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Birth of a Railroad

At their December 17 board meeting, the management board of the Foundation voted to form the Great Basin Railroad. This is just the first step on a long road whose final destination is the restoration of freight service between the rail connection with the Union Pacific Railroad and Ely.

First some history, construction on the Nevada Northern Railway started in 1905. The purpose of the railroad was to serve the copper deposits at Ruth and the smelter at McGill. For 78 years the Nevada Northern hauled passengers and freight between Ely and its connection with the outside world. In 1987, the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) purchased the line from Kennecott to preclude its abandonment. Their plan was to use the line to serve a coal-fired power plant near Cherry Creek that they were going to build. The plant was never built.

Meanwhile the copper mine at Ruth was started up again by BHP. As part of this project they lease the line from LADWP and the Museum and started hauling ore to the Union Pacific again. In 1999, their last train made the journey to the Union Pacific and the rail operations cease once again. In June 2001 LADWP announced its plan to sell the rail line.

Fast forward to 2002 and you have a group effort of the City of Ely, White Pine County and the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation working together to purchase LADWP’s 120-mile section of the rail line.


Simply put, to insure the economic future of the City of Ely, White Pine County and the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation. The rail line does not look like much now, but it is literally a lifeline for the community.

Lifeline? In this modern age, there is still no cheaper way to move mass quantities of anything than a steel wheel on steel rails. Without that rail line Ely and White Pine County loose their tie to the national transportation grid. Those rusty rails connect Ely with the world! A rail container (similar to a modern boxcar) could travel anywhere in the Untied States, Canada, and Mexico. Take the container to an ocean port, it is lifted off its rail car, put on a container ship, then the world’s your oyster. Of course the reverse is true too. A container from anywhere in the world could come to Ely over those rusty rails.

Yes, it’s true that Highways 6, 50, and 93 all meet in Ely; they are not Interstate highways. For sake of argument let’s say that those highways could sustain major economic development, would you want that many trucks rolling through town? Remember the railroad once ran through the heart of Ely, until the citizens forced it to build its current route.

Without the rail line there will be no major economic development projects in the community. In fact Ely has already lost one economic development project that would have brought jobs to the community. But because freight could not be moved over the line the business went elsewhere and those jobs were lost to us.

Current asking price for the railroad is $700,000. A funding package is being put together to reach this goal. Of course, purchase is one thing, and then there is the maintenance issue. Before trains can roll, the track will need work. For this money, a bill is being introduced to the state legislature asking for $500,000 to fund the repairs.

What happens if community interests do not purchase the rail line? It will most likely be scrapped. The rail pulled up and hauled off, and Ely’s connection with the world would be broken. If the rail line were to be scrapped, would it be possible to put it back in? Yes, it would be possible but very expensive. Replacing the line after scrapping would cost in the neighborhood of $200,000,000 and how would you pay that bill?

So where does the Foundation and the Great Basin Railroad come into all of this? In earlier columns, I’ve pointed out that $5,000,000 is needed for repairs and renovation to the museum’s assets. At the same time who in the community has the greatest amount of expertise in operating trains? Answer, the Foundation.

The idea being that the Foundation would create a for-profit business, the Great Basin Railroad, to operate the rail line to the Union Pacific. Profits from this venture would then be invested in the museum for repairs and renovations. These profits would make the Foundation less dependent on grants and donations and allow the Foundation to accomplish bigger projects such as the renovation of the coaling and sand tower. Another huge plus is that the money the Great Basin Railroad earns would stay in the community and benefit the community.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the steps that the board took is just a start in the long road to re-establishing commercial operations. But if successful, the phrase the community uses, “Ely, All Aboard” will take on a whole new meaning.

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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