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Still Steaming

On July 10th, steam locomotive 40 will be in front of the East Ely Depot hissing quietly ready to depart at 9:30 a.m. with the excursion train. The engine crew will be tending to last minute tasks, throwing some coal into the firebox, oiling around, and wiping down the locomotive. This is a timeless scene; since 1910 locomotive 40 has been departing from the East Ely Depot pulling passenger trains.

This is what is supposed to happen. Some would say, this is what we hope will happen; and the cynical would say not a chance. Welcome to maintaining steam locomotives in the high desert of Nevada in the 21st century.

Locomotive 40 was taken out of service after the photo shoots in February for her annual inspection. What in the past would take a couple of weeks this time turned into a process that will take months. And the thinking for the annual inspection actually started over a year ago. Locomotive 40 had just come into service for the winter photo shoots in February 2005. And this was in itself a minor miracle, because our Chief Mechanical Officer had died suddenly on December 1 and 40 had all of her tubes out and there was a question of when she would run again.

By rolling up our sleeves, we go 40 out the door for the second photo shoot (just barely). She went into excursion service in May of 2005 and promptly broke staybolts. Without getting too technical, in any given locomotive boiler, hundreds of staybolts support the firebox from collapse from the high steam pressure within the boiler. So breaking staybolts is not unexpected—they just need to be repaired. We were very lucky; all of the broken staybolts were easily accessible. Engine 40 does have staybolts behind her drivers. It would only be a matter of time before a staybolt broke there.

And as luck would have it, when 40 went in for her annual she had a broken staybolt directly behind her middle driver. The only way to remove the staybolt was to lower the driver. To lower a driver, you need a drop table. Also called a pit jack, it is used to lower locomotive wheels. It sits in the drop pit, which is sixteen feet below the floor.

Recognizing that we would have to lower a locomotive driver sooner or later, late last summer work began on the drop pit. This work was started because on August 1, 2005 Ely suffered a cloudburst and the enginehouse flooded. The flood was atrocious. We experienced a river going through the machine shop and enginehouse.

In both the machine shop and enginehouse are service pits in between the rails to for inspecting and working on under the locomotives. Well with the flooding, these pits became pools of water. And connecting the pits on Machine Shop Track 1 and Enginehouse Tracks 1 and 2 is the drop table pit. With these three pits tied together, we now had a small lake.

The first step was to pump out the pits. Over 20,000 gallons of water was pumped out. Then the disgusting task of shoveling the gunk out of the bottom of the pit started. Under the water was the pit jack. The pit jack has seen better days. It was air operated, but now was very rusty. It was obvious it hadn’t been used in years. We also found out that the pit jack pit did not have a drain, but had used a steam siphon to remove water. This siphon had been out of service for decades.

This was in September. The old pit jack was pulled out of the pit and set on the shop floor. The drop pit was shoveled out and cleaned. And heads were scratched on how to resuscitate the pit jack.

Plans were drawn up and two used hydraulic cylinders were combined with the salvaged parts from the old drop table, a hydraulic pump, and barrel of hydraulic fluid and et voila a new drop table. Well actually not quite et voila—it took months. But as I write this, the center driver of 40 is down and the broken staybolt is out. Actually, all of the staybolts behind the center driver are out. Since it is so much work to remove a driver, it was decided to remove all of the staybolts and replace them with new ones.

Now the trick will be to raise the center driver back up into position and put everything back together. And when I say everything back together, we should talk briefly about rods. Yes, rods. To lower the driver we need to remove the main rod. To remove the main rods (remember there are two, one on each side), all of the rods needed to come off along with all of the rods for the valve gear.

When all of the rods were off, the bearings were examined and found to be in poor shape. The main rod bearings were in the worse shape. They needed to be machined. We were able to machine them in house because the California Railroad Museum gave us a boring machine that was surplus to them.

So as we sit right now, the new staybolts are being made to go back in behind the driver. Once the staybolts are in the driver is raised back in place. Once in place, the main rods will be installed along with all of the other rods and valve gearing.

Meanwhile, work is being done on others parts of the locomotive. The steam turret was gone over and valves repaired or replaced. The throttle valve was lapped and countless other small jobs were done. All of this work was accomplished by the staff and volunteers of the museum. Thousands of hours of labor went into getting 40 back into service.

And if everything goes even somewhat according to plan, then on July 10th at 9:30 a.m. locomotive 40 will whistle off and carry another load of passengers back in time.

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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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