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Shoot-Outs, Preservation, and the Polar Express

I recently read a posting on an internet site dedicated to railroad preservation, which offered an opinion that museums should not have shoot-outs because they are “hokey” and do a disservice to the museum. As the Executive Director of the most complete steam era railroad complex in the country, I’ve been struggling with just such issues. Yes, we do feature shoot-outs and we also offer the Polar Express®, both of which could be considered pretty “hokey.” This begs the question: How does the featuring of these events mesh with our mission?

Make no doubt about it, I view my principle job as preservation, and at the Nevada Northern Railway, it’s quite a job. But it’s my belief that preservation encompasses more than just the artifact: it is the artifact and how it interfaced (or interfaces) with society. The people connection must be maintained, for if we lose the people connection, then nothing else will matter! And that’s where I think we’re headed (if you’ll excuse the pun)—the heritage railroad industry in this country is heading for a derailment.

It might not happen in the real near future, but it will happen. Why, one asks? The answer is because this industry is beginning to lose the “people” connection. To paraphrase an old Ford commercial: “Our JOB #1 should be to insure that the people connection is not only maintained but grows!”

Preservation takes tons and tons of money. Where does this money come from? The heritage railroad field needs to benchmark against other preservation fields. Some of the people working in the wooden boat field recently built another replica, the Godspeed. Is it preservation? Yes, it preserved the skills necessary for the wooden boat field—from sail making to rigging. On the art museum scene, they’re putting up a new $40,000,000 building (and not just one). The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago just spent $40,000,000 to display a captured German submarine four stories underground.

Heritage railroading in general is beginning to lose its connection with the general population. Want proof? Google “Titanic” and you’ll get 27,200,000 hits. Google “museums” and you’ll get 77,600,000 hits. Google “railroad museums” and you get only 194,000 hits. Then do “tourist railroads” and you get even less, only 190,000 hits. Railroad museums and tourist railroads together are only 384,000 hits!!!

There is hope however: Google “Thomas the Tank Engine” and you get 4,230,000 hits; “Polar Express” results in 3,730,000 hits; and those “hokey” shoot-outs garner 1,050,000 (I just googled shoot-outs—it might be police, basketball, or what not. Don’t miss the big picture).

Do you see a pattern developing here? We still have people who are interested in railroading. Do they understand or care about whether the shade of coloring on a particular locomotive is correct or where it ran? No, of course not, that’s our job to inform and educate. Once we make contact with them, we need to begin the education process. Will all be converted? Of course not, but some will be and that is a start.

If you’ve continued reading this far, you might think that I’m pessimistic about the future of heritage railroading. No, I’m not pessimistic, but I do realize that we need to change our attitude and embrace the hokey, the Thomas and the Polar Express®, while at the same time doing our “real” job of preserving railroad heritage. Why embrace such things? Frankly, for the money! The rather legendary and quotable bank robber, Willie Sutton, when asked why he repeatedly robbed banks, allegedly answered, “Because that’s where the money is!”

When I was growing up, I had an ongoing argument with my father. One of his favorite sayings was, “It always boils down to the all mighty buck.” I would strenuously disagree with him back then, but as I matured, I’ve come to realize that he was correct. Today I have a busted locomotive and no amount of wishing will get it back in service. It will take cold, hard cash, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars. I can’t wish I had this money. I need to go out and raise it. And to do that, I will take advantage of the “people connection” (read the public) that we are developing here. For it is only by tapping into the public wallet that we’ll raise the millions of dollars that we need (and I don’t mean government help, but private sector and individual fund raising).

Yes, we do have shoot-outs. And yes, they can be hokey. The Ghost Riders put their heart and soul into them and the public loves them. We also offer the Polar Expresses® again beloved by the public. How much so? Sixteen percent of our annual ridership rode between Thanksgiving and New Years and 95 percent of those passengers made a journey of over 250 miles one way to ride the Polar Expresses®. We even had people come from Delaware and Mississippi to Ely in order to ride the Polar Express® this year.

So now, we believe that our challenge is how are we going to make railroad heritage so enticing that people will drive 250 miles or more through a snowstorm to participate? Obviously it can be done. But we have to work together (what a novel concept) and we need to educate the public as to why railroad heritage is important.

And for this to happen we need to add a dash of showmanship to our recipe. Better yet, make it a rather large dash. We may think that we are only in the preservation business but in reality, we are really in a race to capture as many dollars as we can. So that we can do the business of preservation and sharing what it is that we preserve with the world. It’s a lot like the chicken and the egg: which came first? In our case, does preservation come first or does the business of generating the dollars required for doing the preservation come first? And make no mistake, it is a business. Granted it is a non-profit, but one that must—and does—run like a business. Our revenue must exceed our expenses and money needs to be put aside for capital investment.

So when you visit the Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark you just might witness a hokey shoot-out, visit Santa at the North Pole, or roll through a field of ghosts. And if Rail Events Inc. ever puts together a Hogwarts Express program, I’ll be standing in line to sign up.

But at the same time, we’ll also continue to offer a behind-the-scenes walking tour, so that you can see a steam locomotive, or a near-antique diesel locomotive being repaired. We’ll explain and show the differences between steam and diesel locomotives. We’ll talk about time and time zones. We’ll explain what a highball means to a railroader and how train crews communicated before radios and cell phones. We’ll explain how railroading touched all aspects of society. And during the year, we’ll offer RailCamps for both adults and teens.

Railroading has a fabulous, incredible story to tell and preserve. But to tell it and to survive, we need to draw an audience that will deliver the almighty buck so we can preserve it.

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Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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