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Not Just Any Old Ash Pit

For the past couple of weeks, I had a notice at the bottom of this column asking whether anyone knew what the old ash pit looked like. Seemed like a simple question, but its answer actually has major ramifications.

Let me start at the beginning. Steam engines burn coal. This coal turns into ash and clinkers (clinkers are the impurities of the coal fusing together in the heat of the firebox). Currently, when the ashes need to be emptied from the firebox of Locomotive 93 we do it in front of the enginehouse. This is bad for a couple of reasons. The first reason is the rails holding 93 up are anchored by wooden ties. Drop hot ashes and cinders on top of wooden ties and guess what happens? The ties catch on fire and start burning, not a good plan. Secondly, after you drop the ashes between the rails, you need to remove the ashes or they build up and you bury the rails, another bad idea. To remove the ashes we use the bucket on our backhoe and remove them one-bucket load at a time. Not the best use of resources, to say the least.

The Nevada Northern solved this problem years ago by constructing an ash pit. An ash pit is exactly what it sounds like, a pit that the locomotive sits over and drops its ashes. Simple enough, when the pit is full, it’s emptied out, already for more ashes. That was then.

This is now, with the increase of the operating schedule it became very evident that we need an ash pit. Dropping the ashes in front of the enginehouse is not a good solution. With our centennial fast approaching and the desire to operate steam locomotives five or more days a week, we really needed an ash pit.

Great, since the Nevada Northern Railway operated steam locomotives from 1905 until the 1950s there had to be an ash pit somewhere on the grounds, but where?

So I started to ask around, where was the ash pit? I asked old time volunteers, I asked old Nevada Northern employees. Nobody knew where the ash pit was; it turned out I was asking the wrong people. Then I asked TJ Lani. He knew and pointed it right out to me.

The only hint of where the ash pit was, was what looked like a concrete line in the soil. It turns out that this concrete line was actually the top of the ash pit walls. Great, ash pit rediscovered. Volunteers removed the rails and ties from the area indicated by the concrete line. Keith Carson brought over his grandson and a front end loader and in a couple of hours dug out the old ash pit. Buried in the yard were the three concrete walls and concrete footings that made up the ash pit. Great!

But every success has a challenge as a part of it. The challenge here was the concrete walls were exposed, but there was no sign of the structure that support the track over the ash pit. What did it look like?

Now, you might be saying what difference does it make what the ash pit track structure looked like? It makes a big difference.

In the first place, the entire yard is a National Historic District. This honor was bestowed on the railroad because for the most part the yard is the same today as it was in 1917. Locomotives 93 and 40 came to the Nevada Northern brand new in 1909 and 1910, respectively. This is the real McCoy and one of the challenges of maintaining the Nevada Northern is keeping it the real McCoy. It is our responsibility to preserve and interpret the Nevada Northern as it was and is, not to change it. So hence my request for pictures or recollections of the ash pit, and I received nothing. I mean, who paid any attention to an ash pit?

Yet, here I was with a big hole in the ground and the need to construct a new ash pit. My biggest fear was I would find nothing and construct something that was my best guess. And then sure enough on the day we put the new ash pit in to service, someone would come forward with a picture and say, Why doesn’t your ash pit look like this one in the photograph that my great uncle Charlie took? Great, so much for living up to our mission statement.

Well, I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that I can rest easy, because I found the original plans for the ash pit in the vault. The vault is truly what makes the Nevada Northern a national treasure. Something as mundane as ash pit plans still exists and was saved after all of these years.

The plans consist of three sheets of vellum (a drawing paper) and show how the original ash pit was built and all of the specifications and materials for the job. The first two sheets were drawn in 1908 with the third sheet drawn in 1915 that showed changes to the original design. The plans were drawn on vellum that was 27 inches wide by 38 inches long. They were drawn in ink by hand and the detail work showing the bolt and nut assembly that anchors the structure is in itself a work of art.

So everything that I wanted to know about the ash pit that served the Nevada Northern Railway is right there in those plans. Now it is up to us to reconstruct the ash pit according to those plans, just like it was done in 1908. That is how we stay true to our mission.

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