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A Dubious Honor

We won again! The Nevada Northern Railway is on Preserve Nevada’s11 Most Endangered Historic Places, again. From the Preserve Nevada press release: “The endangered sites were selected in 2004 by Preserve Nevada as part of a program to bring attention to significant buildings, sites, and landscapes that face the threat of destruction.”

Preserve Nevada is a non-profit preservation organization associated with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the public history program at UNLV’s College of Liberal Arts. The Preserve Nevada’s list mimics the program developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust’s website explains, “Since 1988, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list has been one of the most effective tools in the fight to save America’s irreplaceable architectural, cultural, and natural heritage. The 11 sites chosen each year are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy. Some are well-known, such as the Vieux Carré in New Orleans or Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Others, like the Kennecott Copper Mines in Alaska or the village of East Aurora, New York, are less famous but just as important, because they too represent preservation challenges facing thousands of communities. Each site raises awareness about the dangers to specific parts of America’s heritage and about preservation generally.” Preserve Nevada has listed the Nevada Northern Railway, again, because the railroad and the railroad complex in Ely are threatened with destruction.

The national significance of the site is best summed up by William L. Withuhn, Curator, Division of the History of Technology at the Smithsonian Institution. “Among all railroad historic sites anywhere in North America, the Nevada Northern Railway complex at East Ely is—no question in my view—the most complete, most authentic, and best cared-for, bar none. It’s a living American treasure and a stand-out one.” Historic tracks, original depot and office building, engine house, freight shed, three original steam locomotives, five historic and rare wooden passenger cars, Kennecott diesel engines, sixty early freight cars, working machine shop, foundry—even the coaling tower and water tower that are icons of the site—everything is still there.”

“I’ve been in this business for over two decades, and there’s nothing like it. The steam trains to Keystone, the trains on the “Hiline” overlooking the Steptoe Valley, and the cultural events at East Ely during the year complete the picture for visitors and are what elevate the Nevada Northern Railway Museum and historic site to living history status. It’s a precious piece of Nevada’s heritage and, just as important, a step back in time into an all-important era in American history and our Nation’s cultural heritage.”

To date hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on the stabilization of the engine house, machine shop, freight house, coach shed, and McGill Depot. Where that is commendable, that is only ten percent of the buildings and structures on the site. It is not enough to stop the disintegration of the complex. The railroad is threatened on two fronts: the age and condition of the buildings in the East Ely Complex; and the lawsuits concerning the northern portion of the rail line.

In regard to the buildings, the structures that need the most help are the master mechanic’s office and storehouse building, the East Ely Depot, the transportation building, the McGill Depot, the coaling tower, and the wooden support buildings.

The master mechanic’s office and storehouse building has been through a fire and is suffering settling cracks in the masonry structure. It also needs new wiring, a heating system, water, and sewer. Priceless drawings, blueprints, and books from the early days of the railroad are stored in this building along with artifacts. The maintenance staff uses this building for offices and repairs.

The East Ely Depot is the signature piece of the complex. Built in 1907 of locally quarried sandstone, the structure needs immediate help to stabilize the sandstone. Poor drainage is doing irreparable harm to the structure. The building also needs a modern heating and cooling system and updated plumbing.

Built in 1910, the transportation building served as the brain of the railroad. The dispatcher’s, roadmaster’s, and superintendent’s offices were located here. From this building, all movements on the railroad were controlled. The structure also contains the largest vault on the property. In the vault is the paperwork of the railroad including employee records, building drawings, correspondence, and the first check ever written by the Nevada Northern. This building still uses the original knob and tube wiring. The building needs modern utilities and a new roof.

The McGill Depot served as the hub for the smelter community. A unique structure, the depot overlooks the community of McGill. Time has not been kind to this structure. The building has received emergency stabilization, but it needs major assistance, before it can be used as a functioning structure.

The coaling tower dominates the complex. Used by the railroad to supply coal to the steam locomotives, this concrete structure is in desperate need of stabilization. Long-term plans call for the tower to be used once more to coal the steam locomotives.

To support the operations of the railroad, a series of wooden structures were erected throughout the yard complex. These structures include the carpenter’s shop, the airbrake shop, and a blacksmith’s shop just to name a few. These structures were built as cheaply as possible and were not designed to last a century. These buildings tie the complex together and are in dire need of repair and modern utilities.

As mentioned earlier, the railroad reached Ely in 1906. Due to various factors, the northern portion of the line was sold to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) twenty-one years ago. LADWP was going to build a power plant along the line. The plant was never built. In 1999, the city of Ely began investigating the possibility of purchasing the line from LADWP. An agreement was reached and the city of Ely entered into negotiations with the city of Los Angeles. In December 2003, a company that has a history of scrapping rail line sued the city of Ely and the city of Los Angeles to condemn the rail line and take ownership of the line away from the two cities. There is a concern that the historic rail line will be scrapped if the company is successful in their lawsuit.

As the Centennial of the railroad approaches, the railroad faces challenges to the historic yard complex by Mother Nature and on the northern portion of the line by the high price of scrap steel. The significance of the complex as being the last example in the country and the very real fear of scrapping are the reasons that lead to our dubious honor of being on the Preserve Nevada’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, again.

(Mark S. Bassett is a board member of Preserve Nevada as well as being the Executive Director of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.)

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Monday - Saturday | 8AM - 5PM
Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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