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Shooting the Nevada Northern in 1970

It is easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day activities of your life and overlook the fact that you are creating history. After all, I’m just an average Joe, nobody “famous,” just doing my job. Me create history? Nah, no way. Well, yes you did. As the story below illustrates you created history.

Gordon Osmundson is a photographer and a volunteer at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. As a college student in late summer 1970, he and a friend took a road trip to Colorado and passed through Ely. They took the time to photograph the Nevada Northern Railway. Now (shudder) thirty-four years have past and those photos from 1970 have meaning. The museum’s archives have very few photos from that era. Now we do, due a college road trip. What follows is Gordon’s narrative of the trip.

At the end of summer 1970, just before I was about to start my senior year at Berkeley. My friend Chris Vels and I heard that there had been a series of washouts in Animus Canyon on the narrow gauge Denver &Rio Grande Western Railroad. They were supposed to be running steam powered work trains to help deal with the problem. We decided to take a trip to Colorado to see and take some pictures.What would happen in Colorado is another story that I will perhaps relate some other time. This was our fourth such trip together and the third time we would cross Nevada. We had taken Interstate 80/US Hwy 40 both ways each time before, so this time we opted for US Hwy 50. We got as far as Bob Scott Summit east of Austin late at night on the first day and camped at the Bob Scott campground.
We both of had copies of David Myrick’s Railroads of Nevada & Eastern California so we were aware that there was a short line railroad in Ely. We had both read the book once, but didn’t remember too much in detail. But at least we both knew that the Nevada Northern Railway ran from Ely north to connections with the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Western Pacific Railroad. So, on day two, when we got to Ely, we stopped to check it out. At this time the mines and smelter were both still in full operation.
After driving through downtown Ely we came upon two steam locomotives and some other equipment on display beside the main street at the White Pine County Museum. I always made it a practice to shoot a few slides whenever I saw a steam locomotive on display, so I did that here. The first images in this Gallery are those slides; note the green boiler on #93.
From here we went on to check out the Nevada Northern Railway yards. The yards were well kept, but there seemed to be no one around. No doubt there was someone keeping an eye on us from the railroad offices on the second floor of the depot, but no one bothered us. As a model railroader some of the cars in the yard were of interest; the wooden boxcars with arch bar trucks were worth a few shots as were a couple of ore cars that were sitting around. The depot and coal tipples were worth a few shots too. Note what nice shape the boxcars seem to be in. Compare this with the more recent black & white images in the other N. N. Gallery.
We next went over to the enginehouse. Again, there was no one around, but the doors were open and feeling a little bold we walked in. What a surprise to find another steam locomotive, it was locomotive 40, and this one was completely intact. Other than a thick coat of dust, it looked like it had been run yesterday. I took a few shoots in the engine house, long hand held exposures at f1.4 with my trusty Canon FTql. These aren’t razor sharp, but they don’t look too bad, at least on the web.
We next drove up towards the smelter where I got a few shots of the Baldwin switchers at work. Luckily locomotive 401 was arriving with the twice a week train down from Cobre and I got a shot of that. Finally, we saw an empty ore train coming down along the Hiline. It was a long ways off and moving slowly, but we watched it and finally figured that it would eventually turn west and pass under the Hwy 93 overpass. We waited there to get a few shots of it coming into town. From there we headed east, Colorado beckoned.
When I got home, I had my Kodachrome developed and the slides were fine. I projected them and the others from that trip, showed them to a few friends and then put them away in a cabinet where they have sat for years. In fact. I kind of forgot about them. Fast Forward. The mine closed. The smelter closed. The railroad shut down, but it wasn’t scraped. Kennecott Copper, the owner of the railroad gave it to a non-profit organization to become a museum. Locomotive 40 had a new career and was put back in service as the Ghost Train of Old Ely.
In 1987, I read about it in “Pacific Rail News” and next year, 1988, I returned to Ely, this time with my large format view camera. Today the Nevada Northern is the most complete steam-era railroad facility in the United States. Over the years, I’ve done more photography at Ely that anywhere else. Now I’ve become involved with the museum I have personally put some of those old wooden boxcars back into service and have started a book about the railroad which I hope to have out in time for the railroad’s centennial in 2005/2006.

By this time I had forgotten what was in those slides taken 34 years ago. But I became curious and pulled them out. I thought that I had few shots of #40, but to my surprise I had a pretty good little photo essay that covered the railroad pretty well. Not many rail photographers stopped in Ely when the railroad was a going concern. Now those images seem a lot more significant than they did when I took them. When I took these slides, the railroad was not a museum, personal computers did not exist, there were no digital images, and the internet did not exist. We have all of that today, so it strikes me that I should share those images made 34 years ago and put them on the web, here they are.

If you want to see all of the photos from Gordon’s trip you can go to his website Now the circle is complete, Gordon is a member and a volunteer of the museum. His photos help fill a gap in the museum’s archive. He has sweated a lot over those boxcars that he saw that summer long ago and thanks to his efforts and the help of others all three of the boxcars are rolling again.

It is with help from individuals like Gordon that is reflected in the vibrant activity that is on going down at the museum. The museum needs all of the help it can get and we are always looking for artifacts on the Nevada Northern. It doesn’t matter if they are pictures, papers, or books. Everything is welcome–this is the history that we will pass on to explain to the next generation and the generations that follow what happened here in the high desert of north central Nevada.

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