Close this search box.

The View from Overseas

by Simon Randall

 Last summer I received an e-mail from Simon Randall. Simon is British working in the United States for a British company. Simon had visited the Nevada Northern website and noticed that we used volunteers. His e-mail inquired if he could come out and volunteer for a week. He had experience with steam locomotives in Great Britain. Since we also need the help, I invited him out to the museum and he took me up on the offer. What follows is an article that Simon wrote for Heritage Railway, Britain’s Premier Preservation New Magazine. Since Simon is British, I left the spelling and terminology alone. Enjoy! 
It’s a dry, hot summer’s day and the air is thin up here in Ely, Nevada, at its lofty 6500 foot elevation. Not much stirs under the cloudless blue sky, and then breaking the silence comes the lonesome whistle of the next train up to the copper mine workings seven miles away.With its high-intensity headlight beaming through the heat haze, 1910-built Nevada Northern Railway Baldwin 4-6-0 ‘high stepper’ No 40 comes into view, drawing a rake of carriages that were built for the same company in the early 20th century.It could so easily be any time between 1907, when the NNR first opened to serve the copper mine in Ruth, and 1941, when passenger services ceased. The engine and train (together marketed today as Ely’s ‘Ghost Train’) and most of the infrastructure is original; they were built for the NNR, delivered here and have never left.The time capsule that is the NNR is, in fact, so complete that William L Withuhn, curator, Division of the History of Technology at the Smithsonian Institution, summed it up as follows: “Among all railroad historic sites anywhere in North America, the Nevada Northern Railway complex at East Ely is—no question in my view—the most complete, most authentic, and best cared-for, bar none. It’s a living American treasure and a stand-out one.”In simple terms, the NNR and the copper mines that it serves just shut up shop when the mines closed in 1983, and gifted the track and all equipment to the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, which is the parent organisation of the present-day NNR.Beyond No 40 and its historically accurate train, the NNR collection includes two other steam locomotives (No 93, an Alco 2-8-0 of 1909, and No 81, a Baldwin of 1917), two branch lines comprising over 18 miles of track, the extensive NNR workshops and locomotive servicing facilities, original station building, office and freight depot, rotary snow plough, steam-powered breakdown (or ‘wrecking’) crane, numerous freight cars and a brace of diesel-electrics that were brought in by the copper mines to replace steam after 1948.Having been actively involved with UK steam preservation from a very early age (the first picture of me with a steam engine was at three weeks old), the opportunity to move with work to St Louis, Missouri was greeted with both enthusiasm for the potential adventure and trepidation—would I be able to find anywhere to get my hands dirty with live steam? It transpires that, while St Louis has an impressive historic collection of static railroad exhibits in its Museum of Transportation (including examples of the truly massive 4-8-8-4 Big Boy and 4-6-6-4 Challenger classes), and a very popular and welcoming 12-in gauge line, there is no standard gauge live steam in the area.

Looking farther a field, there are a number of world-famous tourist lines in the US (Durango and Silverton, Cumbres and Toltec, Grand Canyon Railway, to name but a few) that have very extensive operations but very little reliance on, or demand for, volunteers in their operating departments.While the NNR does have a small and dedicated full-time staff, it also has a healthy demand for volunteers at all levels within its organization. This is especially true during the summer months when trains run daily, and my offer of help for five days in August was readily accepted by NNR’s executive director, Mark Bassett, in return for his assurance that I would return to St Louis tired and happy.Ely has the distinction of being the most remote incorporated city in the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), being approximately five hours drive from both Las Vegas, Nevada and Salt Lake City, Utah, so I chose the once-a-day, 60-minute flight from Las Vegas as my means of getting to the railway.I arrived to a warm welcome, and rotated through a number of departments and a training session that introduced me to the railway and the people who run it. At the same time as probing my capabilities and giving me the knowledge to work safely in a railroad environment that has some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) differences to its railway equivalent in the UK.My first duties were to assist general foreman Dave Griner with the placement of a newly delivered horizontal boring machine in the already-extensive NNR workshops, in which virtually all aspects of mechanical and boiler work (with the exception of new boiler manufacture) can be undertaken.I also helped to prepare the locomotives for service in the mornings, with more than the usual amount of TLC being expended to get everything ready for a visit by PBS, the American equivalent of the BBC, for a filming assignment the following week.No 40 and No 93 are usually used on an alternating basis and, in preparing them for service; it really became clear just how big these engines are, even though they are considered relatively small by US standards

Having spent a day out with the track gang, replacing an overhauled turnout in the station yard, complete with a familiar amount of head-scratching when the frog wouldn’t go back into the gap it had been taken from, and a judicious dose of percussion technology to ensure that it fitted in the end, I moved on to the training session. This centred on the rule book, which is available on NNR’s website, and was followed by an exam that I needed to pass before being allowed to undertake any operational duties.

The rule book in itself is interesting since its very extensive nature supports that fact that NNR has much greater aspirations that its current 18-mile operation. In fact, it has its sights set on acquiring and operating the 130 miles of mothballed main line that runs north to a connection with the Union Pacific mainline in Wendover, Nevada. (Editor’s note: Since Simon has written this piece, the City of Ely and the Foundation have acquired the line. Also, the line goes to Shafter not Wendover.)

This would allow commercial freight to be carried from the copper mine in Ruth, which has recently reopened with road trucks as means of transporting ore, and to a coal-fired power station that is planned at a location along the NNR main line route.

For the time being, though, NNR operations are limited to the two branch lines, and I was lucky enough to get a taste of both.

The Hiline branch runs 11 miles north from Ely to the location of a site where the copper smelter was once located. Although it is not steeply graded, it offers lovely views along the mountain-flanked valley where peaks are visible for at least 70 miles to the north. Since there are no locomotive-turning facilities at the end of the line, this route is normally operated by the 1950s-vintage Alco diesel-electrics.

The Keystone branch runs seven miles south from Ely up to the copper mine at Ruth, and it really is the NNR’s gem.

I was given the chance to fire as trainee fireman on several trips on No 93 under the watchful eye of 22-year-old full-time fireman Chris Brophy and volunteer engineer Lou Bergandi.

Following an initial run out of Ely on the level, the line soon starts its winding climb through a number of cuttings and two tunnels. Line speed is 15 miles per hour, so you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be a bit of a jaunt . . . nothing of the sort!

No 93 has a huge firebox with a virtually level grate, which means that you need to fire all of it. Leave a hole and you won’t make any steam and pressure will soon start to fall against the combined effect of the working engine (21 inch x 30 inch cylinders driving 4ft 3in wheels), air brake pumps, turbo generator (yes, this 1909-built engine has electrical power!) and high-capacity Hancock Inspirator that takes the place of a more conventional injector on the fireman’s side of this locomotive.

Keeping water level up is especially important on the Keystone route since you no sooner reach the top end of the line before it’s time to propel the whole train uphill again i.e. smokebox down, into a triangle (‘wye’) that is used to turn the entire train for the return trip.

Since there are no intermediate stations and therefore no scheduled stops between Ely and Keystone, the fireman is fully occupied with tending the fire and the aspirator all the way up, with the chance for a well-earned breather only presenting itself on the way back to Ely.

Coming back on to the shed in the evening, things with No 93 were wonderfully simple compared to most of the GWR, Metropolitan and ex-industrial engines I’ve fired at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre (‘home’ for me), the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway and various others around the UK (being a member of the team that helps look after Dennis Howells’ wandering WR 0-6-0 PT No 9466). Pull a lynchpin out here, move a lever there, and the ash is dropped. Bank the fire for the night with 50 shovels of coal, ensure the boiler’s full of water, collect the water samples, and it’s time to head for the shower; couldn’t be simpler!

While getting involved with the operational end of things was an excellent way of recharging my batteries, it was also very interesting to note some of the differences between railroads in the US and railways in the UK.

For starters, there are effectively no lineside fences in the US, which helps minimize maintenance costs but means the crew have to be especially vigilant and announce their arrival at level or ‘grade’ crossings with both bell and whistle sounding.

Another difference is the strict Federal Railroad Authority-mandated enforcement of speed limits, and all of the operational locomotives are fitted with GPS-fed speedometers so that there’s no room for ‘calibration error’.

A further hi-tech feature that I’ve not seen in the UK is the use of a handheld ‘heat gun’ to check bearing temperatures at each end of the run; less traditional than a palm on the big end, but far more objective!

Perhaps the most confusing difference between UK and US related to hand signals, some of which are the exact opposite of each other. Learning the US variant was a bit like learning to drive on the other side of the road, taking an inordinate amount of concentration to get it right!

Despite the aforementioned differences, the NNR really does have much in common with many preserved lines in the UK: a small and dedicated band of paid staff and volunteers that toil to achieve often Herculean tasks with limited resources; a position in the leisure industry that pits them against shopping malls and theme parks for their business; the need for very nimble financial management and supplementary money-making schemes such as locomotive rental to ensure that often-limited funds go as far as possible; and some very grand designs on the future which, if achieved, will transform the railway.

The NNR is well worth a visit either as a fare-paying passenger or a volunteer ready to muck in. Trains run at weekends from March to October and daily throughout May, June, July, August and September, and there is usually a photo charter session during February.

Details about the railway can be found at [this Web site—ed.] and schedules for flights in and out of Ely can be found at

Accessibility Toolbar

Hours of Operation

Monday - Saturday | 8AM - 5PM
Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

Our Location

1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

Become a Member and Save!

Members get discounts on admissions, experiences, trains, tours, gifts and more.