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One Unusual – Project Nevada Northern Railway HY-RAIL #18

As with most things in life, it started with a simple comment. “Hey that’s a cool 1956 Pontiac Chieftain Station Wagon.”

Paul Mickelson, one of the museum members was reviewing a book Joan and I had done on the Nevada Northern Railway. In the book was a photo of Nevada Northern Railway HY-RAIL 18. A HY-RAIL vehicle is a car or truck that can either go either on the highway or on the railroad tracks. Another friend had forwarded the picture of HY-RAIL 18 that he had found at a swap met. I thought it was cool photo and included it in the book. I had never taken the time to identify what type of vehicle it was, so I did a little research after Paul’s comments.

In 1956, the Nevada Northern Railway purchased a 1956 Pontiac Station Wagon from the Fairmont Motor Car company. At first glance, it looked like any other station wagon, but if you looked closely, you would see small railroad wheels under the car. These railroad wheels would allowed the car to operate on the railroad and on the state’s highways.

     The way the HY-RAILERS worked was this: you drove the car to a railroad highway crossing. Angle the car so it was on the track, then drop down the small railroad wheels and lock them into place. Now you could drive down the track. Once you arrived at your destination, you went on to a railroad highway crossing, raised the railroad wheels and drove off down the highway. Needless to say, the HY-RAILERS were considerably more economical to operate than a train.

NN Car #18 Shafter 5-31-58 Here’s the picture that started it all. Number 18 is on the track at Shafter Nevada. You can the railroad wheels in the down position.

So out of curiosity sake, I googled 1956 Pontiac Chieftain Station Wagon, just to find more information on the vehicle. And when I did that, I found that there was one on eBay for a very reasonable price. Uh-oh! That got the wheels turning. What if the railroad could get their hands on the 1956 Pontiac and recreate HY-RAIL 18?

Why even consider such a project? Due to the isolation of the Nevada Northern Railway, our visitors must travel great distances to visit our National Historic Landmark Railroad. They come to the railroad for many reasons; but the number one reason is to ride a train.

This puts us in a dilemma: we would like to operate a train, whenever we have visitors, but the fact is – that is not always economically feasible. Taking this concept from the railroad’s history, our idea was to convert a 1956 Pontiac Station Wagon into a reconstruction of Nevada Northern Railway HY-RAIL MOTOR CAR #18. Since the vehicle can go onto the railroad track, we could use it to offer rides to visitors, who come when no trains are running.  HY-RAIL MOTOR CAR #18 might not be a train, but it would be eye-catching, exciting and fun. We can use it to explain the history and the heritage of the railroad and the Great Basin. And just like sixty years ago, HY-RAIL MOTOR CAR #18 would be considerably more economical to operate than a train.     The recreation of HY-RAIL MOTOR CAR #18 would be the solution to our dilemma of visitors coming on days and times that trains weren’t operating. Additionally, we would use it as a marketing tool by driving it to travel and trade shows.

Well, one thing led to another and a member of the museum purchased the vehicle and donated it to the museum. Great and not so great. Now we were committed to the project, that was exciting, but where would the funding for the project come from? And how much would it cost?

NN Car #18 Shafter 5-31-58 Here’s the picture that started it all. Number 18 is on the track at Shafter Nevada. You can the railroad wheels in the down position.

Sometimes things happen serendipitously. About the same time we received the Pontiac, the State of Nevada announced a grant program for tourism projects. We applied and received $20,000! So far so good, but that would not be enough. So we applied to the Great Basin Heritage Partnership through their grant program and score! We received an additional $35,000. Now we had the funds to start the project.

Next step was to select an automotive restoration shop that had done unusual projects and was willing to take on this odd project. After extensive research two possible vendors were selected, one in Missouri and one a lot closer here in Nevada. After more phone calls and e-mails, the Nevada shop was selected. Now we were on the road so to speak.

Working with the vendor we developed a plan. We decided to do a frame-on restoration. The Pontiac was stripped and then blasted to remove the paint. At the same time, the engine and transmission were rebuilt to original specifications. Now come the tedious part, removing all of the bumps and addressing all of the rust that a 60 year old vehicle would have and that’s where we are right now.

NN Car #18 Shafter 5-31-58 Here’s the picture that started it all. Number 18 is on the track at Shafter Nevada. You can the railroad wheels in the down position.

When the project is completed, we will have brought back a piece of the railroad’s past. At the same time we will have created an eye-catching addition to the museum. Essentially Nevada Northern Railway HY-RAIL MOTOR CAR #18 will be a rolling billboard for the museum. If you have any stories or photos of HY-RAIL MOTOR CAR #18, please contact the museum.

Down the Tracks at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is a designated National Historic Landmark.  Voted the state’s Best Rural Museum and the Best Place to Take the Kids by readers of Nevada Magazine, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum also has been featured on Modern Marvels, American Restorations and on PBS. For more information, call 775-289-2085, log onto or to get the latest news “Like” the Railway’s Facebook page.

Museum, gift shop and ticket office hours are: Mondays through Saturdays 8:00 to 5:00, Sundays 8 to 4. We are closed on Tuesdays.

Currently, our steam-powered excursion trains operate on Saturdays at 1:00 pm, Sundays at 9:30 am. Tickets can be purchased on line at or call the ticket office at (775) 289-2085.  

Volunteers are always needed at the museum. We need tour guides, narrators, concessionaires, gift shop helpers and train crew members. If you have some spare time and would be interested in helping out, give the railroad a call at (775) 289-2085. You don’t need to live in Ely to volunteer.

If you are interested in joining us in preserving the Nevada Northern Railway, memberships in the museum are available at these levels: Active $30; Contributing $50; Centennial $100; Sustaining $250; Patron $500; Friend $1000; Supporter $2,500; Benefactor $5,000 and Leader $10,000. Please contact the museum for more information.

Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the museum. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]; or by first class mail at: 1100 Avenue A, PO Box 150040, East Ely, NV 89315.

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Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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