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Preservation Paradox

As a relatively new museum director, I thought my primary job was to preserve the locomotives, rolling stock, and buildings of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. You know, do the nuts and bolts repairs and maintenance to keep the grounds and equipment looking good. Also part of my responsibilities was keeping the excursion trains running. For the past two years, this has been my focus.

But just recently, the museum suffered a grievous loss with the sudden death of our Master Mechanic, Jack Anderson. Jack was young, only fifty-one years old. His passing was heartbreaking for his family. It was distressing for me, because I lost a friend. But it was catastrophic for the steam locomotive fraternity because we lost the knowledge that Jack had. And I don’t know how or even if you can replace it.

The Museum’s mission is to show the importance of railroading to White Pine County and to our country. To do this, we need the locomotives to operate, couple up to cars, form trains and head down the tracks. A cold, static steam locomotive, to my way of thinking doesn’t show anything. It is the steam locomotive that has a fire in the belly, producing steam, doing work that tells a story. But to tell this story the locomotives needs to run, and to run they need to be maintained; and there is the paradox. How do you maintain a steam locomotive?

Steam locomotives are like the human fingerprint: no two are alike. They are high maintenance machines with very few interchangeable parts. During the heyday of steam, it took a small army of men to keep the locomotives rolling: boilermakers, machinists, blacksmiths, welders, and mechanics. These men were some of the most highly skilled craftsmen in America. And the railroads employed tens of thousands of these skilled craftsmen to keep the iron horse going. Even here in Ely, the Nevada Northern and Kennecott employed hundreds of men to keep the locomotives going.

Now in the twenty-first century, it is a very small pool of men and now women who keep these dinosaurs running. In all cases where there is steam operating, instead of hundreds or thousands there are only two, maybe at the most a dozen people, keeping the steamers going. The steam mechanic today needs to either be a boilermaker, machinist, blacksmith, welder and mechanic or understand all of those specialties. And Jack was that type of man.

Occasionally, in the evening, I would wander on down to the enginehouse to see how work on steam locomotive 40 was progressing, or even more basic, just to see what was going on. Sometimes these visits would turn into bull sessions where a variety of topics would be discussed and hashed out. One of the last sessions was discussing how we fire-up our steam locomotives. There is a lot more to it then just starting a fire in the locomotive. How long should it take from throwing the match in the box until you have operating pressure? If you heat the locomotive too fast then you put undue stress on the boiler. Do it too slow and you waste time and fuel. Is the steam up time different for cold weather versus hot weather? The list of questions seemed endless.

At the end of the conversation, it was decided to write down the proper fire-up technique for both of our steam locomotives. Jack’s comment was that would be a lot of work. And I agreed. But I asked, “If we didn’t do it, how would the next generation get the information?”

Jack’s reply was, “Good point.”

So this was a project we were going to tackle in the spring. We still will, but now it will be more difficult because Jack’s knowledge and experience are gone. Jack’s passing was a wake-up call for me.

To a certain extent, I am coming to the realization that the maintenance of the locomotives and rolling stock needs to go to second place in the list of museum priorities. And that the documentation of the knowledge needed to take care of and operate them should move into first place along with training. We can still operate the locomotives and maintain them but we need to develop a system of documentation of what it takes to keep them going and then teach the next generation.

This need for documenting will move more and more into the forefront as the locomotives become older. Steve Lee, the head honcho of the Union Pacific steam program, was the guest speaker of the Tourist Railway Convention this fall. Recently, the Union Pacific did an extensive rebuilding of one of its locomotives. Steve related his belief that the paradigm was beginning to shift for the steam locomotive fraternity. As the locomotives age, repairs to the locomotives will become more extensive. In addition to tubes and flues (which we’re doing to 40 right now) there will be a need for more extensive repairs to fireboxes, side sheets, crown sheets, valves, cylinders, and running gear.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the difference between a side sheet and a crown sheet, I’m not sure that I do. But I know with the proper documentation and training, I could figure it out. This is what Jack did. He was self-taught by reading the old books and papers of the past generation of railroaders.

This is the challenge for us now: to document how we do things and update the old books and manuals. These old books are succumbing to the ravages of time and then that pocket of information will be lost.

Weighing the needs of the museum just got more difficult and my education just went up a notch. Now there will be a new balance between running the trains and documenting the knowledge on how to run the trains and teaching it to the next generation.

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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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