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A National Treasure

An op-ed by Bill Withuhn
Curator, Division of Work and Industry, Smithsonian Institution

My views here are my own as a former businessman and as one with some forty years in railroading: working closely on federal legislation and regulation; firing, running, and repairing locomotives; and—for the past twenty-six years—working in historic preservation and in the study of our Nation’s cultural and economic history.

I’m writing about a national treasure. Most railroad buffs and most people in Nevada have it wrong: The Nevada Northern is not just another tourist railroad. The word needs to go out loud, clear, and well-focused: Ely has a genuine national treasure.

In the American history we learn in school, we read of presidents, politicians, and heroes of our democracy—and we learn about the heroes we honor today. We also remember that nearly all of those wartime heroes were ordinary citizens, not generals and presidents, who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. There’s a parallel in our civil history.

As fundamental to our Nation’s history are the entrepreneurs and—often more important—the working people without whom we could never have built our democracy and grown our economy. Those people were the bedrock on which we built our way of life. Going back more than 175 years, railroad people began to construct the iron highways that soon became our most important arteries of commerce and national growth, arteries—now of steel—-that are still crucial to our economy and therefore are vital in sustaining our lives today.

We need to better appreciate the contributions of the people, in all walks of life, on whose shoulders we stand. In that regard, we need to better understand the contributions and sacrifices of those people who worked in the industries indispensable to our economic growth. Such understanding is more than nostalgia.

The Nevada Northern is, by far, the most original, most authentic, most complete, and best preserved of any historic steam railroad complex in the Western Hemisphere. It is not only on the National Register of Historic Places, it was recently designated by the Secretary of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark, the highest recognition the National Park Service can bestow on a true, original, and well-preserved historic site. The Nevada Northern is even more: it’s a site of living history, not static history. The Nevada Northern is as important, in its way, as any historic site in the United States. Not enough has been made of the Nevada Northern’s importance and value as a cultural asset of Ely, of the State of Nevada, and of the U.S. as a whole.

Bill Withuhn

Many of us know that, for decades, the Nevada Northern has faced daunting financial challenges—challenges that often threatened to shut down the railroad forever. Many challenges continue. But let me quote someone who was raised in Ely and has lived most of her life here:

“If you question one thing or another about the railroad, my answer to you is: Look where it was and look now how far it has come!”
                     Cheryl Zadow, past member of the Ely School Board

There are always controversies about the operations of any business or enterprise. The Nevada Northern is also an independent business that has to pay its way. The perspectives of people who have to run the business, meet a payroll, and balance the books are often different than those of critics.

What I can offer is the view that, for the last several years, the leadership of the Nevada Northern’s board and management toward financial survival has been first-rate and has often dealt with difficult financial issues—many unexpected from one year to the next. The fact that the Nevada Northern exists at all today is an economic miracle.

As a member of the railroad’s board for the past three years, I know that the railroad starts every year with dramatically less in cash flow than it needs to get through the year, or even through six months. Without extraordinary grantsmanship, repeated over and over, and without the many great volunteers from Nevada and from surrounding states who contribute gratis 25,000 hours every year of specialized expertise and labor, the Nevada Northern would have ceased operation long ago.

That would have left behind a site of decaying buildings, a shuttered and deteriorating depot, ever-higher weeds, accelerating rust, and a 56-acre eyesore in East Ely (not to mention final abandonment of the 30 miles of upgraded right-of-way that’s in service today). That’s the alternative.

To help establish bona fides on these issues, my views come from long, real-world experience. I’ve managed and run real railroads—I helped found a for-profit business group that grew to run shortline and regional freight railroads in five states. I know something about operating and maintaining locomotives, not only more-modern ones but also historic steam locomotives, including the practices and economics of their care. Over the years since 1966, I’ve regularly run and maintained 13 different historic steam locomotives of all sizes. And I was one of the two co-chairs of a committee of the U.S. Department of Transportation that over a four-year period entirely re-vamped and modernized the federal rules governing steam locomotive inspections for safety and integrity, maintenance, and repair—mandates that were made effective nationwide in 2000.* So, I believe I have some standing to comment about the management of small railroad businesses and about operating historic steam locomotives.

The Nevada Northern is something very special. It’s far more than a nostalgic “Ghost Train.” Rather, it’s a National Historic Landmark that depends on the good will and support of all its friends. It needs the good will of its home community…and I know that Ely certainly knows a great deal about painful economic pressures and challenges.

Banding together to celebrate and to make the best we can of Ely’s utterly unique National Treasure is in everyone’s interest.

* Cited as Title 49, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 230.

This past weekend, the railroad hosted its first ever members’ weekend. As a member of the management board Bill was invited to speak on the Nevada Northern. We are fortunate to have Bill on the management board. He has been at the Smithsonian since 1983. Bill has managed or been curator on more than 20 exhibitions—up to 26,000 square feet in size and involving budgets up to $24 million. In between projects, he has raised some $31 million for his employer.

Among his many publications are two books: Rails Across America: A History of Railroads in North America (1993); and The Spirit of Steam (1995). They set sales records for railroad books: 40,000 and 200,000 copies respectively.

Bill actively consults for the Federal Railroad Administration. He has also frequently advised the National Transportation Safety Board, UNESCO in India, and the National Park Service, among many other organizations. He is an appointed member of two standing committees of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the U.S. Air Force, Bill served nine years, with two of those years in Special Operations. He holds two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation, and the Antarctic Service Medal. He later earned an MBA and was on the staff of a U.S. Congressman, where he worked on the bill that created Conrail.

After that, he became the senior vice president of a group of regional and shortline freight railroads operating in five states in the Northeast. Before then, he had earned his first engineer’s qualification certificate, issued by the Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Division, in 1966. Since then, he’s been a regularly assigned engineer over the years on 13 different steam locomotives, including three 4-6-2 ‘Pacific’ types and the 4-8-4 ‘Northern’ type No. 261, having run the latter engine in three states, on the former Conrail and on BNSF.

Bill is a dues-paying, regular member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), the oldest labor organization in America, founded in 1863. His home Division of the BLE is No. 263, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

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