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Is This Anyway to Run a Railroad?

This past Saturday night the Foundation recognized the people who volunteered at the Museum. This has been an incredible year for the museum. So far we have operated almost 500 trains and the train season is not quite complete. There are seventeen trains still scheduled. There are twelve Polar Express trains and two Winter Photo Freights yet to go. On top of that, there are three locomotive rentals still on the schedule. Currently the last train of the season is December 12th at 1:00 p.m. So far this year we have transported 11,475 passengers and had another 15,000 visitors who came by but did not ride the train; instead they walked through the museum. So far this year the Nevada Northern trains have traveled 7,611 miles or 169,734 passenger miles. All without injury or accident–that is a record that professional railroaders would be proud. Yet highly motivated volunteers accomplished this record.

None of this would have happened without our volunteers. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: our trains are not powered by coal or diesel fuel. They are truly powered by the sweat of the volunteers. Without volunteers none of this would have happened.

When we speak of the volunteers it’s easy for us to fixate on the train crews. They have the glamorous jobs, the engineer, conductor, firemen, and brakemen. But, this is not enough to run the railroad, or even more simply put, just to run trains.

Don’t get me wrong; the train crewmembers are worked like dogs. It is not unusual for a volunteer to start at 4:00 am getting 93 ready, then during the day take a four-hour break in between crewing different trains and then finishing the day 7:00 pm. Then getting up the next morning and doing it all over again; it makes for real long days and very short nights.

Yet the train crewmembers are only part of the story, what about the ticket sellers? You can have the train all set to go, but if no one sells tickets, your train is not going anywhere. Yes, it’s mighty hot work to shovel 2,000 pounds of coal for one trip up the hill in the cab of steam locomotive 93. But it is also hot work to stand in the ticket booth in August, selling tickets, ringing up sales, answering the same question for the thousandth time (smiling), running credit cards, and oh yes you need to answer the phone too.

I’ve witnessed other volunteers in the belly of steam locomotive 40 cutting out tubes in July and August. Other volunteers were out on the line replacing ties. Then there are the volunteers behind the scenes, such as those who come down at God-awful times in the morning, like o’dark thirty, to get the steamers ready for the day. Getting a steamer ready is dirty work, from oiling ’round, to shoveling coal; it is just nasty work.

Other volunteers are working to clean up the yard by getting rid of old refrigerators and other debris. Still others work in the office answering the phones, manning the gift shop, and helping push the paper and, boy, is there a lot of paper.

I shake my head with disbelief, when the train comes in at 3:00 pm and a metamorphose takes place. Seatbacks and bottom cushions are removed. Tables and table legs are put up. And then, the white linen tablecloths, silverware, wineglasses, salt and paper shakers, candles, nut dishes, beer, wine, sodas, ice, and water are all set up. And in less than 3 hours, as if by magic, the excursion train was transformed into an elegant wine train, but it really wasn’t magic, just a lot of sweat. At 6:45 pm the conductor along with the hostess starts seating our guests and then at 7:00 pm the train pulls out. The train crew can retreat to the flatcar where there is a breeze, but the hostess, servers, and bartenders are left to the heat and the swaying of the cars. And yes, the cars do sway. And somehow, the servers and bartenders serve liquid refreshments, without spilling a drop. (The dinner trains are even more amazing. Eighty plates are prepared in an area of two feet by five feet and then delivered down the swaying cars without disaster.)

At 9:00 pm the wine train comes back in. I’ve been the conductor on the wine trains and something odd happens. We pull into the East Ely Depot and I announce, “East Ely,” open the trap and drop to the ground. I look around and I’m the only one on the ground, the passengers are still on the train. The passengers are grateful and complementary but they are enjoying themselves so much, they don’t want to leave. After the last passenger is off the train, then a new metamorphose takes place. Dirty dishes, silverware, and wine glasses are loaded into tubs. Salt and paper shakers and candles, are gathered up and put away. The white linen tablecloths are now soiled and stuffed into bags. Now the beer, wine, sodas, ice, and water are all off loaded and put away. Then at 7:00 am the next morning, the tables come down, and seats go back in and the train is made ready for its 9:30 am departure.

Meanwhile other volunteers are in the shops working on the ancient freight equipment. One of museum’s big fundraisers are the photo freights where people come from around the world come to photograph a steam locomotive doing what she was built for—hauling ore. Of course, we don’t load the cars now but we do make up the trains in time-honored fashion. And, if a photographer is using black and white film, I challenge you to date the prints. Were the photos taken in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s or even 2004?

But to run these trains, the old equipment needs to be gone through, cleaned and painted. The metal is rusty, the wood splintery and it is all heavy. Yet people spend their vacations here just working on this equipment to make it presentable and to make it roll again.

All of the activities of the volunteers convene when the train pulls into the station and the passengers load up. Yet even this is not the end of the story. Once steam locomotive 93 arrives at Keystone, the engine crew will stop the train to check hub temperatures. And then wouldn’t you know it, the desperados that lurk in the area come out to rob the passengers on the train. These desperados arrive via horseback with guns a blazing and climb on the train to rob the passengers; sometimes they even kidnap a passenger or two. But so far, every time these dirty deed doers attempt to rob the train, the sheriff and his posse show up to save the day. The heroes and villains are all volunteers of the Ghost Riders of Old Ely, a local shoot’em-up group.

This dedicated bunch of individuals haul their horses up to Keystone to rob the train. They dress in old west outfits and supply their own ammo. I thought it was tough to get a steam locomotive ready, imagine going out to the pasture, getting the horse, getting it in the trailer, getting the gear and then getting out to Keystone. The once at Keystone, getting the horse out of the trailer, saddling up, and then you wait for the train. Train arrives, bad guys rob, get shot by the good guys and drop like a ton of bricks. And they don’t drop on a feather bed either but on the rocky ground. Show finishes, the dead arise, now bruised; they take off saddles, load horses and head for home. And this is fun.

More community groups help out at Halloween with the Haunted Ghost trains. This year we ran four haunted Ghost Trains and the ghosts were from the Eastern Nevada Coalition, the Paris Family, the Ghost Riders, the Caboose 3 group, and other individuals. The ghosts do their own costumes, supply their own lights and accessories and then stand out in the dark to perform little vignettes as the train goes by. Eight times the ghosts performed for the train. And twice it was in the rain and snow. But as the saying goes, ‘the show must go on’, a little snow and rain did not wash out our ghosts, they performed.

There is one more group that needs recognition and perhaps it’s the most important: it’s the spouses and family members of all of the volunteers, who support the volunteers and let them volunteer. They either get dragged to Ely to spend a day, weekend or in some cases a summer so one member of the family can live a dream. To them I want say, “Thank you.”

This has been an incredible year for the railroad—509 trains, transporting over 12,000 passengers, traveling almost 8,000 miles, maintaining 50 structures and 30 miles of track. In our spare time, work was finished on Coach 5; work was begun on locomotive 40’s rebuild; and day-to-day maintenance was performed on our operating locomotives and coaches.

So, is this anyway to run a railroad? I would have to say a resounding “YES!” There is an incredible story taking place here on the high desert, and that is the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, which is powered by its volunteers. And to those volunteers, I say, “THANK YOU for a job incredibly well 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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