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The Ghost Railway and Photographs

The nickname for the Nevada Northern Railway Museum is the Ghost Train of Old Ely. The reason for the name alludes to the fact that we are keeping the past alive at the museum. Once, just about every small town in America had a connection to railroads; today that’s gone. If the railroad still goes through the town, chances are the train doesn’t stop their anymore and all of the railroad buildings have been torn down. Or even worse, the tracks were torn up, and except for a bike path, there is no sign that trains even when through the town.

Here in Ely, the complex was saved. The buildings, tracks, locomotives, and rolling stock still exist. The blueprints on the buildings, locomotives, and rolling stock are still here. We even have the employee records—just not the employees. Hence, we have ghosts all around us.

This fact really hit home during a trip to the Nevada Historical Society. I was researching photographs on the Nevada Northern Railway to round out our collection. What struck me was the total lack of people in the photos. To a certain extent the equipment looked the same today as it did back then. There are photos of locomotive 40 in front of the enginehouse with no one in the photos. During a recent photo shoot, we placed locomotive 40 in front of the enginehouse for the photographers. The photographers were insistent that there be no people in the picture. In fact, they thought the picture was ruined when one of the engine crew poked his head out of the cab. In fact, all during the week, the photographers wanted to shoot the equipment with no visible evidence of humans around. One photographer got real upset about footprints in the snow. It was if the equipment was operated by ghosts.

If you laid a copy of a Nevada Historical Society photo next to one of the sterile photos from the photo shoot, most people won’t be able to identify when the photo was taken. The buildings and the locomotive look the same and it is simply a picture of a locomotive.

What is missing is the human drama of running a railroad. Believe it or not, it takes people to move locomotives, throw switches, and couple cars. And it is in the interaction of the people and the equipment that tells the story of railroading and to a certain extent banishes the ghosts for a while.

While I was at the Historical Society, the curator mentioned that he had just received about 200 photos on the Eureka Northern Railroad. This is the railroad that was the successor to the Eureka and Palisade Railroad that ran from Eureka to Palisade Nevada. The photos were taken by the daughter of one of the employees. The thing that really struck me was that just about every photo told a story. The story was created because there were people in the photos. When I contrasted the Eureka Northern photos with the Nevada Northern Railway photos, the Nevada Northern photos were boring. They were just shots of equipment or the pit with no people visible, the story value was minimal. I mean after you see one photo of a locomotive, unless you’re a rabid fan, how many photos are you interested in seeing? The addition of people in the photos makes the photos more interesting to us because we’re people too. We’re curious about what other people are doing. Don’t believe me? Check out the newspapers at a supermarket check out or turn on your TV to a “reality” show.

If you study the picture of locomotive 93, there is a story being told. It gives you a glimpse of what I’m talking about. The locomotive is hot. Its blower is on because there is a plume of smoke coming from the stack. Normally, the only time the blower is used is in the morning to help build steam pressure. So with the long shadows and sunlight glinting off of the locomotive this photo was most likely shot in the morning. And it was a cold morning as evident by the clouds of steam up by the cylinders. The clouds of steam are from the cylinder cocks being open because the locomotive is still cold. Steam powers a locomotive by expanding in the steam cylinders and pushing the main rod. When the cylinders are cold, some of the steam condenses to water. Water does not compress. So when a steam locomotive is sitting or just beginning to move, the engineer will open the cylinder cocks to drain the water out of the cylinders. Steam will billow out from the cylinders. This protects the running gear of the locomotive. On cold days it’s very dramatic. Once the cylinders are warm, the engineer will close the cocks and this plume of steam goes away.

The story continues. The person looking out the cab is the engineer. He’s looking for a signal from someone on the ground. And his dress confirms a couple of things: it is a cold morning (notice the scarf around is neck); this photo was taken recently—you can tell that by his dress. (It wasn’t taken in the 1940s).

So this photo was taken just before the locomotive was ready to move on a cold morning during a recent photo shoot. The engineer is waiting for a signal, most likely to backup. Once given, he will ease out the throttle, release the brakes, and whistle off—quite the story from just one photograph.

And this is where I need your help. The centennial of the railroad is next year. We’re working on a book on the Nevada Northern Railway and need photographs. Where any and all photographs are welcome, I’m especially interested in the common, everyday photographs of the railroad. I suspect these photos will be found in the family photo album or in that box that your grandmother gave you.

Please take a moment and look in the back closet and under the bed. I have yet to see a passenger train in front of the East Ely Depot discharging passengers. Do you have a photo of the crews working on the ore cars in the RIP? I’d like to make a copy of it.

For almost one hundred years now trains have gone up and down the rails of the Nevada Northern. The locomotives may have been powered by steam or diesel fuel, but it was the human drama that got them over the road. And this is another aspect of what we need to preserve here at the museum—that human drama. We need to banish some of the ghosts and show the people who did it.

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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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