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The Yin and Yang of a Railroad Museum

Yin and Yang, good news, bad news or as a friend of mine once said, your weakness are your strengths and your strengths are your weakness. So what does this all have to do with running a railroad museum? Plenty.

If you read last week’s column, one would be lead to believe that everything down at the museum is just hunky-dory. After all membership is up to over 745 members, the volunteer pool is up, train operations revenue is up, donations are up, fund raisers are up and gift shop sales are up. We even managed to decrease expenses last year. So why aren’t we dancing in the streets?

We call the Nevada Northern Railway the best-preserved short line in the country. This National Register Historic Site, dating from 1906, consists of forty acres including fifty buildings and structures with over fifty pieces of original locomotives and rolling stock. The uniqueness of this collection and facility bring people from around the world to Ely, Nevada. It is the originality of the site that brings these people (our strength) and everything on the site needs intense maintenance and money (our weakness).

Even though last season was a great season, we were not able to scratch the surface of the needed repairs and maintenance to the facility, to the equipment or to the track.

When I was hired on as the Executive Director in August 2002, I estimated that we needed over $5,000,000 to invest in the property. One good season does not even begin to address all of the needs of the museum. As I plan on making investments in the property, the exercise is to balance the greatest need versus the resources available. Simply put, there is nowhere near enough money available to do all of the repairs needed. So we examine everything closely and try to squeeze the most out of every dollar.

With apologies to David Letterman, this is my top ten list of most critical projects with costs:

# 10     Electricity would be nice to have. Yes, where we do have electricity in three of our buildings, none of the buildings are wired to current code. The Transportation building is stilled wired with the original 1917 knob and tube wiring. Our fuse box looks like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. The enginehouse is just plain scary. Two years ago I went to open one of the overhead doors and was treated to my very own lightening show directly over my head. I estimate the cost of upgrading the electrical service to be north of $50,000.

#9     One of the things that would really be nice to have are windows with modern heating and cooling. The railroad has got to be the broken window capitol of White Pine County if not all of rural Nevada. We need windows—storm windows—and it would be nice to have modern heating and cooling. Right now the transportation building has baseboard heaters. Not the most efficient way to heat a building. The machine shop and the master mechanic’s office have propane heat. The heater in the master mechanic’s office is the wrong type and needs to be replaced. Walking by the machine shop building causes me to wince every time. The propane line into the building just sings and all I can see are twenty-dollar bills going up in smoke. And I must confess, the shop crew does not keep it overly warm in there, maybe 55 or 60 degrees. Hardly what I, would call, banana belt temperatures. And the enginehouse has no heat, unless you count the one coal stove from the late 1800’s as a heat source. Why is heat necessary in the enginehouse? As we do more winter steam trains there is a danger of having something on the outside of the engine freeze. This actually happened a few years back when the air compressors froze just before a photo shoot and caused over $6,000 damage to 93. Heat will cost the museum upwards of $60,000.

#8     We are dependent on volunteers. They operate over 98% of our trains. As we build our passenger count, we fill up the motels. The motel operators have been incredibly generous in donating rooms to the railroad for volunteers. The problem is the weekends that I need the most volunteers is also the weekends that we fill up motels and there is no place for the volunteers to stay. The museum’s plan is to convert the engineer’s building into a volunteer dormitory. This will give the volunteers a place on the property to stay. It will also cut down on vandalism. Cost about $75,000.

#7     Here’s a riddle: name a facility that you never give a second thought to, until you need it and then you want it now! Give up? Bathrooms. Last year the railroad had several sell out trains. Our most successful train was our fireworks train, with 227 passengers. Before these people rode the train, we feed them a great BBQ in Preservation Plaza with plenty of soda, water and beer. The problem is we only have two toilets available to the public. As we build our ridership the need for toilets will increase. Currently, we are looking at the old boiler building to the west of the depot; the plan is to turn this structure into a public restroom. Estimated cost, $80,000.

#6    Our passengers ride in coaches that are over 80 years old and they are showing their age. We need to spend money on wheels, brakes, diaphragms, sound system, couplers, a bathroom, a heating system, repairing windows, seat repairs, and the electrical system. Estimated cost of repairs is $30,000.

#5     We are railroad. Our trains run on track, this should be no surprise, right? What this means is that you need to maintain the track. In the five years from 1997 to 2002 less than $1,000 was spent on the track. Doesn’t matter how much you spend on your steam locomotives, if you don’t have the track, you can’t go anywhere. Last year the museum spent just over $20,000 on the track. We plan to spend $22,000 on the track this year.

#4     The railroad has two branches: the Keystone route with the tunnels, the ghost town, the trees, the mines and then there is the Adverse branch, which is boring and has a depot on the verge of collapse. If we were to develop the McGill depot and bring the trains into McGill we would have a destination. What could a destination do? Increase our ridership (read revenue) for starters; put some life back into McGill; and preserve a unique structure, the depot, from collapse (kind of our mission in life). Estimated cost of the McGill project is $350,000+.

#3    We need an ashpit. The museum is caught between a rock and hard place. Running steam seven days a week will bring in additional visitors and revenue. Running that much steam will exacerbate our ash problem. In between the fire hazard, our expensive way of dealing with the ash, and the damage to track the ash causes, we desperately need an ashpit. Cost is $45,000.

#2    Stabilize and repair the machine shop and enginehouse building. The B & O Railroad Museum suffered a catastrophic roof collapse last Presidents’ Day due to snow load. The B & O Museum did not know that their building had a structural flaw; we do. I have an engineering report that warns of the possibility of catastrophic collapse of the building. The museum has already invested over $100,000 in the building. We will be spending another $200,000 on it this year and have applied for more grants. Final repair bill on the enginehouse will probably approach $800,000.

#1     Put locomotive 40 back into service. Why? Steam sells—the vast majority of our riders come to Ely for the steam. If locomotive 93 should break (remember its 95 years old now) our ridership would plummet along with our revenues. And if I learned nothing else here, everything that has to do with steam is expensive. So the museum would be caught in a squeeze play, minimal revenues and expensive repairs. The cost to repair locomotive 40 is $40,000.

Total amount of money needed for my top ten? Somewhere north of $1,500,000 is needed. So what to do? We will continue our fundraising. (If you’re not a member of the museum, please join us.) We will again aggressively write grants from local, state, and federal agencies. And the easiest way for us to raise money is to run more trains and haul more passengers. And that is precisely what we are going to do. We will be running six days a week from Memorial Day through the end of September. We have increased our steam runs to four days a week in 2004, Friday through Monday, inclusive. We have also increased our locomotive rental program.

The Museum is heading full steam ahead as we approach our centennial, which starts in just seventeen months, six days and five hours (as I write this). There is a ton of work to do, come on down and join us.

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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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