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The Little Engine that Could

Other than the steam and diesel locomotives, there is another engine down at the railroad. It is not really visible to the public. It is a version of the little engine that could. It covers the entire complex, White Pine County, and the State of Nevada—a pretty big task for a small little engine.

This past year one of the larger projects at the railroad was the rebuild of the running gear of steam locomotive 93. This project was of immense importance to the museum because it is a component of that other little engine at the railroad. And I’m not talking about steam locomotive 40, but that’s also a piece of the other engine. Nor am I referring to diesel locomotives 204, 105, or 109, although they are also parts of that other engine too.

So what engine am I referring to? The economic engine is the railroad. This is the engine that brings in dollars into Ely, White Pine County, and the State of Nevada. You could think of it as the little engine that could and more importantly in these tough economic times the little engine that does.

Back in 1984, when the railroad was gifted to the City of Ely and the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, the dream was that the railroad would bring dollars into the community. That and preservation of the community’s history were the driving forces behind asking for the railroad from Kennecott. That was twenty-five years ago and slowly we are realizing that dream. The Nevada Northern Railway is bringing money into the state and the community and it is big money.

The Nevada Commission on Tourism (NCOT) maintains a website with visitor statistics. They even break out the statistics for rural Nevada visitors. The first number is the average non-gaming and gaming trip expenditure per overnight visitor: $421. The average daily expenditure is $134. The average size of the group is 2.74 people and the average length (nights) per overnight trip is 3.67. What was the top purpose for a trip to rural Nevada? That’s easy. It was vacationing followed by visiting friends or relatives. How did they get there? By automobile. And the top state of origin? California followed by Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and Arizona. And this all dovetails nicely with the railroad. The railroad is a prime vacation activity. The easiest way to access the railroad is via automobile.

So what does this mean dollars and cents to the community? Last year our combined ridership and visitor count hit 20,302. Using NCOT figures, these people spent about $8,547,000 in the state visiting the Nevada Northern Railway. And in White Pine County, our share is about $2,720,000. In addition to visitor’s dollars, last year grants at the railroad brought in another $2,235,000 that was spent on the railroad. Then over and above that, we raised and spent almost an additional $1,000,000 a year. This money comes from our train operations, gift shop sales, donations, and memberships. This money is then invested in wages, the track, the locomotives, and rolling stock.

Last year the money generated locally by the railroad was just under $6,000,000. And for the state, the railroad generated almost $12,000,000. Why the big difference? Geography. We’re 240 miles away from any major population center. So a round trip is almost 500 miles. That means two-and-a-half tanks of gas, at least two if not three meals, and most likely a night in a motel. And if our visitors are coming from California (which they are), we’re talking a round trip of 1,100 miles. This is two motel nights, six meals, and five to six tanks of fuel. And we haven’t figured in the souvenirs!

And the money does not stop there. We are all interconnected. The money went into the hospitality industry, restaurants, service stations, casinos, and vendors. Now the money starts doing its heavy lifting. It provides jobs. It provides wages for the employees of these businesses. These employees then in turn spent their wages on local goods and services. This allows local businesses to hire more people and make investments in their businesses. That generates even more revenue for the local, regional, and statewide economy. Pretty impressive little engine don’t you think?

And last year was a down year for the railroad: we were off 26% compared to 2007. We got hit by a double whammy—no operating steam locomotives and record high fuel prices. But as 2009 starts, things are beginning to turn around. Locomotive 93 is back in operation and fuel prices right now are half of what they were last year. And we’re already beginning to see the change.

So far this year we have had over 2,000 visitors. This is a record. It is the highest number we have ever had this early in the season. What does this portend for the season? Good question and I have no idea. But as I tell my friends, since I am the executive director of a steam railroad museum in the 21st century in remote rural Nevada, by definition I am optimistic.

So I think this will be good year, not only for the railroad but also for Ely, White Pine County, and the State of Nevada. Will it be rough? Yes. But will we survive and grow? Again, the answer is yes. We have the little economic engine that keeps chugging down the tracks. The next time you see locomotive 93 out on the line remember not only does it preserve our history but it also helps our economic well-being one chug at a 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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