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Buildings of the Nevada Northern Railway

When you think of the Nevada Northern Railway, it’s easy to get hooked on the locomotives, railroad cars, and track. After all, it is a railroad, isn’t it? But what raises the Nevada Northern Railway to National Historic Landmark status is the completeness of the complex. It’s not just the trains. It’s the buildings and the structures that support the operations of the railroad. In fact, it is a small city.

The East Ely Yard consists of fifty-six acres containing sixty-six historic buildings and structures, including the original depot, office building, machine shop, foundry, working enginehouse, and an iconic coaling tower. They range from the massive the machine shop/enginehouse complex to the tiny fire hose stand behind the enginehouse. Of the buildings and structures on the complex, the State of Nevada is responsible for two: the depot and the freight house. The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is responsible for the remaining sixty-four.

There is an interesting historical parallel that makes history come alive. The railroad came to Ely in September 1906. Construction on the yard buildings started in 1907. But by that fall, the country was in the gripe of the Panic of 1907. From Wikipedia: The Panic of 1907 “was a financial crisis that occurred in the United States when the New York Stock Exchange fell close to 50% from its peak the previous year. Panic occurred, as this was during a time of economic recession, and there were numerous runs on banks and trust companies. The 1907 panic eventually spread throughout the nation when many state and local banks and businesses entered into bankruptcy.”

Sound familiar? Stock market falls 50%, recession, banks fail, and many businesses enter bankruptcy. Why that could be 2008, but I digress. This explains why most of the buildings were so cheaply made. Money was tight. The majority of the support buildings and structures on the complex were built very simply: metal siding over wood on timber foundations. They are not glamorous but they tell the behind-the-scenes story of the railroad.

Others were built more grandly from cut stone, bricks, poured concrete, and faced cinder block. (Faced cinder blocks are cinder blocks that have a cast face that mimics stone; from a distance, the building appears to be made of cut stone.) All of the buildings share common attributes: they’re old, they need tons of TLC, and they tell the story of the railroad.

When I took over as executive director, I knew I had many challenges to face. Locomotive 40 needed new flues, the track had issues, and the bank account was at zero. What I had not expected was the challenge of the buildings.

Shortly after taking over I went to the McGill Depot and was shocked at what I found. This beautiful faced cinder block building was collapsing. Over the southeast corner, the roof had collapsed and was pushing out the walls. The depot was devolving into the McGill pile of rocks.

Meanwhile on the west end of the yard is the massive machine shop/enginehouse complex. With the oldest construction dating to 1907, the complex is a hodgepodge of buildings and rooms that were added to over time. At first glance, the building looked stable; it exuded permanence. So you can imagine my shock when reviewing old files I found a structural engineer’s report that stated the machine shop/enginehouse complex was in danger of collapse! After reading the report, a closer examination of the building, showed you could read the report through the gaps in the walls! Here’s where the majority of the priceless Nevada Northern Railway collection was stored.

Going through the yard and looking at the buildings without rose-colored glasses showed we were in trouble. Windows were broken out letting the weather in. Roofs were leaking over priceless artifacts. Wind was blowing roofs and metal siding off the buildings. Other masonry buildings such as the transportation building, the master mechanic’s building, and the bus garage all had structural problems.

It is not just the buildings themselves that need TLC. Then there are the utilities. That small city analogy really comes into play here. We’re responsible for all of the utilities on the complex: water, sewer, heating, and electricity-both inside and outside the buildings. And talk about a nightmare. Want to give a fright to the city engineer? Mention the water system in the railroad complex. The oldest parts date to 1906; some of it works and some doesn’t.

A great example was a couple of years ago two employees were walking across the yard and saw that a water hydrant was leaking. They tried to tighten the valve and it broke off in their hand. And now the water is bubbling up through the ground. Where’s the shut-off? Good question. Luckily, an old timer at the city water department thought he knew and he was right. In a sidewalk about 1,500 feet from the leaking water hydrant was a shut off. He turned the valve and voilà—the leak stopped. This person has since retired from the water department and the next time we might not be as lucky.

Then there is the electrical system. All of the poles in the yard are the property of the railroad (yippee). And if you stand at one end of the pole line and look towards the other end, you notice that the poles are leaning one way or the other. The straight line is long gone. In fact one of my favorites is one pole that was sistered (a short pole was sunk into the ground to help hold up the original pole). Both the sistered pole and the main pole have completely failed, the only thing holding the poles up are the wires, which rather defeats the purpose of the poles. Then there is the question of which wires are hot and which are not.

On the inside of the buildings, the story of the utilities continues but now you need to add heat. For some reason the staff and volunteers like working in heated spaces. Our heating sources go from coal stoves to baseboard electric heaters and just about everything in between. Of course using a coal-fired potbelly stove for heat in a room with irreplaceable books and drawings stored in wooden cabinets is not a good idea. Yet freezing employees aren’t a good idea either.

If a coal-burning potbelly stove next to historic paper wasn’t scary enough then there is the interior electric wiring. The railroad grew up with electricity in White Pine County. Most of the buildings have what is known as knob and tube wiring. This was an early standardization of wiring in the United States. Fairly common from the 1880s to the 1920s, the system uses porcelain insulators (knobs) for running wires through unobstructed spaces. Porcelain tubes protect wires that run through studs and joists. Suffice to say, this type of wiring is not allowed anymore. It’s like our steam locomotives—it works, but it comes at a high cost.

Actually the knob and tube wiring is a blessing. It allows us to have electricity in many of the buildings that otherwise would be dark. We have to be careful and not overload the circuits.

Sixty-six buildings and structures (some more than a century old), out-of-date inadequate utilities (both inside and out), and literally thousands of windows—we have to maintain all of it. It makes you long for the steam locomotives; in comparison, they’re a piece of cake.

But we have had many successes. Our saviors have come in many different shapes and sizes: the Commission on Cultural Affairs, Nevada Department of Transportation, John West, Malcolm Mackey, and the Gianoli Family Trust.

The investments made by these saviors have saved the paint shop, the enginehouse/machine shop, the McGill Depot, the master mechanic’s building, the lumber storage building, and the airbrake building from certain collapse. These funds have put in modern heating systems, electrical systems, plumbing systems, and new roofs on many of the buildings. It’s really amazing how light and heat and no drips can make a job go so much easier.

The battle is not over. We still have tons of work to do on the buildings and structures of the railroad. But the most egregious problems of the buildings have been addressed. Next time I’ll start showing off the individual buildings, what has been done, and what still needs to be done.

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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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