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Railroad Museum Secret Exposed!

The days are getting longer and the weather warmer. The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is gearing up for the most ambitious schedule in its history. Over 400 trains will be operating in 2004. That is over 8,000 rail miles for this year.

It is a common misconception of the public that locomotives will power our trains as they cover these 8,000 miles. Nothing could be farther from the truth! The intent of this expose is to take you behind the scenes of a working railroad museum and show you the unvarnished truth.

If you were suckered into thinking that locomotives powered the Nevada Northern excursion trains don’t feel bad, it is a very common misconception. People look up and see the locomotive sitting there, either hissing if it’s a steamer or gurgling if its one of the diesels, and they naturally assume that the locomotive will pull the train. But that is simply not true! The museum has a secret that must be exposed. Its trains are not powered by locomotives, but by the Museum’s volunteers. These dedicated individuals are what really power the trains of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. Bluntly put, without this pool of volunteers the locomotives would just sit there and there would be no trains running.

This is the dirty little secret that powers Nevada Northern Railway trains, the volunteers. And they come in all shapes and sizes because the railroad has a veracious appetite for volunteers. Last summer over 200 trains operated. Ninety-nine percent of those trains were operated and crewed by volunteers.

Volunteers made up the train crew, which consists of engineer, fireman, head brakeman, conductor, and rear brakeman. (The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is an equal opportunity organization; some of our brakemen are women. But for historical authenticity I will use brakeman.) Then there is the train support staff that includes the narrator, concessionaire, the ticket sellers, bartenders, waiters, waitresses, and gift shop helpers. For just one train, over a dozen volunteers are needed and that is just for train service!

There are many other tasks that need to be done around the museum. For these projects to be completed, volunteers are needed to assist with these projects. Some of these projects might be painting some of the yard buildings in getting ready for the centennial, working on the track, working on the coaches, helping to rebuild locomotive 40, working on some of our historic rolling stock, replacing windows in the RIP Building, securing all of the buildings on the property and vegetation control (i.e., pulling weeds.) The list is pretty much endless.

So what is it like behind the scenes? To operate a train the hostlers show up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare steam locomotive 93 for its day. At 7:30 a.m. the locomotive crew and the train crew report for duty along with the ticket sellers. The locomotive crew does the final check for that days run. The engineer, fireman, and head brakeman whistle off and head for the wye to turn 93. This is the last step in getting 93 ready for the morning run. Now turning 93 is a trick in itself. The head brakeman gets quite the workout. He will throw eight switches just to get to the train and the majority of those switches need to be thrown back. Throwing those switches means climbing up and down Locomotive 93, which is a good eight feet from the ground to the deck straight up. After the run around the wye, the locomotive then couples on to the train.

Meanwhile the conductor and the rear brakeman are preparing the passenger cars for the morning run. This entails inspecting all of the journal boxes, couplers, air hoses, trashcans, bathroom, wheels, brake shoes, and then opening windows. If we are expecting a handicap passenger then the mobile wheel chairlift is brought to the train. More volunteers are selling tickets, answering questions, and getting the concessions ready for that day’s train. The volunteer narrator and the concessionaire board the train and make sure their areas are ready.

Once Locomotive 93 couples on to the train, then a terminal airbrake test is made. This insures that we have brakes when we head up the hill. When the conductor is satisfied that everything is in order, its time to load the train. Meanwhile up in the cab the fireman is making sure that 93 has a full head of steam. For the next two hours the fireman will be dancing around the cab like a hyperactive two-year-old. For he or she will be shoveling about a ton of coal into the firebox one scoop at a time. Checking the water level in the boiler, adding water, wetting down the coal, ringing the bell, and watching his side of the track for the engineer. The engineer will have his or her hands full too; it is his responsibility to get the train over the track safely. Trains do not stop on a dime. The engineer will need to use his experience and judgment to make sure our passengers are not jostled, the track is clear, and that 93 is running like a Swiss watch.

The train is loaded. The conductor gives the final, “All Aboard” and away we go. Up in the cab, the fireman is throwing in coal; the engineer is coaxing the train up the hill with a smooth hand on the throttle. The firebox is hot! Every time the firebox doors open this heat is radiated into the cab. Remember those 100-degree days we had last summer? The head end crew felt like they were being roasted alive.

The narrator is telling our passengers about the Nevada Northern Railway Museum and the history of the Ely area. This takes talent. The narrator is riding backwards and must time the narration with the landmarks along the railroad. The concessionaire is selling refreshments. The conductor and rear brakeman are watching the train and talking to the passengers. Off we go to Keystone. Once there, 93 is cut-off and runs around the train. The head brakeman is climbing up and down throwing balky switches and hanging off the back of the tender for the reverse moves.

Now the real professionalism and teamwork of the crew is tested. No. 93 is backing down to the train that is loaded with passengers. The coupling must be make hard enough to drop the coupling pins, but not hard enough to jar or injure the passengers. After the coupling, another brake test and one more reverse shove. Then it’s back to Ely.

The numbers break out this way: the holster worked 9 hours; the train crew of engineer, fireman, head brakeman, conductor, rear brakeman worked 4½ hours each or 22½ hours combined; the narrator, ticket sellers, and concessionaire worked 3 hours each or 9 hours. Total for one train: 43½ volunteer hours. The 4:30 p.m. diesel train will use another 25 volunteer hours. In one weekend of just five trains, volunteers donated 180½ hours to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.

Then there are the charters and wine trains, which need additional volunteers. It is the servers who volunteer their time that make our wine trains and dinner trains, a smashing success. Thanks!

Volunteering for the Nevada Northern Railway Museum is easy. Just show up and ask to volunteer. Without volunteers the Museum would have to scale back on operations. Volunteers are needed for train service, historic preservation, the newsletter, fund raising, building maintenance, track repair, locomotive repair, rolling stock repair, and countless other tasks. This is the dirty little secret that makes the Nevada Northern Railway Museum a success, the volunteers. You are welcome to come join us.

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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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