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Lost in Plain Sight

As I became deeper involved with the Nevada Northern Railway, I began to look for things on the railroad. About two years ago, I stumbled upon a little book on eBay on the Nevada Northern. It was titled Sagebrush Shortline and it was a small book about the railroad published in 1964.

It was a nice little book. It had a picture that intrigued me. It showed a railroad spike mounted on a piece of wood with two silver plaques, one above the spike and one below. The caption said that it was a picture of the Copper Spike. The Copper Spike was presented to Mark Requa, the builder of the Nevada Northern Railway, by the citizens of Ely. This was the last spike that was driven by Mark Requa, on Railroad Day, September 29, 1906. Made of copper from the Ruth mine, this spike signified the completion of the railroad from Cobre to Ely.

The unique thing about the Nevada Northern Railway Museum is our touchable past. You really can’t move around the property with bumping into something historic. Open a desk drawer or cabinet and there is something from the early days of the railroad.

So my thinking at the time was, boy won’t it be exciting to see the Copper Spike and bring it to Ely for the Centennial Celebration. The photo caption credited the Mackey School of Mines. This should be easy, call the Mackey School of Mines and inquire about the Copper Spike. I did and it was nowhere as easy as I thought it would be. (I don’t know why this surprised me. The Nevada Northern corollary to Murphy’s Law is, “Nothing is as easy as it seems and everything will take longer than you expect.”) The first phone call was a dry hole, the Copper Spike was not on display anymore and the person I spoke with didn’t know where it was. Well, this was a touch discouraging, but not unexpected. I thought I would wait until a trip to Reno and see what I could find.

The copper spike faded into the background as other things took over my attention. I did attend a conference where people from the Nevada Historical Society attended and I asked them about the Copper Spike. They attacked the problem in two directions. First, they went back to the Mackey School of Mines and asked around and then they went through their archives. They had some spikes but nothing made of copper, another dry hole.

Meanwhile, Sean Pitts, of the East Ely Depot Railroad Museum, was also asking around with no success. It had appeared the Copper Spike had disappeared.

The Centennial Celebration was getting closer and I was contacted by Mark Requa’s grandchildren. I asked them about the copper spike. The grandson, Newton Requa Russell, was given the spike by his mother, Amy Requa Russell. Together they presented the spike to the Mackey School of Mines. A little more research produced a date and whom the spike was given to at the school.

In conversations with David Tilford, a local realtor, he remembered it on display in the Hall of Minerals about 10 years ago, so it was back to the School of Mines for another look. The pressure was building as the Centennial was fast approaching. The people at the Mackey School of Mines were most helpful, but again a dry hole.

The Centennial came and went. A couple weeks after the Centennial, I went to Carson City to be a speaker at the Virginia and Truckee Railroad Symposium. Keith Albrandt, our webmaster, was also a speaker. The symposium was held in the Nugget across the street from the Nevada State Museum. On the second day of the symposium, it was announced that the state museum was going to strike some V&T commemorative coins. I asked Keith if he wanted to go across the street and see the coin press strike coins. This is the same press that strikes the Centennial coins for us. He said yes and so we went over.

We watched the press strike a handful of coins and then we both wandered off. I went into the orientation room for the coin press. Keith was in the hallway right outside. I was looking at a display that featured a watch. As I was looking at it, Bob Nylen, the Curator of History, came by and mentioned that the watch had an interesting story, which he started to relate. The watch had been owned by Abe Curry who was one of the founders of Carson City and the builder of the mint. The museum had the watch on display and then it disappeared and was stolen. Then a person offered to sell the watch back to the museum. I listened to Bob tell the story about the watch. When he ended, I said we have a similar situation.

The Copper Spike of the Nevada Northern Railway had disappeared. Bob said, “No it hasn’t, it’s upstairs.” “What!” I exclaimed. Then Keith and I took off, like we were shot out of a cannon and ran upstairs. Now this was pretty ridiculous on our part. First off we had no clue where we going and secondly the upstairs is divided into a series of displays and rooms, so we could have wasted a lot of time running around in circles or we could just wait for Bob to come up. We waited, very impatiently. Bob came upstairs and said, “It’s through here.” So off we went again, not knowing where we were going but getting there in a big hurry. Finally, Bob lead us into a room on the history of transportation in Nevada. There was a display cabinet the featured a display on the railroads of Nevada. In the bottom, right corner of the cabinet was a block of wood with a copper color spike fastened to it. Above the spike and below the spike were two metal plates. The upper plate had engraved into it “Presented to M. L. Requa, Vice President and General Manager N. N. R. Y. by the Citizens of Ely.” The lower plate said, “The Last Spike, Nevada Northern Railway, Cobre, Sept 9 05, Ely Sept 29, 06.” There it was—the Copper Spike!

Keith and I were jumping up and down like a couple of schoolboys. Bob’s watching us and then drops the bomb. He says, “I was wondering why you hadn’t asked me for it. I thought you would want it for your Centennial Celebrations.”

“What! Of course we want it.” For the past two years, the Nevada State Museum has struck our Centennial Coins and I have always gone over there to watch the striking. During the day, I would take a break from the striking of the coins and wander through the museum. I had been in the transportation room and I had seen the display on Nevada’s railroads. But I had not noticed the greenish colored spike attached to a piece of wood. Or if I had noticed it, it had not registered as the Copper Spike.

Still not believing our good fortunate, I asked Bob if we could transfer the spike to Ely and he said he thought that was possible. Well a few weeks went by and the paperwork was complete. Bernie Allen, one of our volunteers, who lives in Carson City, brought the spike over on November 18th, the day of our volunteer banquet.

That night I unveiled the spike to the volunteers of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. It was an exciting moment.

Looking at the spike, it is nothing grandeurs. The wood base is rather plain. It looks like a local wood. The spike is not very large and it is roughcast out of copper. The metal plates that contain the wording have a little corrosion on them and are somewhat difficult to read. The spike itself was hand engraved with the words RR Day, Ely, Sept 29 06. On the back of the wood is a slot that is spike shaped and in ink in bold letters it says, “THE LAST SPIKE”. And looking at the top of the spike head it does appear that it has been struck by a spike maul once or twice.

So there you have it the mystery of the Copper Spike solved. The spike is at the museum and we need to get a display case for it. Once we have the display case, it will be on public display. But if you have a hankering to see it before hand, stop by the museum and we will show it to you.

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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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