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Nothing Like I Imagined—Fire and Water

Being the executive director of a railroad museum has it challenges. When I signed-on, I thought I knew what most of the challenges would be, and I understood that there would be a few hidden ones. Well, I was a babe in the woods. Little did I know how bad the condition of the utilities was throughout the complex.

One evening last year, my wife and I were outside and the 4:30 p.m. train had just pulled into the depot and discharged its passengers. After the passengers were gone, the locomotive cut-off and headed to the enginehouse and she said to me, “Boy you can relax now; the last train is in and all is right with the world.”

Well, that’s not quite true. Just because the last train made it back with all of its cars, all of its passengers, and the crewmembers came back with all of their fingers and toes, not all is right with the world. That is only half of the equation.

The other half is the complex. The Nevada Northern Railway Museum complex is a National Historic District that has been nominated for National Landmark status. The complex is a small town consisting of over sixty buildings and structures with the earliest dating from the completion of the railroad in 1906. The vast majority of the buildings date from 1907 to 1910.

Most of these buildings were cheaply built of wood and sheet metal. On top of that, they have been painted repeatedly with oil-based paint for nearly one hundred years. The buildings are close to the tracks.

During the heyday of the railroad, the railroad built the utilities that its small town needed. In went a water system, septic system, steam system, air system, telephone system, and an electrical system. Onsite, the railroad had its own police force and fire department with a hydrant system through the yard.

Today, the hydrant system is kaput. We don’t have an onsite fire department. And at the same time, we operate steam locomotives, which throw out sparks right next to these buildings. The complex is primed for a catastrophic fire. The buildings are close together. The wood is dry and covered in multiple layers of oil-based paint. It is a tinderbox just waiting for a spark.

And the cause might not be the steam locomotives. The diesel locomotives also throw off sparks. Then there is the electrical system.

The electrical system was installed as the buildings were built and it is failing. We have disconnected buildings and deactivated power lines. But the portion of the system that we still use is a mishmash of patched together systems that we add new components to.

And the heating system is also very basic. The CMO uses a kerosene heater and electric heaters to heat his office. In the Master Mechanics office, next to priceless original blueprints is a coal burning potbelly stove, which I have seen red hot. We no longer use this stove, but I don’t think the replacement solution is much better. We have a propane fired catalytic heater suspended from the ceiling and of course the ubiquitous electric heaters.

To protect this historic complex, we need a new water system, hydrants, and a sprinkler system throughout the buildings. But the problem is even worse. The City of Ely cannot supply the water we need for the complex unless they invest a million dollars in their water system. Even if the museum was able to install a new water system throughout the complex and put in fire hydrants and a sprinkler system in all of the buildings, the city water system cannot supply the water we need.

The museum water system presents a two-fold challenge. The existing system cannot provide enough water for fire protection. And part of the system still has water in and it is failing.

Last fall the depot basement flooded. Documents that were stored down there was soaked and damaged. The culprit was a broken water pipe in the street. Recently, two staff members were walking through the yard. They saw the one of the antique fire hydrants was leaking. They stopped to tighten the valve and the hydrant broke in their hands. In just a few moments, we had the beginning of a lake. We were lucky this time. The break happened during the day and we were able to find a shut off valve.

If the break had happened at night and we were not able to find a shut off valve, the yard would have flooded. We would have had to dig out the line and cap it off. This in itself would not have been easy. The saturated ground would have forced us to discontinue operations until the ground dried out.

To a certain extend it is just a matter of time of what gets us first—fire or water. And then there is the lack of a sewer system and the electrical system over and above the challenges with the steam locomotives, antique coaches, and keeping a roof over the buildings. Yes sir, running a railroad museum is a challenge.

I need to stress that the museum does everything it can do to minimize the fire danger. Brush and grass is removed from around the buildings. We spray the grounds to keep the weeds down. The steam and diesel locomotives are not worked through the yard to keep the sparks down. And with the ash pit in place, the cinders and hot coals are deposed of far away from the structures.

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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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