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Five Hundred Years Gone in Five Minutes

It took less than a minute. Crash—100 years gone. Another minute, another crash—another 100 years gone. Three more minutes, three more crashes—another 300 years goes into the trash. By the end of five minutes, 500 hundred years of history was shattered and gone forever.

It was a cold, snowy December 31, 2005. A fast moving blizzard had hit Ely. I was watching television and settling in to watch a couple of movies and wait for the New Year to roll in. Then all of sudden, no picture. What?!?

I have satellite service. In the past, high winds had blown the satellite dish off the satellite receiver. Repairs entail getting the extension ladder, climbing up to the roof and resetting the dish. So in a blizzard, I set up the ladder and climb up to the dish. It’s not the wind but the snow; the thick, heavy flakes have coated the dish and interrupted the signal. I wiped it clean, the signal came back for about four minutes, and then it was gone again. That’s the end of a quiet evening of watching television, I thought.

But the wet, snowy blizzard blew through within an hour. It dumped about two inches of wet, heavy snow on the ground. So I thought I’d wipe the dish clear of snow and get on with that nice quiet evening.

I climbed the ladder and I hear a boom, then another boom and a crash. The noise is coming from the Nevada Northern Railway Freight House. I shine my flashlight over towards the building and another hear another crash. I yell, “Hey!” and hear kids’ voices.

I yell down to my wife to call the police and tell them that someone is trying to break into the Freight House.

I hear more voices, “What about our tracks in the snow?”

I climb down the ladder, and head over to the Freight House. The kids are gone. There are plenty of footprints in the snow. I shine my light at the side of the Freight House. Someone has been making snowballs and throwing them at the building. And then I see it. On the east wall of the building, there are four windows. Each window is made up of four panes of glass and five of the panes are broken.

This is the east side of the freight house. It is the oldest building on the complex and over $500,000 has been spent on it to save it from destruction.

This part of the building was the first depot in Ely. People looked out the windows and watched the first train come to town. People who stand here to watch the Centennial reenactment won’t have the same view.

I’m happy to report that three sheriff’s deputies showed up within minutes of my getting to the building. And I’m also happy to report that the deputies took the case very seriously. And better yet, as I write this, it appears that they also solved the case.

These are not just broken windows. This was not some innocent childhood prank. These were the original windows. Windows that were installed by workmen almost a century ago. The Freight House is the first building that was built by the railroad and served as the first depot. People looking through those windows saw the first train come to Ely on September 29, 1906.

Now when recreate the first train coming to Ely on September 29, 2006, the people will be looking through new glass not through the windows that were installed 100 years ago.

So what’s the big deal? It’s only a couple of windows and kids will be kids, right? Wrong. The glass windows that were broken were made of ripple glass. Ripple glass is an old glass that has a surface texture, often dramatic, consisting of linear or irregular ripples. These ripples were created naturally in the sheet-forming processes of making plate glass. It speaks to the age of the glass; this glass distorts the view because of the imperfections. Now these windows will be repaired with new glass. This glass will give an unobstructed view of the coming and going of the trains, but it’s not the same.

Why? Because a few kids were bored and looking for something to do. Their idea was to use the fresh snow to make snowballs that they threw at the windows and destroyed them. Five minutes, five destroyed 100-year-old windowpanes.

I am not a professional historian. But it shocks me to realize that the window glass that witnessed the arrival of the New York to Paris automobile racers is gone. Windows that survived two world wars and ninety-nine winter storms are gone.

A close up of the broken windows illustrates one of the problems historic properties face; in the blink of an eye, we can lose our history.

It’s not a childhood prank. In addition to losing five century-old panes of glass, the broken windows open the building to the weather. Because of a fluke, the vandalism was discovered almost as soon as it happened. But if it hadn’t been discovered so quickly, it would have left the interior of the building open to the elements for two days in stormy weather. So in addition to the broken windows, we would have had historic artifacts exposed to two days of snow.

Then there is the financial cost. In the past four years, we have spent way over $200,000.00 in repairing windows and protecting them.

That’s almost a quarter of a million dollars that was spent to repair windows. This money could have been spent on countless other projects. The needs of the museum are great and this money could have been used on many different projects.

So it’s not funny and it’s not harmless. Breaking those windows is about the same as going into the cemetery and turning over the vandals’ family tombstones. It is disrespectful to their family’s memories and the breaking of the historic windows is disrespectful to the memory of the individuals who built the railroad and worked here.

This window is in the enginehouse. The group who gave us the money to repair the windows insisted that we cover the windows to protect them. So we have repaired and screened the windows. This distracts from the historic aspect of the property. Also, you can see that the concrete window sill is failing. Instead of spending so much money on windows and screening, we could have repaired the sill.

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