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The Good Old Days on the Nevada Northern — Part II

In the museum’s collection is an autobiography by Mr. Harold Millard Peterson. Mr. Peterson worked for the Nevada Northern Railway from 1937 to 1975. He retired from the railroad as General Manager. With the centennial of the railroad rapidly approaching, I thought I would share with you what it was like on the Nevada Northern from Mr. Peterson’s recollection. What follows is an excerpt from his autobiography.
     I rode ore trains on a regular basis, one or two days or nights a week, and went to Cobre on the freight train once or twice a month. I rode in the locomotives, sitting next to the steam boiler just ahead of the fireman, or in the caboose, sitting up in the cupola with the conductor and rear brakeman. I walked along the trains with the brakemen while they made the air tests and signaled the engineer that it was safe to proceed.     Mr. Fravel said I had a “Hex” on the Cobre freight train. Within the first few months, I was riding two trains that were derailed. On the first one, I was riding in the engine going to Cobre, when an empty coal car derailed, taking 15 empty cars off the track, some of them as far as 50 feet. This happened about 9 p.m. and after checking the track and the derailed cars, we called dispatcher by using our emergency phone. It had a long pole which would reach up to the telephone wires, with clips to attach to both wires, and wires down to our phone box. We then took the front of the train on to Shafter and Cobre, and then went to dinner and bed. Mr. Fravel was unhappy when he had to call an extra crew and bring a work train to the site of the derailment. The train had our 100-ton crane and the men from the Car Department we called the Wrecking Crew. They had two passenger coaches, equipped and ready to at all times to go out on the line. In one coach, they had the rear end equipped with bunk beds. The front had a kitchen and a long table with benches, where the entire crew, plus trainmen, enginemen and trackmen could be fed. I remember taking a prepared list to a grocery store in the middle of the night and waiting while the order was put up in boxes to take to the cooking car. The second car was filled with tools for the carmen. On derailments that took more than a day to clear the track, the men were fed in groups of ten so the work could go on without interruption. They had enough food for Mr. Fravel and me too.     On this first derailment, Mr. Fravel came with the work train from East Ely, but because it was 100 miles from East Ely, he did not arrive until 8 or 9 a.m. In the meantime, I had gone to Cobre with the train, had four or five hours sleep, then came with the Cobre Section Gang on an open motorcar. Thank goodness it was summertime. We had good luck rerailing the empty cars, and by dark, the work train and Mr. Fravel had started back to East Ely, taking the damaged coal cars with them. I stayed and when the freight crew came with the locomotive from Cobre, we took the rear of the train to Shafter and Cobre. The next morning, we started again on the regular trip to East Ely, picking up carloads of coal, lumber, gasoline, diesel oil, etc., and went on to McGill and East Ely.     I should tell you that the State Law required that trainmen and enginemen could not be on duty longer than 16 hours, which meant that the work train had to stop at Currie for 8 hours rest before they could continue on to East Ely. However, the carmen all caught the bus home.     Two weeks later, I was sitting in the caboose on the freight train leaving Shafter about 10 a.m. with at least 75 loaded cars and two locomotives. We were going along about 30 miles per hour when we derailed 10 carloads of coal, tearing up the track for 300 feet, and badly damaging the coal cars. This was at a point not 10 miles from the point where the first accident occurred. I am sure I could hear Mr. Fravel cussing. Again, we checked the track, put up the portable phone and called the dispatcher to report the derailment. We found that the rail leading into a turnout switch had buckled into an “S” curve and caused the derailment. This happened before due to 90-degree heat during the summers.     Again, we proceeded with the front cars of the train to McGill and East Ely. The next morning, as soon as the crew had 8 hours rest, off we went with the wrecking crew and their outfit cars, the 100-ton crane, and also a clamshell crane, which we needed to unload many of the carloads of coal before we could bring them back on the track. Mr. Fravel stayed home, but we called him regularly to keep him informed. When the 16-hour law caught us, we were only partly finished, so we had to go back to Currie and tie up for 8 hours. We also had to fill the engine with water. The second day we finished rerailing the cars, and the track was repaired so we could reach the rear of the train and the caboose, but again we ran out of time and had to stop for rest, this time at Cherry Creek. We all had our meals with the carmen and had bunks in the sleeping car. A roundhouse man from East Ely arrived to take care of the locomotive. We finally got back to East Ely with the work train, the damaged coal cars, and the rear of the train. Inasmuch as we were then behind schedule, the freight crew was called after 8 hours rest and started out again to McGill and Cobre. In the meantime, we had the switch crew running back and forth to Ruth and Kimberly, then over to McGill to push the rear cars of coal into McGill yard.     I suppose you have heard enough of derailments, but these two happened within two weeks and 10 miles of each other. Thank goodness my Hex rested for a while. We had lots of trouble on the Ore Line during my 8 years as Trainmaster, but in order to keep you awake, I will tell you of a few of my travails.     We did not have much snow in the winters, but the heavy wind built up big snowdrifts. We also had a spreader on Nevada Northern and we used it several times to clear the Ore Line. This spreader had a large snowplow on the front and it would throw the snow out 20 or 25 feet if you were moving at our speed limit of 30 miles per hour. The winter of 1949 turned into a big mess. It was called the “Haylift” winter, because the snow was deep and the drifts so high many sheep and cattle were marooned out in the valleys. We ran special freight trains from Cobre and Shafter to East Ely with 15 or 20 carloads of hay. The hay was unloaded from boxcars on trucks and taken to the airport, where the bales of hay were loaded into big cargo airplanes, which flew out to the stranded sheep and cattle and dropped the hay out of the plane.     At the same time, the highway from East Ely to McGill had snowdrifts 15 or 20 feet high on both sides, where the highway snowplows had built them. In the meantime, we had trouble all along the railroad. In the middle of the night, the dispatcher called me to say we had an ore train stuck in the snow near Hiline (three miles east of East Ely). We called out an ore crew and went with two steam locomotives from East Ely until we located the caboose of the stuck train. We hooked on to the caboose and tried to pull the train out of the snow, but nothing moved an inch. So we uncoupled the rear ten cars and were able to get them back to East Ely ore yard. On our next attempts we were only able to pull back three or four cars at a time, then we had to shovel around the locomotive to clear enough snow away from its wheels so we could move it. The snow was at least ten feet deep and in a narrow cut with banks up to 20 feet.     By this time, the ore trains were far off schedule and the Mill was asking when we would be able to deliver more ore to them. I went with the ore crew and two freight locomotives and started for the mill. The front engine had a fairly large snowplow on the front and we traveled fast, throwing snow high and wide until we got within about three miles of the mill. The we got stuck again in a big cut full of snow. We discovered the leading engine had become derailed at a switch two mile behind us and we had been running along the top of the frozen ties. If the track had not been frozen, we would have torn out a lot of rail. Well, we all got shovels, including the trainmen and enginemen, and dug around all the wheels of the rear locomotive until it was able to back out of the snowdrift. Then we shoveled the track clear until we could couple into the leading engine. After we dug out all along the side of the front engine, we were able to move it back, and then put down a pair of rerailing frogs and got the wheels up on top of the rails. What a relief. From there to the mill we made good time. The conductor and I went to the phone and reported we had made it through to the mill and were ready to return (listen to this one). Mr. Fravel was not there to talk to us. He was on a work train with the wrecking crew headed to a derailment of the freight train out beyond Currie. He had already left on the work train while we were digging out of the snow. Do you agree with me that a joke is much funnier if it has some misery included? I can just hear Mr. Fravel. He was within two years of 53 years railroading and retirement, but had a young squirt as Trainmaster who was always in the wrong place, causing him grief.     We had a number of derailments throughout the next 25 years, but also we went many months with no interruptions. I must admit we had some bad ore train wrecks. One was on the hill just above Ely, where ten carloads of ore derailed and ended up side by side like an accordion. We had to bring Kennecott crew down from Ruth, through the tunnel, to work on the rear of the train. They had a large diesel-electric crane. We worked on the front end with the 100-ton steam crane. The work was all taking place right about Ely’s Red Light District. The girls all waved at our crews from the Big Four and Green Lantern.
The railroad just finished its third winter photo shoot. While we didn’t have any of the deep snow Mr. Peterson describes we did have frozen switches, stubborn couplers and airlines. And to a certain extend things really don’t change. During the summer, the girls still come out and wave as the excursions trains go past the red light district.

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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