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Nothing Like I Imagined

  When I accepted the job as Executive Director of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, in my imagination I saw myself sitting high in the cab of the steam locomotives. Clean bibs, crisp shirt, hickory stripped cap with gauntlet gloves, left hand on the throttle, controlling 100 tons of steam locomotive. The reality shall we say is slightly different, like the difference between night and day.

     The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is located in Ely Nevada. The complex is great. It’s as if the workers all went to lunch and never came back. Now a museum, we’re working to preserve the complex for future generations. Ely is located in the high desert in east central Nevada.

     I manage a fifty-six acre national historic district. The complex consists of sixty-three buildings and structures along with thirty miles of track. There are three steam locomotives, six diesel locomotives, and about seventy pieces of rolling stock. What this means is that I spend a lot of time on the ground, doing things that are not directly tied to train operations. Most of my time is stuck in front of a computer monitor. If I’m lucky, I can break free and do some walking tours and if I’m very lucky, I’ll schedule myself to be in the cab of one of the steamers as a head brakeman. (I have not yet found the time to schedule myself for training to learn firing and locomotive management, but that’s another story.)

     It is this remoteness that saved the complex. At the same time, it is this remoteness that makes it difficult to get visitors here. It was my first summer as Executive Director. One of the tasks I had accomplished was increasing our locomotive rental program. We are one of the few places in the United States that will let a person rent one of our locomotives and operate it on the mainline. This program does pull in people from around the country.

     Being the head brakeman is my reward for shoveling through the paperwork necessary to keep the museum going. As the head brakeman, I try to keep a very low profile and blend in as one of the guys. I leave the management hat back on my desk and just try to enjoy myself. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. On this particular trip it didn’t. I had to make a couple of decisions that were unusual to say the least.

     It was a rainy gloomy morning, very unusual for the high desert. We had a locomotive rental. On a rental, we run with a three-person crew, the engineer, fireman, and head brakeman. I was the head brakeman. Our steam locomotive pulled up to the depot to pick up our renter engineer. The fireman dropped down to the ground to introduce himself to the renter and escort him to the cab. The fireman climbs back into the cab alone. He walked up to the engineer. The renter engineer wanted to know if his mother could come along on the trip. The engineer turned to me and asked, “What do you think?” So much for blending in.

     I look out of the cab to see a woman, who appears to be in her early 80’s looking up at me. I drop down to the ground to have a pow wow. I explain to her and her son that the rental trip will be two hours long. And that the back of a steam locomotive is not the most comfortable place to be on a rainy spring morning. It will be cold, unconformable, noisy, and cramped.

     The mother and the son talk it over and the son turns to me and says, “She really wants to come along.” So on the spot I make up cab ride rule number one. The rule is that if you can climb into the cab unassisted you can ride. Now this may sound easy, but it isn’t. The first step is about eighteen inches off the ground. And the climb is about eight feet straight up. You have to hold on to both hand rails and boast yourself up. On a dry day it is easy. But here it is seven o’clock in the morning on a dreary rainy cold day, it isn’t.

     I explain to her and her son that if she could climb into the cab she could ride on the fireman’s seat, but it would be dirty, wet and all around miserable. She said she didn’t mind and wanted to come on the trip. I said, “OK.”

     I climb back up into the cab. Told the engineer the decision and he just shrugged. The fireman started to pass things up into the cab, the mother’s purse, a plastic storage container, a satchel, and a coat. Then the mother came up and sat in the fireman’s seat, then the son climbed up and finally up came the fireman. Now we were all set to go.

     The engineer went over the controls with the renter. We pulled away from the depot and headed into the yard. On a clear piece of track, the engineer allowed the renter into the engineer’s seat. Once again, the engineer reviewed the controls. Under the direction of the engineer, the renter practiced starting and stopping a couple of times. When the engineer was comfortable with the renter’s abilities on the controls, we headed off for the mainline.

     To get on to the main we need to go through East Ely Junction, stop, let the head brakeman drop down and throw the switch for the main. We did this and since I was the head brake, I threw the switch.

     On climbing back up into the cab, I noticed the mother was wearing a large round pin with a man’s picture in it. As the son turned to face the engineer, I noticed he had an identical pin on.

     We then whistled off and headed down the track towards Keystone that was seven miles away. The engineer was standing next to the renter watching closely and giving tips. The fireman was shoveling coal. We’ll use about two thousand pounds of the black diamonds for our fourteen mile round trip.

     As head brakeman about the only thing I need to do is stay out of the way, and watch the fireman’s side and try to learn something. The fireman is tending the fire and adding water to the boiler. To add water, he must reach over the mother and open the injector. As he does this, I notice something odd.

     The mother is gripping the plastic storage container and not her purse. The purse is just wedged next to the seat. I thought it was odd, but didn’t think too much about it. The fireman asks the mother a question and they have a short conversation.

     Once the fireman takes a break, he and I chat a bit. It turns out that the rental was to be a joint rental between the son and his father. The father was in is 80’s and it was a life long dream of his to operate a steam locomotive. This was to be a gift for him, but unfortunately, he passed away before the trip. The mother and son decided to do the rental anyway in his memory. That explains the pins that they are wearing, on the pin is a picture of her husband and his father.

     We continue heading up the track. It’s still drizzling. The clouds are down low. We approach Lackawanna crossing and the renter blows for the crossing. (I really think that the real reason people rent the steam locomotive is to blow the whistle, but I digress.)

     Now it is up grade and the locomotive starts working. The fireman tends the fire and adds water. The engineer coaches the renter and the renter is gripping the throttle, watching the steam gauge and the track ahead. The mother appears to be content but she has an iron grip on the plastic container. Her purse has wiggled free and dropped to the floor. The fireman picks it up and offers it to her. She takes it and wedges it next to the seat again. I think it’s odd, I thought most women hung on to their purse for dear life. I just shrug and don’t give it another thought.

     We top the grade and now it’s downhill over the schoolhouse crossing and heading for the first tunnel. It’s a steep grade on wet rail. The locomotive will pick-up speed fast; and it will be bad form to speed with the Executive Director on board. The engineer coaches the renter on the application of the brakes. The renter gets it and controls the locomotive on the descent to the tunnel.

     We blow for the tunnel and then in we go. It’s a curved tunnel not very long, but it is very dark. The cab fills up with smoke and steam, this sure gives you an appreciation on why the SP built cab forwards. I’m a little concerned for the mother; I had forgotten to mention the tunnel before we started the trip. We pop out of the first tunnel. She appears fine, but she is still gripping the container.

     It’s into the second tunnel; it’s really a highway overpass. It was recently built and it’s a lot bigger than the original tunnel. Once through the second tunnel we are now in Robison Canyon. The railroad starts it four-mile climb to the mine now.

     The mother taps the foreman on the shoulder and asks him something. He shrugs his shoulders and goes over to the engineer. The engineer and the fireman have a short conversation. The fireman turns towards me with a puzzled look on his face. The engineer and the renter have a short conversation and then the engineer waves me over.

     Now what, I thought. I just knew it wasn’t a good idea to bring the mother along, I figure we have a problem. The engineer turns to me and says the mother has a request. Oh great I think. I need to get this locomotive back to East Ely by 8:45 am so it will be ready for the 9:30 excursion train. I can’t afford to make any stops; we’re on a tight schedule and besides there are no trees around here, just wet sagebrush.

     “What?” I query.

     The engineer looks at me and says, “The mother wants to know if she can put her husband’s ashes into the firebox?”

     “What?” Okay where is this covered in the job description or the rulebook? What is the procedure when a person wants to put their beloved’s ashes into the firebox? What are the state and local rules?

     Now everyone is looking at me. The mother and the son are staring at me along with the gentleman on their pins; this is the person who wants to go through the firebox.

     What can I say, but yes. The son climbs down from the engineer’s seat and walks across the cab to his mother. He helps her off the fireman’s seat. The fireman, the mother, and the son are in the middle of the cab. The engineer has taken over the locomotive and continued uphill. The fireman lays his shovel on the cab floor. The son takes the container from the mother and opens it. Inside are his father’s ashes. Gently he pours the ashes on to the shovel. The son hands the container back to his mother. The fireman gives the shovel to the son.

     With a nod from the engineer, the fireman opens the fire doors. The locomotive is working and the firebox is white hot. Into the firebox go the ashes. As the shovel goes in, the engineer pulls the whistle cord. The fireman reaches for the bell cord. We’re going uphill with the bell ringing and the whistle singing.

     I don’t know if it was because of the low clouds or the drizzly day. But you could hear that whistle echo repeatedly off the canyon walls. It seemed to go on forever. Then it’s over.

     The son helps his mother back into the fireman’s seat and the engineer lets the son back into the engineer’s seat. There isn’t a dry eye in the cab as we continue to climb the hill.

     At the top of the hill, we wye the locomotive. Coming down the hill, it is still rainy; the mood in the cab is cheery. The son and the mother are happy. The engineer and fireman are all smiles. Everyone agrees it was one for the books.

     We pull back into the station and couple up to our train. As the train pumps up, we help the mother down out of the cab. The fireman stays up in the cab as the engineer and I do a little presentation of a certificate to the son. The certificate says that he operated one of our locomotives out on the mainline.

     The son and the mother can’t thank us enough. We have really made their day. They walk away. I look at the engineer and he looks at me, we both just smile and climb back up into our iron horse.

     Yes sir, this job is nothing like I imagined it to be.

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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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