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Engaging the Younger Generation

Get three gray-headed railfans together and sooner or later, the subject will turn towards engaging the next generation in railroading. Railroading and society have changed since they were youngsters: working parents, September 11th, insurance requirements, frivolous lawsuits, and technology have all conspired to make rail fanning almost impossible for the young railfan to get started. We all recognize these challenges. The question becomes how you overcome them.

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum and the National Railway Historical Society joined forces to offer a teen RailCamp last year. Recently, Railfan & Railroad magazine published an article by one of the participants. I found it fascinating and thought you would too.

RailCamp 2006

By Anton J. Lazzaro

(This article appears in the July 2007 issue of Railfan & Railroad)

How does one become a railfan? I sure couldn’t tell you, but every railfan feels something magic about a train. I sure do. Nobody in my family had any interest in trains prior to mine. It all began in 2003 when I asked my mother to take a short trip on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles to San Juan Capistrano.

Then one day while online, I stumbled across the RailCamp website. After the first page, I knew I would have to go! RailCamp is a one-week program that gives high school boys and girls a hands-on look at railroading. It is made possible by the National Railway Historical Society in Philadelphia. The program began less then ten years ago, yet it has had tremendous success.

When RailCamp began, it was held at Steamtown in Scranton, Pennsylvania, about 3000 miles from my home in California, so I was very pleased that the NRHS recently developed the program at the Nevada Northern in Ely, Nevada. The Ely camp is directed by Gary Yanko and is very similar to the experience at Steamtown. My 2006 group would be the first RailCampers to experience the Nevada Northern.

Camp began on July 9, 2006, at the Nevada Northern’s Ely depot. Getting there was an odyssey in itself. I flew from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and took a shuttle to North Las Vegas airport for the second leg of the trip on Scenic Airlines, which flies 19-seat planes from North Las Vegas to Ely. My flight was delayed (and they say only Amtrak is late), but when I finally arrived at the small Ely airport I was greeted by head counselor Gary Yanko, along with fellow RailCamper D. L. Burks.

At the depot, we enjoyed a very tasty assortment of barbecue for dinner while we all got acquainted. There were nine of us, and everyone’s interests in railroading were different. We were all primarily focused on a different area of railroading such as steam, freight, or passenger.

After dinner, we had a meeting in the depot. We learned what we would be doing during RailCamp, learned the rules, and received equipment including hard hats and gloves. After the meeting, we drove to the Ramada Inn where the campers and two counselors stayed. My roommate was Stephen Sery from Maryland. Our second counselor was Mr. David Burks.

Each day of RailCamp, we got up at 6:00 a.m. We ate breakfast at the Ramada Inn restaurant where a continental breakfast was prepared each morning. Immediately following breakfast, we would go over to the depot.

Dating back to 1907, the Nevada Northern Railway was established as a successful passenger railroad. After passenger and freight services ended, the railroad became a popular tourist line. Tourists from all over the world head to the historic facilities to take part in what passengers did a hundred years ago.

Throughout Monday morning, we were given more materials and took a tour of the museum property. My favorite part was the locomotive shops, where most of the crew at the NNRy works each day. After the tour, we learned we would be split into groups on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to take part in various activities.

At noon, we had lunch in the depot. Our lunches were freshly catered sandwiches, chips, fruit, cookies, and cold beverages. After lunch, we went to an enormous copper mine. Copper is big business and the copper from the Ely mines is being sent to China to develop the country’s telephone system, since phone cables require copper.

The miners work in shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Enormous dump trucks, priced in the millions, go in and out of the mine. The dump trucks have replaced what trains did several years ago. After the tour, we went to the Steptoe Valley Inn, a local bed and breakfast operated by Paul and Ronnie Branham, for dinner. They prepared fresh pizza and salad our first night. We enjoyed our dinner in an enclosed room with a beautiful view of their rose garden.

After dinner, we headed back to the depot for an activity where a few of us would share important objects related to railroads. Tonight, three RailCampers went, and we viewed a variety of objects such as photos, lanterns, keys, and such. Back at the hotel, we shared photos from the day and relaxed in our rooms. I was very excited for Tuesday because my group would be in the machine shop taking part in some very interesting activities.

After breakfast Tuesday morning, we headed over to the depot as usual. At 8:30, we split up into groups of three. In my group were Zachary Harding and Nicolas Marakovits. We headed over to the machine shop where we began by learning about safety-after all, the NNRy slogan is “Safety First.” After that, we assisted shop crew by cleaning steam locomotive No. 40, which would be back in service the following day.

After we got to know our way around the shops, Marty showed us how to weld. It’s not as easy as it looks, but after a while, I did get the hang of it. By mid-morning, we headed back to the depot for lunch. We had an interesting discussion during lunch, getting each other caught up on what we had all been doing throughout the morning.

After lunch, we go got a tour of the EMD SD9 diesel. The SD9s were first produced in 1954. Since the locomotive was in the shop, we also had the chance to go under it and get a close up look at the trucks and other components. When we came back up, we climbed aboard and looked in all of the compartments.

The SD9 is started from the outside. After we started it, we went into the cab to learn about the controls. I was familiar with the cab interior from playing Microsoft Train Simulator. Although this cab was very old, it still seemed very similar.

Toward the end of the day, we took part in my favorite activity. Just outside the shops is an old boxcar with operational air brakes. Using an air brake tester, we got to apply the brakes and listen to the car’s reaction. Although the car had the hand brake applied the entire time, it was very exciting to see how a freight train could stop with over a hundred cars.

After we finished up at the shops, we headed back to the depot. After we were all back together, we rode a velocipede for about a half hour each, taking turns running it a few hundred feet. For dinner, we went over to the Steptoe Valley Inn, where we found freshly prepared roast beef, baked potatoes, and salad. The roast beef was delicious after a hard day in the shops, and for dessert, we had strawberry cheesecake. Back at the Ramada, I went to bed late that night watching TV and enjoying the cool air at the 6427-foot elevation.

Wednesday would be the most laborious day. That is because today our group would be building track. The previous RailCamp group had built about 30 feet of track, and it was now our turn. The RailCampers were given the responsibility of building about a hundred feet of track in three days. After a demonstration by Dennis and Leonard, the three of us began manually drilling spikes into the ties and laying the track. We had to drill holes into the ties and position everything perfectly to avoid costly mistakes. We soon realized that laying track was not a mentally difficult task, but definitely a physically difficult one. We took turns, though, which made things easier.

We went to lunch at noon, and we were all very hungry. After lunch, Dennis and Leonard told us the work would get quite a bit easier because we would be able to use a jackhammer powered by air from the SD9. This made the work go much faster and we finished over 30 feet of track that day. This was a very rewarding activity, and Dennis and Leonard were nice enough to invite us all back to the railroad again if we are ever in Nevada to work more on the track.

That evening, after we all met up at the depot, we traveled about an hour to a hot spring just outside of Ely. We had a delicious picnic dinner of tender fried chicken and rolls, which we ate on the grass. After eating, we got into the hot springs. At the hottest point, they are boiling, and can obviously not be touched. But further down, they are about 90 degrees—perfect for relaxing in. The springs are very similar to a hot tub, just entirely natural. This was very interesting since most of us were accustomed to a swimming pool. We drove back into town and soon we were back at the Ramada. We were very tired and went to bed a bit earlier that evening.

I was looking forward to Thursday very much because it was operations day and we would ride the 9:30 train from Ely to Ruth. After breakfast, we met Conductor Gene, a volunteer who is in charge of the operation of many NNRy trips. After inspecting each passenger car in the morning’s consist, we departed on time to Ruth. Throughout the trip, we each got to collect tickets, ride in the cab of the steam engine, and assist Conductor Gene while switching the train on our trip back to Ely.

We had a relaxing lunch, and I anticipated our afternoon activity very much, since we would be learning about railroad radio from Joan Bassett. Joan took the three of us to the dispatcher’s office, which has a bird’s eye view of the Ely station platform area. I own a scanner and enjoy listening to railroad operations on it very much. Hearing from someone who does this every day was interesting because she explained how careful a dispatcher must be, since one small mistake can end in disaster on the railroad.

After this exciting day, we headed back to the Steptoe Valley Inn for a very special authentic meal. Tonight’s dinner would be what the copper miners ate years and years ago. It was very special food with a different taste, primarily meat and potatoes in a crescent type roll, although it was prepared to last throughout the entire day. After dinner, we headed back to the depot to talk more about our interests in railroading and watch videos about railroads across the country. Back at the Ramada, I went to bed and I was very excited for the next day, when each of us would operate the Alco RS3.

Friday finally arrived, and we all eagerly awaited our turn at the throttle of the locomotive. After breakfast at the Ramada and the trip to the depot, we went out to the old Ore Yard, where would each be take turns as engineer, brakeman, and switchman. First, I was the switchman, which can be very dangerous if not done properly. After that, I climbed aboard the RS3 and moved the train a few hundred feet, coupled it to a freight car, and waited for orders from my switchman and brakeman. After that, I was the brakeman. This was the most challenging job because we needed to know our hand signals very well to avoid any miscommunication. These three jobs were incredible! Most people never get to do any of these so I felt very fortunate. After we all finished up, we had lunch.

In the evening, we had a dinner similar to the first night barbecue outside the depot. The week had gone by so fast, and I was sad that it was already over. After the tasty dinner, we were awarded our certificates and given NRHS memberships, NNRy commemorative coins, and we bid farewell to the Nevada Northern staff, which we would not be seeing again.

Saturday was the last day of RailCamp. We woke up a bit earlier so we could have an extended breakfast with Nevada Northern’s Mark and Joan Bassett at the hotel. We discussed with them future RailCamps and how they can make it even better. We had very few suggestions, since the experience was already so remarkable. After a final trip to the depot and bidding farewell to my new friends, several of us headed to the airport to catch a flight to Las Vegas. We enjoyed a final conversation aboard the aircraft (of all places) and hoped to see each other again. At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, we split up and headed our own ways back home.

RailCamp was an amazing experience. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in trains. The NRHS now offers RailCamp for adults at the Nevada Northern. If you have an interest in trains, go to RailCamp; you won’t regret it. All Aboard!

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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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