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I Finally Got To Blow the Whistle!

by Rae Nell O’Donnell

I consider myself quite fortunate in having been born and raised in Ely, Nevada. All of my life I have lived with the sound of the locomotives, bells, and whistles of the Nevada Northern Railway. During the school year, many of my classmates rode the train in from their homes up north each day; in the summer, we all piled on board and rode the rails up to the county’s only swimming pool in McGill.

We were all saddened when the copper mine that had built our town announced that it was closing and would also be shutting down the railroad. I had always dreamed of maybe one day working on the railroad, maybe shoveling coal, maybe even getting to run the train and blow the whistle. A fantasy of course, in those days hogging was a man’s world, but I still loved the trains.

When it was announced that the Nevada Northern would be given to the newly-created museum board, my husband, Jerry (who is also an Ely native), and I were among the first to sign up as volunteers to help keep the railroad running, now as a tourist attraction. Over the ensuing eighteen years, I have worked the concession stands on the special theme trains, helped to sell tickets, and even got to narrate during some of the runs. But running the train? Blowing the whistle? No, it just wasn’t in my cards. In all my years in Ely, I had never even been in the cab of a locomotive. Still, a girl can dream.

The railroad had started a new program where a person could actually rent and drive a locomotive and I gave that some pretty serious thought, but my dreams became pretty dim when, in November 2000, I had both of my knees replaced. The recovery was long and the legs no longer could bend—how I wish that I’d grabbed the bull by the horns when I was in better shape!

On the day of our wedding anniversary in 2003, I underwent more surgery in order to have the tendons in my left foot repaired and in January of 2004, had the same thing done on my right foot. My dreams of driving the old engines were now down the road, there was no way that I was going to be able to get on old No. 93 or even No. 40. If I did manage to climb on, I could never get down again—those steamers looked so darned high and the ladder to get on and off looked to be a mile off the ground! Then in September of 2005, the doctor put a screw in my right ankle. This really did the dream in for good. Or so I thought.

As both our anniversary and Jerry’s birthday neared in 2006, my husband started acting sneaky and I just knew he had something up his sleeve (besides his arm). He asked me for a date on September 10th, and could I please let him have $300. What in the world was he up to, besides 5-foot 3-inches?

It seems that Jerry, Mark Bassett (the railroad’s director), Sharon and Gwyneth from the gift shop, Joan (Mark’s wife), Natasha (a staff member who does about everything), and volunteers Pat and Gene Rogers were all in on a secret plan to put me in Engine No. 40. Mark and Jerry had figured out a way to get me on and off the locomotive!

I became aware of this conspiracy when, on the 7th of September, Jerry handed me a bunch of papers to fill out, which were the rules and regulations for operating a steam locomotive on the Nevada Northern. Also included in this paperwork was a copy of THE test, another obstacle to overcome, I don’t like tests. I studied and learned everything that I could to follow the rules and safely operate a locomotive that was delivered brand new in 1910.

September 10th dawned bright and cheery. I was going to drive a train! First though, I needed a long-sleeve cotton shirt, cotton pants, leather boots and gloves-and a hat. I had acquired everything but the hat because frankly, I just didn’t like the engineer hats in the gift shop; it’s a girl thing, OK? Gwyneth, the gift shop manager, just happened to have a top hat belonging to her husband Bruce, sitting in her office. Bruce volunteers as both brakeman and conductor. The hat looked pretty neat and I didn’t hesitate to appropriate it for my day on the rails.

Now that I had everything a proper engineer should have, I needed to take the official test and then wait until a departure time of just past noon. First, though, we stopped while I enjoyed watching No. 40 return from her morning Keystone run; she is just so majestic! A father-son team of volunteers from California was working the engine: Lou Bergandi was the engineer and his son Louie was firing. They held the steamer while passengers disembarked and then ran her down to the wye in order to turn her around so that she would be ready for the next run—my run.

I passed the written test just fine and then faced my next test as Natasha signaled that they were ready to board. Could I actually climb into the cab? Yes! With help from my friends, I was up and in the cab with no trouble at all. The seat is on the right side of the engine, but boy-oh-boy what a big step, with nothing at all to hold onto or to grab to help me up and over, but I made it. I made it! I was in the cab of a locomotive for the first time in my life!

Lou gave me some last minute instructions and I looked forward, though a tiny little door, which gave the engineer a view to the front of the locomotive and a portion of the tracks. But what a view it was!!! Just to my left was a big lever, called the reverser, or Johnson bar. I would have to push it all the way forward to go forward, or pull it all the way back for it to go in reverse, and in the middle was “neutral.” This was another challenge—it was pretty hard to pull or push. Then there was another lever that had to be brought forward and pushed back with my foot. I could push it OK, but had to stand up and reach in order to pull it back—I could not get my foot behind it to pull it that way.

Then there was another lever, a longer one to the left, which came up almost to my shoulder. Called the throttle, it’s just like the gas pedal on a car in that it can make the engine go or slow it down. No, the locomotive doesn’t have cruise control, not even an automatic transmission. One pulls on the throttle until it comes to a stop, then engine No. 40 builds up steam and slowly starts rolling forward. If you wanted to slow down, you push the throttle forward a couple of notches and if you want to go faster, you would pull it back a couple of notches.

Another lever, a much smaller one, was the air brake. Near it, another slightly bigger lever was one I remembered from the test as it was said in no uncertain terms not to touch it or you stop real fast and could easily flatten the drivers. If you flatten the wheels to more than two and one-half inches, they could no longer use the engine. I sure hoped that nothing happened that would cause me to have to use that particular lever!

There were gauges that you had to watch (two big ones that I don’t remember the function) and two in particular that I had to watch all the time: the air and the miles per hour. You had to keep your eye on them most of the time. Then there was a little red knob that would turn the bell ringer on, which you have to use when getting ready to go, or at crossings and tunnels. OK, I had the bell handled, now I had to remember the various whistle signals, most importantly two when going forward and three for backing up—it’s a really good idea to let the rest of the train crew know what the train’s going to be doing. Then there are the two longs, a short, and another long for crossings, tunnels, and blind curves. I could blow the whistle anyway I wanted to. Cool!

OK, we are now ready to get going. Ring the bell and give three pulls on the whistle before backing her to the East Ely switch. I pulled the lever that would start us rolling, taking it to a point when it would stop, then two more notches—that could get us up to 15 m.p.h. She rocked back and forth some and started out really slow, then built up some steam. I made it to the switch with no problems, started the bell again, gave two pulls on the whistle cord, and we headed up the hill to the Keystone wye, remembering all the things that Lou had taught me to do with the various levers, knobs, and such.

We had a crossing coming up, so it was time to start the bell and give two longs, a short, and another long on the whistle, remembering to whistle on through the crossing. I was a little short with it but no harm done. Next up was the Lackawanna crossing, remembering to start the bell again (it’s shut off as soon as we cross) and give crossing toots again. Made it through that crossing. Now we must keep the speed at 15 m.p.h. and watch those gauges. Oops, she gets away real quick, up to 22 m.p.h.—got to slow down by pushing in the long handle a couple of notches. Works real nice, she slowed right back down.

Coming up on the old Ely Grade School crossing, so again with the bell and whistle blowing, then right up to the Renaissance Village crossing, do it all over again. Then we approach Bronk Alley, our town’s red light district (remember, this is Nevada). No crossing here but we blow the whistle to wake up the girls and then it’s around the bend and to the tunnel. From the cab, the tunnel looks like a big black hole in the mountain. Ring the bell and blow the whistle, again two longs, a short, and a long. Now when you ride in the cars, the tunnel looks pretty closed in, but in the cab of the locomotive, I really wondered if we were going to fit in there. The tunnel is curved to boot, so it’s really dark, getting pretty smoky, and just seems like we are not going to fit. To me, it was the scariest part of the run. Oh by the way, did I mention that you don’t drive a train, you run it?

Once through the old tunnel, we hop through the newer tunnel, which is straight, short, and not very dark, then settled in at 15 m.p.h. and I was feeling a lot more comfortable with the whole idea. Jerry was taking pictures and enjoying the ride. I don’t know if he was as nervous as I was about the whole thing but if he was, remember that it was his idea to do this. Jerry had been watching the show for some time when Louie asked him if he would like to shovel some coal into the firebox and he was game.

While he shoveled and I watched out of the corner of my eye, we both learned that you have to throw that coal up to twelve feet into the firebox—just the coal, not the shovel. I call this the dance of the fireman. That’s not an easy job; he has to watch the tracks on the engineer’s blind side, shovel coal, do lots of things with knobs, watch gauges, watch a glass tube filled with water, check the fire, and even shake the grates with a long steel handle. This reminded me of my grandpa who had an old coal stove and who every morning would shake the “soup” out of the grates to get the ashes into the ash pan (he not only shook the grates but the rafters too when he got to going with that chore). Louie was really shaking the grates too, which brought to mind many pleasant memories of staying with my grandparents up in McGill.

The engine seemed to have a mind of her own—she kept creeping up to 22 m.p.h. and I’d have to slow her down again. Lou seemed to always know just what she was going to do and when, and was always ready with a word of advice before I even thought about it.

Now rounding the corner, we turned away from highway 50. (We run alongside the highway for a few miles; there are always railfans out there, waving and taking pictures, and I was waving back from the cab with my hand on the throttle while blowing the whistle.) We run under the old bridge to the copper mine and stop to back into the Keystone wye. This wye was built in 1987 so that the train could be turned around instead of having to back all the way into East Ely.

OK, we’re ready to start back down the tracks to the depot. Ring the bell, blow the whistle twice, move the throttle just so, and we are on our merry way once again. I have to watch the speed very closely as we are heading downhill; now I learn how to work the brakes a lot more. She rocks some but I’m getting used to that now, it’s not a smooth ride in a locomotive, let me tell you, but it still gets easier as we go. I watch for the crossings, making sure to ring the bell and blow the whistle while I watch the tracks ahead, which look just like silver ribbons.

We head back through the tunnels. The old one is still scary, as I can’t see anything but a big black hole that gets much smaller as we go in. Sure hope nothing is sitting in there. I watch the gauges and make sure that we slow to the required 8 m.p.h. through the old tunnel and then we pop out and blow the whistle for the girls at Bronk Alley again. Wakie-wakie!

Keeping her at 15 m.p.h., we head back through town, hitting the Renaissance and old Grade School crossings again, bell ringing, whistle blowing all the while. It all looks so different from up here! We round the blind curve and pass the yard limit sign, then across Lackawanna crossing. I remember to ring the bell, blow the whistle, and realize that it will shortly be over. Sure wish it was longer, but what a day I had! As we approach the East Ely switch, Louie jumps down and switches the tracks while Lou takes over the right seat to back us into the depot. My day as a hogger is done.

Back at the depot, I have to make it from the seat to the floor and then out the door. Can I make it? With no handholds and a high step, the new knees bend just far enough and I made it to the door. Here goes nothing: first rung, second rung, third and then the longest span and I am on the ground in one piece! There waiting for me were Evva and Natasha with a certificate telling the world that I am a duly recognized locomotive engineer who ran the train.

My dear Jerry and the staff and volunteers of the NNRy couldn’t have made a better day for me. It was an once-in-a-lifetime adventure and they will never know how much it meant to me; words cannot begin to express the feelings that I had then and still have now that it is all over.

Whoever invented the steamers had to be a genius; they are a marvel. If anyone has any doubts about renting one of these old engines and running a train, they should put them aside and just do it. As for me, I was lucky enough to run the diamond in the crown of the locomotive fleet at Nevada Northern Railway, and I got to blow the whistle. A lot.

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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