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Boxcar Fever

When you think of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum most people equate it with the passenger excursions that we offer. We advertise ourselves as the best-preserved rail facility left in America. And there is another group of individuals who come to Ely not to ride the train but to photograph equipment and the buildings and contents. One of those individuals is Gordon Osmundson. Gordon has been coming here for years photographing the railroad. Recently Gordon asked if he could put the airbrakes back on one of the boxcars. His long-term ambition is to have four of the boxcars back in service. Gordon asked me if he could do this and I said yes. I’ll let Gordon tell the story.

I’ve been visiting and photographing the Nevada Northern Railway Museum since 1988. On every trip I’ve looked at the four 36-foot wood box cars sitting in the yard and wanted to see and photograph them in a train out on the line. (A fifth boxcar was badly damaged in a fire and sits behind the shops and a sixth is at the White Pine Public Museum on Aultman Boulevard.) I’ve photographed these cars in the yard, but unfortunately only one of them had air brakes and could be used outside yard limits. When I came for the photo weekend in 1996 this one car was used with the one tank car, five ore cars, three hoppers, and caboose on a freight train. This set of cars, in different combinations, has been the freight train for photo events ever since.

In 2002 Joel Jensen decided to restore one of the boxcars and chose the one with brakes. Unfortunately, residing the car proved to be a bigger job than expected and it now sits half finished in the rip building. Joel’s 2003 and 2004 photo weekends had to go without a boxcar.

Last December, when John West asked me to run the photo trains operated in conjunction with the Polar Express, I thought, is there a way to use the other three boxcars? Well, could we use them in the yard? I gave some thought to what photo runs we could do in the yard and it wasn’t long before I had more than a half days worth. But could we use the cars? A talk with Mark Bassett, Executive Director, gave the answer in the affirmative, better still the yard limit was out by the Lackawanna Road grade crossing and we could do a run by on the long fill just north of the yard.

John West and I put together a train with the three hopper cars, tank car, a short gon, the three boxcars and caboose number 3, a car that rarely came out of the engine house. We had a nice little mixed freight train, something that had not been seen on the Nevada Northern in many a year. The hoppers and the tank car had working air brakes so the train had more than the locomotives independent brake. Except for quite a bit of slack action in the caboose, everything worked out well and we had a successful half-day photo shoot.

Now that the profile of the boxcars had been raised, what more could be done with them? John took on the project of painting one, and while it still needs a last coat, it already really looks good. It wasn’t long before I started thinking “what would it take to put brakes on them?” They once had them and the mounting brackets, train line, and hand brake were still there, so it couldn’t be too hard. It was now time for a little philosophizing. The NNRM is at least in part a volunteer organization, so you can’t say, “they ought to,” or “why don’t they.” Who are this they anyway? If you aren’t ready to step forward and volunteer, you don’t have any business criticizing or even suggesting. Now could I do this? Giving some thought to just how big a job it was and if I had the skills, well, I just couldn’t say no. I had the mechanical skills and the job looked like it could be done in a matter of a few days.

Next question, did the museum have the parts and materials needed on hand? A talk with Jack Anderson, the railway’s Master Mechanic, answered that question in the affirmative. Now the only question remaining was when. I wanted the boxcars for my own photography workshop, coming up in November, and the weather in Ely should be nice in the spring so I picked the week of May 16th. Mark offered to call in a few local volunteers to help.

On arriving that Sunday in the late afternoon I ran into Jack in the yard and we looked over the cars and made plans for the next day. We decided to start with the painted car and do the work in the machine shop. Next morning, Alco diesel locomotive number 109 was fired up and used to switch the boxcar out of the rip building where it was being stored. 4-6-0 #40, having its tubes and flues removed, occupied one end of the machine shop’s track, but there was plenty of room left for our car and it was spotted so that the brake equipment was not over the shop pits. There was plenty of room under the cars to work from the floor and indeed the shop floor, which was flush with the railhead, was ideal for rolling an automotive floor jack underneath.

I won’t go into every detail of the work done, but we had the brake parts on the burned car to use as a pattern, I had to learn some pipe fitting skills, I got the triple valve on the car up-side down the first time (hey the rebuilt date stencil was right-side-up), we had to fabricate a 3/8 inch thick steel spacer to go under one side of the brake cylinder, the air reservoir wouldn’t clear the secondary car sill and a bracket had to be heated with a torch and bent down 3/4 of an inch, etc., etc. There seemed to be something extra that had to be done at every step, but bit by bit the project came together.

When I say we, I mean we. It was my project, but Jack and his staff were there to help find materials, lend tools, and offer technical advice as needed. Also, Dave Teeter, Nathan Liebsack, Gene Rogers, and Philip Bronner, all volunteers, worked with me often getting as dirty as I did. Dave, a retired lumber mill employee and a recent new comer to Ely, proved to be an especially good helper.

I will say that railroad equipment is solidly built and designed to be easy to work on. The air pipes are attached to the major components with bolt on compression fittings. These fittings make it unnecessary cut the pipes to the exact length or thread the ends, all of which makes fabrication fairly easy. The major components are all made of cast steel or iron and feel as solid and heavy as the engine block of an automobile. The pipes once fitted in place and bolted up feel as solid as if the whole system were carved from a single solid steel billet.

Finally, after three and one half days, everything was together and ready to test. We connected an air line to one of the car’s glad hands and applied the air, but something was wrong. We could not get the brakes to set and release properly. The problem was finally traced to the retainer valve located up on the end of the car and the only component that was original to the car. Disconnecting the pipe to this valve got the brakes to set and release and a little more tinkering got air to flow through the retainer.

Now it was time to call the 109 and take our car out for a spin. But there was still something wrong, without using the independent air on the 109; the car’s brakes did not have enough force to even slow us down. Now what? Jack inspected the brake cylinder and found that there was too much travel in the cylinder before the brake rod was engaged. By now it was late afternoon; let’s deal with this in the morning.

We thought that we needed a longer brake rod, even though the one we were using was from the burned car. But next morning Jack made some adjustments to the brake levers on the trucks and the problem was solved. One steel frame, thirty-six foot, 1912, mineral red boxcar, ready for action. Is one car a big deal? Apparently it is. Mark was more excited than I was. As he put it, this was the first freight car work to be done since the museum was started.

Now, what of the other two boxcars? I had hoped to do all three while I was there, but one will have to be enough for now. All the components are on hand for the next two cars; the spacer plates have been cut and drilled and some other subassemblies prepared. Most important, now we are a long ways up the learning curve so the next cars should go a lot faster. Mark suggested we put all the parts in one of the cars and close the door, that way, when I come back in September or October, everything will be in one place and we can get right to work. Two cars in three or four days should be doable.

And beyond that? The #40 is the current focus of work in the shops, its boiler work should be done by October and then it can rejoin the roster. After this, the work on the big hook, or steam powered wrecking crane is to be completed, its boiler is now out but has already passed its hydro. So perhaps by early 2005 it will be back in service. Slated next is the 81 a 2-8-0 steam locomotive very much like the 93. It saw heavy service until retired in the early 50’s, so there is no doubt much to do on her. I can’t say when she will be ready, perhaps sometime in 2006.

What does this have to do with the freight cars? Three steam engines-well wouldn’t it be great if each could have its own train? Number 40 will have the vintage passenger cars, so there is its train. How about for the 2-8-0’s an ore train and a mixed freight train. There are five active ore cars already and the museum has 15 more. These cars are all equipped with type “K” brakes, but the condition of these brakes is not known. But surely it would not take as much work to inspect and repair one of these cars as it did to install all the air equipment and piping on a box car and parts are already on hand in the shop. Eight, ten, twelve ore cars, it could happen by the time the 81 is ready.

For the mixed freight we already have our first boxcar and could have up to three more this fall. We already have three hoppers and the tank car. We used a short gon on my yard limits photo freight and there are two more in the yards. These cars are already equipped with “AB” brakes. Servicing the brakes, repacking the wheel bearings and these cars should be good to go. And that would give us a nice little mixed freight consist. This shouldn’t be too much to expect from a visiting carman, with some local help, over the next year or two.

What’s it like working on an old boxcar? Except for getting dirty and the fact that the air reservoir weighs in at 258 lbs., it reminded me a lot of model railroading. The scale, twelve inches equals a foot, is a bit bigger, but the components were quite familiar. And the car, with fresh paint and crooked handrails, reminded me of some models I have worked on. Seeing a full size 36-foot boxcar ready to go is a lot more satisfying than finishing a six-inch long HO scale model. And how many places are there besides Ely, Nevada where you can make this happen?

There is more to the museum than just the excursion trains. The work that Gordon and his crew did is what we are truly about. It is the mission of the museum to preserve, protect, and interpret the Nevada Northern Railway complex for the public. By putting together three trains as Gordon suggests, we will create a window to the past to show what the Nevada Northern was like during its heyday. In the late 1930’s locomotive 40 would have been running to Cobre with the passenger train. Locomotive 81 would have made the run to Cobre with a freight train to interchange with the Southern Pacific. And Locomotive 93 would have been in ore service running from Ruth to McGill. So by our hundredth anniversary due to the efforts of the volunteers and staff, we might be able to replicate this scene.

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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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