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Nevada Northern Railway Mysteries — Part II

As mentioned last week, the Nevada Northern Railway has a couple of mysteries. Looking back almost a century now, the reason why the railroad did something is unclear. Why aren’t we called the Northern Nevada Railroad? Good question, the only person who could answer it would be Mark Requa, the builder of the railway, and he’s been dead some time now.

The railroad came to town on September 29, 1906. Shortly after the hoopla was over, it was time to start the serious business of building the infrastructure of the railroad.

To move the ore trains and passenger trains the railroad needed steam locomotives. Normally, the locomotives would be stored in a roundhouse that would face a turntable. A roundhouse and turntable go together like chickens and eggs. Without one, you don’t have the other.

A turntable is a short piece of track that revolves around and is used to turn a locomotive around. Unlike today’s diesel locomotives, a steam locomotive does not backup easily. The tender, which is behind a steam locomotive, really restricts an engineer’s view.

Once a steam locomotive finishes its run, it heads to the enginehouse for servicing. The shop crew swarm over the locomotive getting it ready for its next trip. One of the tasks they need to do is turn the locomotive around. This is easily accomplished with the turntable. But there is no turntable at East Ely, there is just a wye. A wye is a section of track in the form of a triangle. The wye allows a locomotive to do essentially a three-point turn, which turns it around. The disadvantages to a wye are that it takes a lot of ground and there are three switches that need to be thrown. At East Ely, the wye is four blocks from the enginehouse. To turn a locomotive it is about a mile round trip from the enginehouse to the wye and back again. To use the wye you need to block the mainline. A turntable would have solved this problem. From 1907 until the mid-1950s, every steam locomotive that needed to be turned needed to go on a mile trip. Because of the switches involved, it takes about 30 to 40 minutes to turn one of the steam locomotives. Add this up over fifty years and that wye was very expensive.

Secondly, when you use a turntable, you build your enginehouse in an arc. The reason is that your tracks coming off the turntable are laid out as radii. One track comes in and dozens of tracks can go out. An enginehouse built with a turntable was called a roundhouse because it was built circularly. Another advantage to a roundhouse is that since the different stall’s tracks were built on radii, the front of the track is further apart than the rear of the track from its neighboring tracks. A steam locomotive that needed running gear work would be brought in to the roundhouse nose first. This gave the shop crews lots of room to work on the front of the locomotive without interfering with shop workers working on a neighboring locomotive.

So what happened in East Ely? Why is there no roundhouse and turntable? Good question. There should be one here, standard practice would dictate one, but there isn’t and the reason is a mystery. (Though someone thought there should be-on some of the Nevada Northern Railway yard maps the enginehouse is referred to as the roundhouse. So the Nevada Northern has a rectangular roundhouse. Now that’s confusing.)

The enginehouse is the source of a couple of other mysteries in itself. In the enginehouse and in the foundry are two large potbelly stoves. The stove doors are marked “D & RGRW 1882.” The initials stand for Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway, 1882. The question is where did the Nevada Northern find two potbelly stoves that were at least twenty-five years old when they were installed? Surely there were stoves that were available that were closer to Ely than from Colorado? Not to mention newer.

Another mystery in the enginehouse is the men’s washroom and locker room. This room is a small room that is in the very back of the enginehouse. What is mysterious about it is that it has a pressed tin ceiling. No other building or room on the railroad has a pressed tin ceiling, so why does the washroom and locker room? The General Manager did not get such a ceiling nor did the waiting rooms in the East Ely, McGill, or Cherry Creek depots. But tucked away, where only the workers would see it, is a rather fancy tin ceiling. Maybe it was a management concession at contract time. Though I think, the workers would have wanted more money rather than a fancy ceiling.

In the East Ely Yard is the Chief Engineer’s Building. It’s a rather nondescript wooden building. This past Labor Day weekend, the MOW motorcar group started to cleanup the building. In the cleanup, it was noticed that the building was split in half. This got us to speculating: was the building brought in from somewhere else? That seemed to be a good bet. It was very common for railroads to move buildings. Why else would the building be cut in half? Then I remembered that the current depots at Currie and McGill were not the first structures at either location. The records mention that a temporary depot was used at both locations before the current depots were built. After the McGill Depot was built, there is no further mention of the temporary depot. So could the Chief Engineer’s Building be the missing depot? I believe so. The reason is that on a visit to the Northeastern Museum in Elko doing research on Nevada Northern Railway photographs, we started talking about the railroad. The curator mentioned that one of their quarterly publications had a story on person who lived at the Currie Depot. We found the publication and the cover was a photograph taken of the person at the Currie Depot. The photo doesn’t show the entire structure, but the corner of it. And it is obvious that the building in the photo is not the current depot. That is a tantalizing clue though. The photo does show the corner of the roof. The corner on that photograph and the roof corner of the Chief Engineer’s Building look identical. As I said, it is tantalizing.

The last little mystery is the color of the cabooses on both the Nevada Northern Railway and Kennecott. The color is yellow. Why yellow? The traditional color of a railroad caboose is red; in fact, it is referred to as caboose red—but not on the Nevada Northern Railway. In the RIP building is Caboose 3, purchased by the Nevada Northern Railway in 1906. The caboose is yellow just like cabooses 5, 6 and 22. In fact, a group of volunteers has started sanding and scrapping caboose 3 in preparation of repainting the caboose. They have scrapped the old paint off to almost bare wood and the only color that they can find is yellow. The only red on the caboose is for window trim. This would seem to indicate that Nevada Northern cabooses have been yellow since day one. But that may not be true. Caboose 3 could have come as a red caboose and then been resided sometime later in its career and then was painted yellow. To get to the bottom of the mystery will entail going through the railroad archives.

A rectangular roundhouse, no turntable, D & RGRW potbelly stoves, a mysterious depot photograph, and yellow cabooses—all are a little mysterious; if nothing else they are all head scratchers. If you have any ideas, let me know. Better yet, do you have any Nevada Northern Railway mystery of your own that you would like to share?

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