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Preservation Paradox — Part II

There is an old saying that knowledge is power. The rebuilding of steam locomotive 40 is proving that saying in spades. In Ely, from 1906 through the late 1950’s, the rebuilding of the steam locomotives happened with regular frequency. The tools, the techniques, knowledge, and the workers were available in-house. Now at the start of the 21st century we still have the tools and the locomotives. But where we are challenged is to learn the techniques and the knowledge necessary to do the work. Our other challenge is the lack of workers. During the heyday of steam operations here in Ely, the Nevada Northern had hundreds of skilled craftsmen such as boilermakers, machinists, blacksmiths, welders, and mechanics. These individuals used the tools that are still in existence in the shops today to keep the locomotives steaming.

Today, we have a small shop staff consisting of a mechanical engineer, a metallurgist, and a welder and three part time helpers who assist them. We also have volunteers who donate their time down in the shops. Their responsibilities entail doing the rebuilding of 40 and keeping steam locomotive 93 in operation along with diesel locomotives 105, 109, and 204. They also are responsible for inspecting twenty miles of track, maintaining the passenger cars, and the freight cars used in the photo freights.

When Kennecott donated the facility to the community twenty years ago, it was complete. They left everything behind except the knowledge. After all, the shop forces were using the machinery everyday to do maintenance. There was no need to write anything down because you could learn by doing under the watchful eye of an old hand. This system served the railroad well for eighty years.

Today, walking through the shops I feel like the archeologist who is the first to discover a tomb that has been buried for years. Going through the boiler shops, the machinery still exists that the boilermakers used to repair the steam locomotives. It is silent now. One of my favorites is the metal shear. This tool was used to cut the steel needed for boiler repairs. The driving gear is at least four feet in diameter. The shears themselves are relatively small–only about eight inches long. Nearby is a pedestal crane that was used to move the heavy sheets of steel.

I can imagine in my mind’s eye a group of three or maybe four workers having a sheet of steel suspended from the crane, wrestling it into position in the shears, and then another person triggering the shears. The four-foot driving gear engages a small gear and the shears come down and make a six-inch cut. The sheet of steel is repositioned, the driving gear is engaged, and another small cut is made. This cycle is repeated until the sheet of steel is cut to the proper size. Then the steel is moved over to the rollers and rolled to the necessary diameter.

I know there are rollers somewhere because on the south wall of the shop is a series of electric shut-off boxes and one of them is labeled roller. So in the shop is a roller, I think. I say I think, because there is a device that looks like a roller, but it doesn’t look complete, at least to me. The wires can be traced from the switchbox to see if they go to this device that I believe is a roller. If they do, then the next question is how does it work? Does it still work? Good questions for which I have no answers.

Next door to the boiler room is one of the two blacksmith shops on the property. Of course one of the first questions that pops into my head is why did they need two blacksmith shops? I don’t know, but there had to be a reason.

The blacksmith shop in its own right is another adventure. There is a furnace for heating the metal, two forges, and a hammer. Now this hammer is pretty special. It stands about sixteen feet tall and is driven by air. The metal was heated in the furnace and brought to the hammer red-hot. Then the hammer pounded it until the metal was to the proper size. Chances are the metal was heated and pounded repeatedly to get to that proper size. This, too, is all silent now but the tools, the coke (coke is coal that has been in a sense purified and burns hotter than coal), and the hammer are all waiting to be put back into use.

The blacksmith shop and the boiler room were used to support the machine shop. Here is where it all came together. Huge lathes, mills, and drills are still in existence to turn and shape the metal. We still use some of these tools such as the lathes and mills. One of the lathes that we used is belt driven. This means that the lathe is powered by an electric motor that turns a spindle mounted about twenty-four feet above the lathe. The lathe is powered by the belt, which transfers the power from the spindle to lathe. Why did they do this instead of mounting the electric motor on the lathe? Simple–electric motors were very expensive back in 1906. So this spindle actually powers two different machines, of course both are belt driven.

Next to the lathe is a belt powered bolt-making machine. Back in 1906, Ely didn’t have an Ace Hardware. So if bolts were needed they were made right in the shop. It appears that all of the dies are still there; all the machine needs is a good cleaning and a knowledgeable person to operate it.

And this brings us back to the paradox. Yes, we can preserve the locomotives and equipment but that tells only part of the story. It is the knowledge needed to operate the equipment that also needs to be preserved. Because this was not done here, we will need to teach ourselves how to operate this equipment and record the procedures for the next generation. But the operating of the equipment is another paradox. This equipment has been here for almost a century. Do we operate it and take our chances that we might damage a historic piece of the collection? Or due we simply clean it and leave it be, to preserve it for the next generation?

There are arguments to be made for both positions–using or not using? But if we don’t use it and lose the knowledge, did we preserve it? Or is it simply then converted into a lump of metal?

I believe that there is a middle road that will allow us to learn the techniques, preserve the machines, and teach the next generation. That will be our challenge as we enter our second century here at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in Ely.

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Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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