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Our Second Century of Steaming

At the start of their second century, both of our historic operating steam locomotives were sidelined with serious mechanical problems—first No. 40, and then No. 93. Both of these locomotives are native and original to this Nevada landmark and could no longer operate.

This wasn’t a surprise. We realized, from expert advice, that these repairs were not unexpected. These locomotives are the very heart of our interpretive programs for the public and the core of our value as a National Historic Landmark. According to several experts, these problems, although serious, are to be expected; after all, the two locomotives are 100 and 99 years old respectively.

In evaluating these two locomotives, our museum made a historic decision: No more temporary repairs. We committed ourselves to doing a complete rebuild, long deferred, of the running gear and machinery of locomotive 93. Our repair plan addressed decades-old problems and extended the service life of the locomotive—following strict federal safety and inspection standards—for fifty years and more. (Two of the axles replaced on No. 93 as part of the project had been in service 99 years.)

Why repair locomotive 93 first and not locomotive 40? Both locomotives needed essential the same repairs: their running gear was worn out. There are three reasons why the decision was made to restore locomotive 93 first. In February 2008, locomotive 93 was in the machine shop with her running gear already partially disassembled. Secondly, she is heavier and more powerful with a better firebox design than No. 40. Finally, I knew doing the repairs to either locomotive would take hundreds of thousands of dollars. Locomotive 93 is our old gray mare workhorse, where locomotive 40 is the queen. Once the repairs to locomotive 93 were complete, I felt it would be easier to then turn around and raise money for locomotive 40’s needed repairs. Less money would be needed for No. 40 and she is beloved. Short version: locomotive 93 was already disassembled and would fit our operational requirements better than locomotive 40.

It should be pointed out that both locomotives have boilers that have been thoroughly overhauled recently and are federally certified. The locomotives’ boilers are in excellent condition: the boiler in locomotive 93 was rebuilt in 2001 and is good under federal safety and inspection rules until 2016. Locomotive 40’s boiler was rebuilt in 2005 and is good until 2020.

With the commitment to fully rebuild locomotive 93’s running gear and with $190,000 available, work started. Pieces of the running gear that could be repaired were repaired; parts that were too far-gone were replaced. Knowing the scope of the project, help was solicited from Mike Manweller, Chief Mechanical Officer of the Heber Valley Railroad. Mike’s career has been steam railroading. This would be the seventh locomotive rebuild he’s been involved with. Mike has been involved with the Royal Hudson in Canada, the Ohio Central program, and Milwaukee Road 261, just to name a few.

Gary North of Gary’s Machine Shop also worked on locomotive 93. Gary brought a wealth of experience to the project. Trained by Kennecott as a machinist, he has spent his career repairing and creating things in metal. He has worked on steam locomotives around the country and he is eminently qualified to make the repairs to No. 93. As a hometown boy, to Gary it’s a matter of pride to see locomotive 93 heading down the rails again with a full head of steam.

Bill Withuhn has long been a supporter of the railroad. One aspect of his career focuses on 20th century steam locomotives, just like No. 40 and No. 93. Bill’s day job is as Curator, History of Technology & Transportation at the Smithsonian Institution. And Bill is the chairman of the Engineering Standards Committee that advises the Federal Railroad Administration on steam locomotives. In 2007, Bill joined the Foundation’s Management Board to assist us in keeping this national treasure steaming.

With money and expertise, work went into high gear April 2008. By late December, we were ready to start doing test runs on locomotive 93. The test runs were successful or so we thought.

In January, we held a 100th Birthday Party for No. 93. Governor Gibbons, Congressman Heller, and Assemblyman Goicoechea were here to assist in the celebration. Multiple trips up the hill seemed to prove that the locomotive was running fine. Unbeknownst, we had a ticking time bomb.

Every time we tested the locomotive, we were constantly checking the temperatures of the axles and crown brasses. Every trip up the hill the temperatures were taken at Keystone and back in the yard. Every time No. 93 was put away, the axles and the grease packs were checked. We did see some brass flakes in a couple of the grease cakes but it wasn’t very much. We attributed it to the crown brasses breaking in.

Our big annual winter event is the Winter Photo Shoots. The steam locomotives really put on a show with the cold air. In 2008, the photo shoots went on but we didn’t have any steam. Now in 2009, we were back in the steam business. We had photographers come to Ely from around the country and overseas. Friday morning February 6 dawned clear and cold and the shop forces prepared No. 93 for a locomotive rental before the photo shoots. Everything was set for a great weekend.

Locomotive 93 headed up the hill putting on a great show. Some of the photographers had already arrived and chased it up the hill. After the rental, locomotive 93 headed back to the shop for water and another check of the axles and then our ticking time bomb exploded. Disaster struck. Axle number 2 measured 290 degrees. In seven miles, it had shot up two hundred degrees with the ambient temperature just over freezing. Something was seriously amiss. The rest of the axles were fine. What was wrong? We dropped the grease cake and found lots of brass shavings on the fireman’s side.

We had photographers from around the country; some had been here last year to photograph No. 40, and then she went down on the Friday before the photo shoot. It was déjà vu all over again. Since it was obvious there would be no quick fixes, a decision was made to repack the grease cake and gingery move No. 93 around the yard for the photographers.

This is what we did. The engine crew closely monitored axle temperatures. Axle 2 was running the coolest at 60 degrees. We did the same plan for the second photo shoot and as luck would have it, we had a commitment to the television show Modern Marvels. They were coming to Ely to film No. 93 for an episode on steam. So again, 93 proceeded slowly around the yard and we constantly checked the axle temperatures. And success—locomotive 93 put on a grand show. The photographers got fabulous images of No. 93 and so did Modern Marvels.

With the photographers and the television crews gone, it was time to determine just what was going on with axle 2. At first, we suspected a lubrication failure but all of the crown brasses had grease grooves and they had all been well packed in grease. When we dropped axle 2 it was very evident that the crown brass had completely failed. The brass was peeling up in layers and sand was found on the bearing surface. (The bearings had been sand cast.)

After discovering that a crown brass had failed, Gary North and I, with the assistance of Bonneville Machine Shop and Bill Withuhn, investigated the situation. Gary suggested that we have the new crown brasses and the old crown brasses analyzed to determine what material they were. We contacted a metallurgical lab to have the original crown brass that had been on the locomotive and the new crown brass analyzed.

Crown brasses are wear parts meaning they have a service life. You expect them to wear until they finally need to be replaced. The new crown brasses should have had a service life of at least 10 years and thousands of miles. There was less then seventy-five miles on the new crown brasses.

The result of the analysis showed that the new crown brasses had been made out of a material called leaded red brass alloy. Leaded red brass alloy is used for pump components, small gears, water impellers, housings, marine fittings and ornamental fixtures.

The analysis of the old crown brasses showed they were made from bearing grade bronze. Bearing grade bronze is designed for: bushings for corrosion, lubrication, or pressure; cam bushings for diesel engines; crankshaft main bearings; and locomotive bearing parts. It was obvious that the wrong material had been used for the crown brasses. They would all have to be replaced.

A copper alloy is determined by the amounts of different elements added to the copper. The analysis showed that the new crown brasses had less than half of the amount of lead and just over half of the amount tin that the original crown brass had. And the new crown brasses contained five percent zinc. The original crown brasses contained no zinc.

Once we realized that the crown brasses were made with the wrong material, it was decided to drop all of the axles and replace all of them with the proper material. This is now being done. All of the axles are now in Salt Lake City. The material for the new crown brasses has been received and is being machined. The good news is that all of the axles are fine—they were not damaged. They are in Salt Lake to be polished, so when the replacement crown brasses are installed there will be a smooth surface on the axles.

So what’s the cost? And when will locomotive 93 be ready? We’re estimating the cost to be $25,000. The White Pine Tourism and Recreation Board voted to grant us the needed $25,000 for the repairs. Repairs are ongoing and the axles will be back in early April. Locomotive 93 should be ready to steam into her second century and the 2009 tourist season by April 18th.

Once No. 93 has been out on the railroad for a while, it will be time to start locomotive 40. No. 40 will get the same treatment as No. 93, no half measures. It will be expensive; the estimated price tag is $310,000. But once completed, the Nevada Northern Railway will have two rock solid steam locomotives steaming in the 21st century.

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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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