

"What is the "spirit" of steam railroading? Where did that intrinsic interest come from? The problem today, in trying to recapture the spirit of railroading from a half-century ago, is that the machines—the big and often spectacular locomotives and trains from those days—are not enough. The context is missing. In fact, I would argue, the interest one might have in trains, either then or today, is not really intrinsic at all but entirely dependent on context."

 

That's what we have here at the Nevada Northern-context. We have the original locomotives, serviced in the original enginehouse, picking up passengers at the original station, heading out on the original alignment, and in some cases still rolling on the original track. He goes on in another paragraph that is also interesting.

 

"The missing context is people. The appeal of trains in the steam age was based not on the big machines but on the human beings—the people who ran the trains, the people who used the trains, and their human purposes in doing so. People were the 'spirit', not the machines."

 

The true uniqueness of the Nevada Northern is we still have the people context; it is all around us at the museum. The museum's nickname is The Ghost Train of Old Ely. In the past I would chalk up the nickname to Locomotive 40. But that isn't true anymore; the ghost is all around us.

When I give a walking tour of the machine shop I make it a point to highlight three unique features oh the shop. The first is the bolt-making machine. To maintain the locomotives and equipment the shop crew made their own bolts. They did not go down to the hardware store and buy bolts, but made them on site. Secondly, on the wall of the machine shop is a notice dated 1922. The first line of the notice states: "This notice supercedes a notice from 1917." This is still mounted on the wall. Then I go to the engine board. Here are some of the names of the people who were engineers and firemen on the Nevada Northern. One of the names is Labate. Known as Jumbo, Labate was an engineer on the Nevada Northern for many years. He operated both steam and diesel locomotives on the railroad. What makes Jumbo so interesting is that his grandson Al works for the museum today as the Shop Foreman. Part of his job responsibilities is to keep the locomotives that his grandfather operated in operating condition for the museum.

Here the story gets even more interesting. When the National Park Service representative was here a few weeks ago, evaluating the property for National Landmark Status, he had with him an autobiography of H. M. Peterson who was a General Manager of the Nevada Northern. I took the time to read the autobiography and it was very interesting for it helped fill in the people aspect. In the autobiography, Mr. Peterson relates a story that involved Al's grandfather, Jumbo, that Al did not know about.

The story is that the railroad bought a brand new diesel locomotive, an SD-7 number 401. Shortly after Mr. Peterson's promotion to General Manager, he got a phone call at night. The Cobre enginehouse was on fire and their brand new locomotive 401 was inside the enginehouse. The crew would try to get the locomotive out of the enginehouse and then the phone line went dead.

Mr. Peterson threw on some clothes and went to his office where he tried to make contact with the crew in Cobre—no success. He then tried the Southern Pacific agent but again with no success. What he found out a couple of hours later was that Jumbo Labate went into the burning enginehouse, started locomotive 401, and got it out of the burning enginehouse with just blistered paint on the roof.

What makes this story even more exciting to both Al and I, is something that Mr. Peterson does not mention, and that is the way you start a SD-7. Unlike your car, you just don't turn a key in the ignition. You need to go into the cab of the locomotive, throw the battery switch, turn on additional switches, and then go outside of the cab, down the walkway about twenty feet, open a side door, engage the fuel pump, and then hit the starter. Once the locomotive starts, you go back into the cab, pump air and then move the locomotive out of the enginehouse. So Jumbo is standing on the walkway, the fire is getting hot enough to blister the paint, directly above his head, as he starts the locomotive.

This is just one example of the many stories that allow us to experience the Nevada Northern beyond the locomotives and buildings. Here at the Nevada Northern we have the "spirit"—it is all around us. We have the track, locomotives, rolling stock, buildings, and the people who are the railroad. The era that Mr. Withuhn talks about in his book has yet to end here in East Ely, and we intend to keep it that way.

 

 

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