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Steaming Daily

In the museum’s collection are copies of photographs showing the next to the last and the last passenger trains at Currie. These pictures document the end of an era on the Nevada Northern Railway. From 1906 through 1941, the Nevada Northern ran daily passenger trains between Ely and Cobre. It wasn’t a long trip just 140 miles and it took about four and a half hours to accomplish. The trip would start at Ely ay 8:00 a.m. travel to East Ely and then on to Cobre with arrival scheduled for 12:35 p.m. At 3:00 p.m., the train would whistle off from Cobre and begin its return journey to Ely. Arrival was scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

It wasn’t a long train, the usual consist was steam locomotive 40, baggage and railway post office car 20 and first class passenger car 5. During the course of the thirty-five years in operation, the Nevada Northern hauled over six million passengers. Not a bad record for a short line railroad in the middle of nowhere but on July 31, 1941 it all came to an end. The last run left Cobre, headed to Ely and the curtain came down on the daily passenger trains; an era had ended. The next day diesel GM buses replaced the little train. The buses went from Ely to Wells.

Ironically, sixty-five years later history reverses itself. For the second year beginning on Friday, the museum starts daily steam operations through Labor Day. For sixty-eight consecutive days, daily steam-powered passenger trains will once again depart the East Ely Depot at 9:30 a.m. Where we won’t be traveling to Cobre, we will be traveling back through time to when daily steam trains left East Ely.

When locomotive 40 was put away in 1941, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that daily steam operations would ever have come back to the Nevada Northern. Even when the museum was started twenty years ago, no one imagined daily steam powered passenger service. So why now?

It boils down to dollars and cents. Last year was the first year where we operated steam seven days a week. During this period, ridership increased over eighty percent. When you consider that over fifty percent of the museum’s revenue comes from train operations, it is easy to see why it is imperative for the museum to operate steam seven days a week.

The easiest way for the museum to increase revenue is to carry more passengers. The more passengers we carry, the more revenue we earn from train ticket sales, gift shop sales, food sales, donations, and memberships. And with fifty-six acres, sixty-six buildings and structures, thirty miles of track, three steam locomotives, six diesel locomotives, and over sixty pieces of rolling stock to maintain, we need the revenue.

Secondly, people come out west expecting steam. In their mind’s eye the romanticized picture that they see is the steam locomotive pulling the passenger train. (Cowboys and Indians would be an added bonus.) If people are going to take the time out of their busy vacation schedule, they want maximum bang for their investment of time and money. They want a steam locomotive powering their train. So for sixty-three consecutive days, the museum will be providing what people want—steam powered passenger trains.

On the flip side, sixty-eight days of steam is a mighty big investment for the museum. It puts the museum between a rock and a hard place. There was a reason steam locomotives were replaced—they are expensive to operate. For every hour that the locomotive is hot, the cost is three hours of maintenance. This is a massive investment of time and money. Steam locomotives also need special skills and knowledge to keep them running.

And in our case, our locomotives are historic to the Nevada Northern Railway. They have been here for almost one hundred years. The museum needs to be sensitive to the locomotives and protect them. (Some would argue that protecting the locomotives means not running them. I’ll save that argument for another day.) It is a paradox. To develop the skills and knowledge needed to operate steam locomotives, we need to operate them. At the same time, the learning curve on developing this knowledge puts wear on the locomotives—maybe more than we would like—but we need to learn.

Mark Twain, I think put it best, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” Consequently, we are learning and we are raising the level of expertise necessary to operate these incredible machines and instilling a sense of professionalism and pride in the engine crews.

So why operate for sixty-eight straight days? Again, it boils down to dollars and cents. There are fixed costs to operating the museum. If we run one train or one hundred trains, track still needs to be maintained. Buildings and rolling stock need maintenance. Just existing takes money for lights, heat, and wages. Then there is the question of the skills needed to operate and repair steam locomotives. Whether you operate on just weekends or daily, skills and knowledge are still required. If you break a staybolt in a steam locomotive, it needs to be repaired. Making this repair takes knowledge and skill. If you don’t have this expertise on staff, you’ll need to bring in an expert with all of their associated costs. As the railroad approaches its second century, it is imperative that we teach the skills and knowledge necessary to keep the locomotives operating for another one hundred years. We need to develop the expertise here to run and maintain these marvelous pieces of machinery.

The responsibility of the museum is to build on the foundation that we have here at East Ely. Our job is to preserve and protect the complex and to make sure that the knowledge necessary for safe and efficient operation of the railroad is passed on to the following generations. It’s a very tall order. To a certain extent, we have no choice. We need to develop and teach this knowledge base or we stuff and mount the locomotives in the enginehouse.

As I write this, the enginehouse is quiet and clean. On Friday morning, the fire will be lit in locomotive 93. As the locomotive heats up it will come alive. Staff and volunteers will be all over the locomotive as it prepares for the day. It will be hot, noisy, dirty, smoky, and steamy work. Knuckles will get busted. Grease and oil will get under the fingernails and all over clothes. Hours later the engineer will whistle off and 93 will roll out into the light of day. Visitors to the museum will experience just what it was like here in Ely and across the country as these awe-inspiring machines moved people and goods great distances.

And as a bonus, we will have captured just a little more of the puzzle and gotten just a little more experience. This is what it is all about. As another benefit, not only did we get more knowledge and experience but we raised more revenue that can be invested in the locomotives, tracks, buildings, rolling stock, electric bills (as a side note, we also pay the electric bill on the crossing signals), wages, paving, telephone bills, coal, water, fuel, brochures, newsletters, ties, nuts and bolts—the list is just about endless. But this is what it is all about.

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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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