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An Open Letter to Dirty Jobs

[Editor’s Note: The Discovery Channel has a program called “Dirty Jobs” where Mike the host goes around the country doing a variety of dirty jobs. Well, the Nevada Northern Railway has a dirty job for Mike. What follows is an open letter inviting Mike to come to the Nevada Northern and get really dirty.]

Dear Mike,

If you want a job that gets you dirty just looking at it, we invite you to come out to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in Ely, Nevada. We’ll have you spend the day working as both a steam locomotive mechanic and fireman. Something you’ve wanted to do since you were a little kid, right?

During every month of the year except March, we operate both ninety-seven and ninety-six year old steam locomotives. Keeping these beasts running is a dirty, dirty job.

Just to give you a taste of what to expect—first, every thirty-one days we need to wash the boilers of the locomotives. I should mention that it’s the inside of the boiler that gets washed. The only way to do it is to drop down through the steam dome with a trouble light, a hose, a scraper and go to it.

After the inside of the boiler is washed, the firebox is checked; this time you climb in through the firebox door. Once in the firebox you check the stay-bolts and the firebricks. The firebox of locomotive 93 is big enough to hold a sit down luncheon for four.

Once the firebox and boiler have been checked and cleaned up, it’s now time to light off the locomotive. In goes coal, wood and oily rags (called “waste,” and we have lots of them.) Then (this is the fun part) light a fusee (a fusee looks like a highway flare) and toss it in.

As the fire starts, you shovel in more coal. While you’re waiting, you climb down and start oiling the locomotive. Oiling entails climbing all over the locomotive. Did I mention it’s oily and greasy? When you’re tired of oiling, it’s back into the cab to throw more coal into the firebox. Then it is back down to the ground to continue oiling.

After oiling and greasing, the locomotive is washed. (Don’t forget to climb back into the cab and throw more coal into the firebox.) After everything is washed, you get to climb back up onto the top of the locomotive and polish the bell.

In order to polish the bell, you’re straddling the boiler that you started that fire in and have been throwing coal into for the last couple of hours. Remember your high school science—when you heat metal it expands? And sometimes as the boiler heats up it gets stuck on the frame and lets loose with a BANG! But not to worry—that’s normal and it’s not all that far down to the ground if you should slip.

After four hours of cleaning, firing, oiling, firing, greasing, firing, and polishing the steam locomotive is ready to move out. But not really very far, because the drivers are always hiding half of the oiling points. So once the locomotive is spotted with the hidden oiling points uncovered there is more climbing around under the locomotive in order to finish oiling and greasing the steaming, fire-breathing beast, which is by now very hot. You’re finally finished with the easy part; now the locomotive has a full head of steam and its time to get it down to the train.

After being trained as a steam mechanic, we’ll move on to teach you how to be a fireman. Once the locomotive is coupled-up to the train and the passengers are loaded, the conductor gives a final “All-Aboard” and its time to head up the hill. Our trip is only seven miles one-way but it’s uphill—now what’s that mean to the fireman? It means shoveling a lot of coal, like two thousand pounds (yup, that’s a ton) into the firebox. The temperature of the fire is hitting 2,000 degrees if you’re doing it right. If you’re doing it wrong the fire is cooler, the steam pressure is dropping, and the hoghead (also known as the engineer) is saying not very nice things about you and your ancestors.

And if you’re firing locomotive 40, I have some good and bad news for you. The firebox on 40 is smaller than 93s, which means you only have to shovel about 1,500 pounds of coal. Yeah! The bad news is that the back head of the locomotive is not insulated like 93 and the back of the boiler is always about 350 degrees.

Once the steamer reaches the end of the line, you can take a break. The return trip is all downhill and the engineer won’t need much steam, thanks to gravity. Once the train is back into the yard and the passengers have disembarked, the conductor will give permission to cut off the locomotive. Now the locomotive can head back to the enginehouse, but it will take a round about way.

First, the engine has to be turned. We accomplish this by going around a wye. It’s a lot like doing a three-point turn in your car. The big difference is that you have to throw a switch every time you change direction. Still it’s not too bad . . . if you don’t mind climbing up and down the locomotive every time you need to throw a switch. Remember the 2,000 pounds of coal you just shoveled? Well, you’re really going to feel it in your arms now as you go around the wye and head for the ash pit. It’s a lot like climbing up eight flights of stairs.

Okay, you’ve turned the locomotive, and you’re heading for the ash pit. Remember that 2,000 pounds of coal that you burned? Well it formed ash, and the ash needs to be dropped at the ash pit. No big deal, except that some of the ash is very fine and hot. So when you open the ash pan, whoosh, that fine hot ash gets blown up into your face. And sometimes the ash won’t drop, so you have to beat on the sides of the ash hopper, vibrating the ash loose.

At last the ash is dropped. The next stop is at the coal pile to load up the tender for the next day’s operation. We use a front-end loader that scoops up the coal and dumps it into the tender. Of course, when the loader dumps the coal into the tender the fine black coal dust gets everywhere. And the inside of the locomotive now needs to be washed down. Guess who gets to do that? (Hint: it’s not the engineer.)

You’re coaled, the ash is dumped, and now you can head for the house. As the locomotive heads to the house, fifty shovels of coal need to be put into the firebox. This will create a bank that will let the fire smolder all night long. Then in the morning, the bank can be knocked out, and in only a few brief hours the locomotive is again ready to head for the train.

By this time, you are hot, oily, and greasy with a fine patina of ash and coal dust all over your skin. After the locomotive is bedded down for the night, its beer thirty, and I’m here to tell you that an ice-cold beer never tasted so good!

So Mike, if you’re looking for a real dirty job head out to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum and learn all about the iron horse and what it takes to keep those puppies steaming. Then you can come back and learn how to work on our diesel locomotives!

The Crew at the Nevada Northern

P.S. and yes, we will let you blow the whistle and ring the bell.

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Hours of Operation

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

Our Location

1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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