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The Good Old Days on the Nevada Northern

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.

The 8 years I worked as a Trainmaster were the hardest part of my railroad career. I was in charge of all trainmen, enginemen and dispatchers, as well as the agents and telegraphers from Cobre to Ruth to Kimberly. Mr. Fravel told me that he wanted me to regularly check the ore crews working at night, and to accompany the freight crews making the Cobre trip three times a week. I had no regular hours, but on the days or nights I was not riding trains, I was expected at the office. I had a private room next to the dispatchers. As you know, the Book of Rules governing the safe movement of trains is standard throughout the United States. It covers the duties of Conductors and Brakemen, Engineers and Firemen. It specifies the exact wording of train orders, and a train cannot move without the authority of a written train order. I was kept busy giving the Rules examinations to new brakemen and firemen, plus men being promoted to conductor or engineer. Some of the examinations were written, but they were mostly oral.     In 1937, when I arrived at Nevada Northern, there was a daily passenger train from the Ely Depot to Cobre and return, 140 miles one way. It also connected with the Western Pacific at Shafter, 18 miles south of Cobre. There were two complete crews for the passenger service. In addition, we had an assigned crew on the freight train, which made the three round trips to Cobre per week. This crew stayed overnight at our Cobre Boarding House. There was a separate building for sleeping crew, and one end was separated into a single room with two beds called the Officer’s Room. I became well acquainted with this room. We had an agent at Cobre (which means copper in Spanish), and he was in charge of interchanging freight between the two railroads, plus keeping the records of freight cars interchanged. Also, we had a Car Inspector at Cobre who met our freight train at Shafter, inspected all cars going and coming from each railroad, and then did the same thing at Cobre for us. In addition, he was caretaker of the locomotive and placed it in the roundhouse at night.     Lucretia and I rode the passenger train to Cobre on many occasions, going to Elko, San Francisco or Salt Lake City. The passenger train connected with an eastbound passenger train at Shafter, and with two mail trains at Cobre. At Cobre the SP stopped long enough to transfer piles of express and mail. We paid extra to our trainmen and engine to handle the unloading and reloading to and from the SP from our mail and express car. We even had a U.S. Postal Service messenger, who occupied a room at one end of the express car. He actually worked the mail enroute and prepared mail pouches for Currie, Cherry Creek and McGill. You would have loved the old train. It was made up of Engine 40, a high-wheeled steam locomotive, coal fired manually by the fireman. There was a mail car and express car along with a coach with red plush seats, and finally the car Cobre. It was half coach and half observation car. In the rear were big, high-backed chairs, that would swivel all the way around.     Moving on. N.N. also had a Switch Crew, which delivered freight cars up to Ruth and Kimberly. Ruth was the location of the big open-pit copper mine. Kimberly was an underground mine operated by another company, Consolidated Coppermines Corp. Ruth was at an elevation of 7,000 ft. and Kimberly at least 7,500 ft. Ely was only 6,250 ft. The switch crew also went to McGill to shove freight cars, mostly coal from McGill Junction up in the Kennecott yard.     We also had a school train bringing students from McGill and Ruth to the White Pine County High School. It delivered the students to the Ely Depot just across the County Courthouse Park to the high school. After school, it returned them home. This did not last long after 1937 when the school district purchased school buses. The school had two coaches filled with students and the Conductors told many stories of rambunctious kids.     Kennecott had seven crews working on the ore trains. They delivered 25,000 tons per day, seven days per week, from Ruth to Kimberly to the Mill at McGill, a distance of 25 miles. We had steam locomotives (until 1950) and used one locomotive to pull 30 carloads. There was a 1% grade from Hiline to the Mill, 12 miles. Later, with diesel-electric locomotives, we operated 50 car trains with two locomotives. Each ore crew made a round and a half in an 8-hour shift. The first crew took empty cars up to Ruth and Kimberly, and then took 30 loaded cars to the mill. They brought empty cars from the mill, and then made another trip to the mines and back to East Ely. The second crew started the other way by taking loads to the mill, then going to the mines.     I am explaining all this so you will see what I had to contend with. The dangerous part was that the air brakes on each car had to be kept at 100% effective in order to safely get the loads down the 3% grade from Kimberly and Ruth without a runaway. Each of the 350 cars was sent to the Car Repair track on a regular basis to have the air-brake system checked and the axle journals inspected. (Axles would get hot and burn off under these heavy loads if the lubrication failed or the brasses wore out.) My job was to see that the rules were strictly followed at Ruth and Kimberly, with particular attention to the brakes. The trainmen had to make an air test before the train could start down the grade. The test included opening the air hose on the last car to see if the 90 lb. air pressure was through the entire train. Then the two brakemen each checked half the cars in his end of the train to see if they were tightly set. They signaled the engineer if everything was OK and the engineer would release the brakes and proceed. Before my arrival in East Ely, one ore train could not be stopped and it proceeded right on downhill, through East Ely and three miles across the valley to Hiline before stopping.
Next week we’ll continue with Mr. Peterson’s experiences on the Nevada Northern.

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