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One Day—December 16, 2006

The day started very early in the morning, as do most days around the museum. This was going to be a busy day for us as there were four Polar Express® trains on the schedule. In addition to the Polar Express®, work would continue on the multitude of projects and tasks required to keep the doors open. What follows is a peak behind the scenes.

At 5:00 a.m., volunteer Richard and shop foreman Al show up at the enginehouse. It’s a good thing they’re both morning people. Their task this morning will be to get steam locomotive 93 ready to pull the Polar Express®. It’s a balmy 5 degrees outside and the only heat in the enginehouse is a large potbelly stove. By the time this stove is lit and produces any heat at all its time to go home, so the stove is only used if work is actually being done in the building.

Steam locomotive 93 had been used on Friday and its fire was banked overnight. Banking a locomotive fire entails shoveling in about 80 scoops of coal and building it into a literal bank in the firebox. In the morning, the remains of the bank is pushed out and fresh coal is shoveled in to the firebox. If you’re lucky, you might have a bit of steam pressure so that you can use the locomotive’s blower to create draft for the building fire. Then you slowly begin warming the locomotive up to its operating pressure.Around 7:00 a.m., the remainder of the shop staff show up along with the volunteer engine crew. The engine crew assisted Richard and Al in getting 93 ready for the day. Of course when the temperature is below 32 degrees, water freezes. It’s an accepted fact and one that will cause problems throughout the day.It has also snowed a little on Friday night, so Chris drives on up to the “North Pole” in order to check out the spring switches. We want to make sure that they are nice and clear and that operations will go smoothly there.
By 7:30 a.m., things are stirring at the depot end of the operation. Staff members Evva and Gwyneth are opening up the depot and the transportation building. Another staff member, Natasha, is opening up the train with volunteer Bob. Natasha will be the conductor on the first two trips of the day. Bob will lend support with the concessions and is getting the hot chocolate and cookies ready. The train is plugged into its trackside power and the pellet stoves are fired up. It will take hours before the cars are anywhere near warm. The rear brakeman has also shown up. Volunteer Scott is now on hand and is assisting Natasha in getting the train ready.Evva is making the hot chocolate for the first train; by the end of the day we will have served over twenty gallons of the stuff. Gwyneth is answering overnight e-mails and voice mails, plus getting the gift shop and the ticket office ready for the day.The morning routine is picking up speed and now the phone starts ringing off the hook. Most of the passengers expected this day live hundreds of miles away and they are all concerned about the weather. Right now, we are experiencing a very light snow fall, but the forecast is for two to four inches more. This is of real concern to our out-of-town passengers, most of whom are coming up from Las Vegas, where the temperature is in the 50s and snow is very, very rare. Our other large customer base is heading over from the Reno area, where they are used to snow, but will be driving along U.S. 50, the “loneliest road in America.” Along this highway is a stretch known as the Austin summit—a series of steep, descending switchbacks just west of the town of Austin. Even on a summer day, this section of the road can give you the willies; in a snowstorm, the pucker factor can easily peak in the red zone.It’s now a little after 9:00 a.m., Joan and I have walked across the street. We couldn’t come over earlier because of “hours of service” concerns: I will be the conductor on both the 4:30 p.m. and the 7:00 p.m. trains, Joan will be Santa’s helper for all four trains and we are limited by federal law as to how many hours we may officially be on duty. By the time we appear, Dan—better known as Santa—has begun his metamorphosis into the jolly old fellow and passengers are gathering in the waiting room.The woodstoves have been burning for hours and the cars are somewhat warm. The servers and the narrator have all shown up. Steamy hot chocolate is loaded on to the train along with tons of chocolate cookies. The snowfall is picking up a little bit as Kurt, our track man, shows up and begins to wage his ongoing battle against the snow.Down in the shop, it’s a beehive of activity. Inside is the 1907 steam crane, diesel locomotive #105 and outfit car #06. The steam crane is in to have its brakes gone over. Chris has the brake valves apart and is overhauling them. Now about 120 years old, outfit car #06 is in the shop to prepare it for winter photo shoots in February. The car is getting a thorough going over and a new paint job. Jeremy and Jordan are sanding the outside of the car and inside Joel is removing nails from the original wood so that it can be saved and used again. One of the problems with the car is that its coupler broke on a switch move a couple of years ago. Marty and Al are ready to install the repaired coupler. They call for Jordan to operate the overhead crane.The overhead crane dates to 1907 and is used frequently for moving heavy items around the shop. It was built when labor was cheap: an operator climbs into the control basket and stays there until the crane job is done. With Jordan operating the crane, Marty and Al make the first attempt to install the coupler. No dice—it won’t fit. So the coupler is taken out and hauled to the work area for some more welding.

Meanwhile back at the station, the engine crew is making last minute checks before the train heads out. In the cab of 93 are Bear, the engineer; Jarred, the fireman, and Dave, a fireman trainee. Natasha holds a crew meeting, where train orders and track warrants are reviewed. Of the crew on the train, only two are paid staff members, the rest are volunteers.

At 9:15 a.m., Natasha yells out, “All Aboard for the North Pole,” and boards the passengers. The ridership is light this morning; nevertheless, the train is carded and will roll out on time. Up in the cab, last minute checks are made in preparation for the trip to the North Pole. The temperature is now about twenty degrees Fahrenheit above zero.

One myth about steam railroading is that it is warm in the cab. It’s not and any water on the deck will turn to ice in minutes. The fireman will have the worse of it: going up the hill, the temperate in the firebox will be 1500 degrees and with the wind chill the cab will be around 10 degrees. So, it’s a given that one end of the fireman will roast while the other end freezes. And speaking of freezing, both the fireman and the fireman trainee are from southern California. The will be bedeviled with frozen appliances for the trip, a new experience for both.

Three blasts from the whistle sound at 9:30 a.m. sharp and the Polar Express® is ready to make its trip north. Aboard the train Christmas carols are playing and the hot chocolate is being served; the first trip is underway.

As soon as the train has cleared the station, Joan and “Santa” head up to the North Pole to greet the train. This year we are fortunate to have a building that is heated at the North Pole, which is great because a total of thirty-three Polar Expresses are on the schedule and it’s cold outside, very cold.

Three more times this scenario will repeat today and the snow will get heavier. The temperature never rises above freezing, Crews will rotate on and off and yet the tempo will never vary—every train leaves on time. The passenger load increases steadily during the day.

Every time the train comes back into the station a little ballet takes place: the locomotive is cut-off so it can be turned; passengers are unloaded; seats are adjusted and songbooks are again placed on the seats; more hot chocolate is loaded up along with cookies; staff and volunteers grab a sandwich and wolf it down; the locomotive backs up to the train and couples; the brakes are checked. Then another crew meeting, passengers are loaded and boy howdy, it’s off to the North Pole again.

While the train is gone, tracked in snow on the gift shop floor is mopped up and more hot chocolate is made. The phone continues to ring off the hook, while outside the snow is beginning to come down a little heavier. The usual work continues in the shop and in the offices where cash receipts from the previous day are counted, verified, and deposited. Mail is received and distributed and the phone keeps ringing.

For both the 1:00 p.m. and the 4:30 p.m. runs we have a special treat. A local band has set up in the plaza to play Christmas carols. It’s snowing, it’s cold and yet the band is merrily playing, contributing another little segment to the overall holiday scene.

By 4:30 p.m. dusk is descending. The wind has picked-up a little more and the snow is coming down heavier than before. I’m the conductor on the 4:30 p.m. run and this is a tricky train: it’s the biggest train of the day and it has the shortest window for getting up the hill and then back down to the station in order to prepare for the 7:00 p.m. train. Chris and Kurt head up the hill before us to sweep accumulated snow out of the switches and to act as our switchmen.

We make it! We’re back at the station at by 6:05 p.m. Steam locomotive #93 is cut-off and turned. By 6:30 p.m. we’re ready for one last train to the North Pole and promptly at 7:00 p.m. the engineer gives three sharp blasts of the whistle and 93’s drivers turn. The cylinder cocks are open sending huge plumes of steam into the cold night air. The sharp chuff-chuff of the smokestack echoes in the night air as #93 bites in and away we go.

By 8:45 p.m. we’re back in Ely. The locomotive is cut-off, heading for the wye and a turn for the ashpit. Passengers disembark to the sing-song “watch your step, big steps, Merry Christmas.” The last passengers leave and the hot chocolate pots are unloaded. The usual litter in the cars is picked up and the pellet stoves are shut-off and begin their cool down cycle. While the train crew buttons everything up for the day, the engine crew is over the ashpit, dropping the accumulated ashes. They still have an hour or so of work ahead as they bed the locomotive down for the night. Water lines will need to be drained and blown out so that they don’t freeze and the fire will need to be banked. Finally, right around 10:00 p.m. they’re done and head for home.

It’s been a long day. The combined efforts of thirty-two staff and volunteers have again spread Christmas cheer to lots of people. Santa’s helper gave out 333 silver bells, we served over twenty gallons of hot chocolate and countless pounds of cookies, we burned four bags of pellets in the cars, #93 burned over 8,000 pounds of coal, and crews dug tons of snow from covered-up switches, which never failed to work properly.

It was a ballet, admittedly one that I can’t say went off with out a hitch but one which I can say met every challenge. The trains ran on time and we added a little something to the lives of many. We created hundreds of pleasant memories that day; for years to come, kids will talk about how a big. noisy, smoky, living, fire-breathing steam locomotive pulled them to the North Pole where they saw Santa and received a silver bell.

And to quote the movie, “That’s how we do it on the Polar Express®.”

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Monday - Saturday | 8AM - 5PM
Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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