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Saving the Enginehouse/Machine Shop Complex — Part I

When you talk about the railroad museum, it is easy to get wrapped up in the trains and track. Yet a huge piece of the museum, the piece that the public sees first, is usually overlooked. Without this component, we would not have much of a museum. It is this component, in addition to the trains and the track that really puts Ely on the map as the place to visit and see a world-class operation. So what component am I talking about? The buildings.

On our fifty-six acres, we have forty-nine buildings and structures with the oldest from 1906 to the newest built in the 1970’s just before the end. The vast majority of these buildings and structures were built from 1906 to 1917. The largest structure on the property is the enginehouse/machine shop complex. Built at the west end of the yard this complex could be argued to be the crown jewel of the property. The enginehouse has six stalls and each stall can store at least two locomotives. The machine shop has two tracks and is built onto the enginehouse. As part of the complex, we have a boiler room, two coalbunkers, a blacksmith’s shop, a boiler shop, and a change room. (The change room is unique in that it has the only example of a press tin ceiling on the property.) And of course, this is where we store the Nevada Northern Railway collection consisting of three steam engines, six diesel engines, cabooses, and passenger cars.

The enginehouse/machine shop complex is one of the oldest newest buildings on the property. Originally built shortly after the railroad came to town in 1906, it was expanded and modernized in 1941. (This expansion of the enginehouse was completed before the start of World War II. This is a story on to itself. It would seem that Kennecott knew war was coming and was preparing for it.)

In the early 1990s, the museum had the enginehouse structurally evaluated and found that the building was in danger of collapse. Restoration of the building was estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. During this time, the museum had to deal with the rebuilding of steam locomotive 93 and the stabilization of the coach shop, which had taken on a Leaning Tower of Pisa look.

Completion of locomotive 93 and the coach shop projects allowed the museum to focus in on the enginehouse/machine shop. First, some simple items needed to be addressed such as doors and windows. The structure was suffering from over 1,100 broken windows and not all of the overhead doors worked. A grant from the State of Nevada, Commission on Cultural Affairs for $92,240 was received to address these two problems.

In 2003, another grant request for $258,000 was made to the Commission to attack the structural problems of the building. The Commission awarded the museum $200,000 for the project. We were fortunate in receiving this grant. Part of the reason for our success was that the B & O Museum suffered a devastating blow when part of their roof collapsed on their collection, destroying some pieces and heavily damaging others. Here we were with an engineer’s report that our roof could come down and the B & O showed what could happen if no action was taken.

The awarding of the grant meant now the real work could be done. The first step was to do a total evaluation of the building. First, a series of building plans needed to be produced. In this, we lucked out. We found the 1941 remodel drawings. We derived two advantages from these drawings. First using these drawings as a base, we now could produce new drawings to plan the needed work. Secondly, these plans were a gold mine of information of how the addition was constructed and also how the original structure was built and how the two were tied together.

This information from the drawings along with visual inspections and strength testing produced six books that were each the size of a New York City phonebook. Each book detailed the strengths and weakness of each principle wall of the building. The good news was the building was stronger in some ways than we expected, followed by bad news that it was weaker in some ways. The weakest part of the building was the east-facing wall with all of the huge doors cut into the wall to allow the locomotives in and out of the building.

The original engineer’s study expressed concern that the building would not be able to resist high winds or ground movement from earthquakes. Well high winds I knew we had, and these concerned me greatly, but earthquakes, I thought we were reasonable save from them. That is until I traveled about sixty miles out of Ely on US 6 and saw three volcanic cinder cones and one huge recent (geologically speaking) lava flow. Great, something new for me to worry about—high winds and earthquakes.

Now it would be a race. With the grant, we had money to do the planning and make repairs. The question was; could we complete the work before the enginehouse experienced a windstorm or earthquake that was beyond what it could cope with? If this happened, then it would be the B & O disaster all over again. Building rubble and collapsed walls on top of irreplaceable Nevada Northern Railway artifacts.

Next week, we’ll give the highlights of the race.

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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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