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Can’t See the Forest

There is an old expression, “You can’t see the forest because all of those trees are in the way.” To a certain extent, we all suffer from this affliction. We get so involved with our day-to-day activities we overlook the joy of what we are really doing. Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind us of what we really have. Such is the case in the following article. It is an outsider’s view of a trip on the Nevada Northern Railway. A little extra effort on the part of the crew created another Nevada Northern supporter.

Robin Garner wrote the following article. She is a member of the Age of Steam Railroad Museum in Dallas, Texas. Her article was originally published in the museum publication “Stack Talk.” What this does is get the word out on the Nevada Northern to the great state of Texas. Thanks Robin.

My Lucky Day

Our family travels west from Texas each summer to visit relatives, National and State Parks. On our last “Big Trip” we went to Colorado, then on to Yosemite National Park in California. Though we’d originally planned to drive through Salt Lake City, Utah, and Reno, Nevada, my husband suggested we travel instead on US Highway 50 west from Grand Junction, Colorado, through Ely, Nevada, home of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.

That was reason enough for us to ‘switch gears,’ and was I glad we did, for I had the chance to ride in a steam locomotive cab (if I promised to tell you about it)!

Ely lies in a quiet, forested valley. The town and surrounding White Pine County were built on copper mining, which flourished between 1906 and 1981. The short line Nevada Northern Railway was crucial to area mining operations. When Kennecott, the last big mine, closed, it gave its buildings, tracks and rolling stock to the City of Ely, which established and now supports the museum. Visitors can tour the buildings (forty-four in all), ride trains on two different 2-hour trips (caboose tickets available for a higher price) and even operate a diesel or steam engine on the mainline (sorry, kids, grown-ups only)!

For adults who can’t get enough, you can become a real fireman or engineer through the engineer-in-training program. I could talk for hours about the amazing cars, engines, maintenance sheds, and memorabilia we saw, but I know you’re waiting to hear about the engine ride, so . . .

While waiting to board the train, I asked a crewmember if I could interview him for this article. He introduced himself as Engineer Dan Cornutt and asked if I’d like to interview the crew from the cab of steam engine No. 93 (a 1909 American Locomotive 2-8-0). Did my eyes pop open! I agreed to ride back down from the mine with the crew after riding up with my family. Our trip took us out of town, across city streets, through the curved tunnel, steadily climbing past fields of horses and abandoned mines to a large mine pit. Here I left the coach car for the cab (keeping my eyes open for snakes on the tracks as warned—I didn’t see any) and boarded the engine for its turnaround and trip home.

The cab was everything I’d expected. It was hot, dirty, exciting . . . and crowded! In addition to Engineer Dan, Engineer-in-training Allen Jones (from Lake Tahoe) and Firemen-in-training Jed and Jim Blaylock (a son and father team from Las Vegas) were preparing the engine for the return trip.

Engineer Cornutt lived in Ely; he began as a brakeman with the railroad in 1987, becoming an engineer in 1990 and a Designated Supervisor of Locomotive Engineers in 2003. While he trained Mr. Jones, Mr. Jones trained Jed and his father. All the trainees had rented an engine and loved the experience so much they began traveling regularly to Ely to volunteer as brakemen, conductors and hostlers before becoming student firemen and then engineers (firemen-in-training must choose to work on either diesel or steam engines).

We first uncoupled from the train and used a siding to move to the back of the train (now the front). Mr. Jones was learning to recouple the engine using the brake and throttle, and the conductor checked each air hose to make sure the brakes “set and released.” Going downhill the Engineers used both the train brakes and the throttle to set the trains speed. Kelvin Kerr, an Age of Steam Museum board member, explained that because steam engines use compression on both sides of the piston, the throttle brakes the train as well; visit Matt Keveney’s web site, which animates this process!

Mr. Jones said No. 93 is special because it has a speedometer, installed when No. 93 provided regular passenger service for the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. In most steam engines, the engineer gauges speed “by the seat of his/ her pants.”

The maximum speed on the NNRY tracks is 15 miles per hour, slowing to 8 miles per hour on repaired track. (Editor’s note: Locomotive 93 has a speedometer because the FRA now requires it. That new requirement got us scratching our heads. After all, how are you going to install a speedometer on a 95 year-old locomotive? The NN Ry’s solution is to use a Global Positioning Satellite speedometer. This truly brings 93 into the space age.)

As we headed home, I enjoyed the breeze, the views from the narrow windows and “door,” and watching the crew work! Running a steam engine is an art learned by doing. Jed said that firing the train is a “delicate balancing act” requiring one to live for the future. At the station the fireman services the engine and builds the fire; it takes five hours of “hostlering” and 1.5 tons of coal to prepare the engine for work. Dirt in the coal “clinkers up,” turning to rock that the crew must dig out using four moving grates on the firebox floor. On the track, a fireman has to consider how much steam is available based on the track conditions ahead and the train being pulled, so there is enough steam to power the train but not so much that the engine overfires, smoking the passengers out.

In addition to the pistons, the steam powers the air pumps, brakes, electric generator (for the lights), whistle, water injector, firebox door, and bell ringer! If the fireman falls behind or is not paying attention, the water level can fall below the crown sheet of the firebox, allowing a hole to burn in the sheet and the boiler to explode. Water is the fireman’s main concern, then; a low fire can always be stoked. As we started downhill, Jed asked, “Are we blowing it down?” Flushing condensation and sediment out of the boiler using a blow down spout helps steam production but can also lower the water level. I don’t recall if we “blew down,” but we did not blow up! Judd Blaylock banked the fire for the night on our way down, piling coal 3 feet deep inside the firebox door and 1.5 feet out into the firebox so the coals would stay warm until morning (kids, can you measure how deep and wide this coal bed would be?). When the firebox opened, the fire was beautiful-and hot! The fire is so intense that the firebox is often warm Saturday morning, though the engine has been idle since Monday night (kids: how much energy would you have after not “eating” for 4.5 days?).

If you can’t visit Ely this summer, take a fall trip: trains run May through October. Or, buy the video “Running Steam Locomotives Vol. II: Passenger Locomotive Road Operation” at our Museum, which features a workday in the cab of the original Ghost Train of Ely, Ten Wheeler #40, featuring young hostler Dan Cornutt! An Age of Steam volunteer can show you a blow down spout on a steam engine, and though it’s oil burning, you can look inside the Frisco’s firebox to see how much coal it might take to keep the fire warm overnight!

All Steamed Up? Check out these web sites and books for more on steam locomotive construction, physics, and stories.

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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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