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Tom Sawyer and the Nevada Northern Railway

Thanks to Mark Twain, an adopted son of Nevada, the Nevada Northern is using his guidance in the preservation of this historic property. Tom Sawyer has nothing on us; we out Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer, and we do it week after week as the following story attests to.

But before we get to Doug’s story, I need to digress here a bit. For this weekend I will be writing train orders 209 to 212. A train order gives the train crew permission to leave the yard and head out on the mainline. In short, that means by Monday we will have been out on the main 212 times, not bad for a little railroad in the high desert of eastern Nevada. And 99% of those trips were revenue trips that made money for the museum that in turn was invested in the rolling stock, buildings and track.

So what does Tom Sawyer have to do with the Nevada Northern? 99% of the crews on those trips were volunteers local people and people who drove to Ely because of their love of the Nevada Northern and railroading in general. These volunteers actually paid us for the privilege of working on the railroad. This is the not so secret weapon that will save the Nevada Northern and allow it to prosper.

The following article illustrates the why people donate their time and money so freely to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.

Work Party on the Nevada Northern
by B. Douglas Jensen

I must admit that we must be gluttons for punishment, as a few of us seem to derive great pleasure out of taking a weed eater with a brush blade and attacking noxious vegetation. People really don’t get it. Why would anybody in his right mind want to spend their hard earned vacation days clearing out sage brush or pampas grass (read my last article on the work party at Eureka, CA)?

My answer – there’s nothing like the good feelings you get from, first of all, working along side other folks in our hobby who have the same desire to see improvements made to a railroad. Second, by their very nature, all railroads are historical since most of the railroads we put our speeders on are at least 100 years old. So here we are resurrecting history exposing old right’s of ways that, if they could speak, would tell us stories about the glory days of steam and passenger trains and old hog heads and the skills they needed to assure the safe passage of a freight train over a mountain. What of the men who laid those first rails down? As we clear these rails we’re constantly checking the dates of manufacture and on the Nevada Northern almost all the rails read 1906, the year the railroad was constructed! Third, there’s nothing like the feeling of reopening up rail that hasn’t been used in years and being the first person to operate a flanged vehicle over it.

The Nevada Northern, for a few of us, is considered one of our favorite railroads. You can take a ride here and find yourself going back to anytime in this railroad’s history and easily imagine what it must have been like. The NN is one of the best-preserved historical railroad operations in existence. As you walk around the yards and peer into the old shops its as if everything froze when they gave the word to shutdown. And even though Kennecott closed its doors down in 1984, almost everything dates to 1910, or so, when most of the structures were built. The carpenters shop still has machinery at the ready to create the buildings and structures to support this ore road. The roundhouse’s giant lathe and wheel grinder are on standby to help overhaul the many steam engines the NN used to haul the copper ore to the smelter at McGill. The coal tipple and water tower stand as sentinels to the many tenders they filled.

To a great degree, history has been kind to the NN as there is at least one steam engine always in operation, and old Alco diesels still chug their “bucket-of-bolts—bucket-of-bolts” litany. Steam clouds still fill the air, the once ubiquitous smell of coal smoke permeates the yard occasionally, and the steam whistle floats across the desert. Quite frankly, it doesn’t get any better than this.

So what did we accomplish?

Our first day was occupied getting the freight house track reopened so that we could have a convenient place to park our speeders. This track would be considered track one and runs closest to the depot then goes by the freight house itself which was the first building to be constructed for the Nevada Northern. Weed eaters whirred away and rakes came in behind to clean the debris left over. The flange ways were cleared at the crossing, the switch was oiled and exercised, and finally we were able to roll our speeders onto these long unused tracks.

The next few days found us working throughout this large railroad yard cleaning up a lot of sagebrush and Indian Rice Grass. We worked around the station first so it looked more presentable for the Labor Day weekend’s festivities. We then attacked the area around the round house, which had seen only minimal clean up over the years. Three days there created a whole new look to it. We must have been doing a good job because the folks who work and volunteer for the Museum were extremely kind to us and offered many a complement. That felt great. Mark Bassett, executive director for the Nevada Northern Museum, was nothing but gracious.

That afternoon a few of us decided to try to operate our speeders to McGill Junction, which is the lower line that eventually goes to Shafter. This line hasn’t seen a train since 2000. It was rough going since the sagebrush has taken over the ROW but we managed to make it to the highway 93 crossing where we turned and came back.

One day Mark asked us if we would clean up a siding up on the Hiline, their route on the old line to McGill. They use this siding (Lavon) to get the diesel to the other end of the passenger train for the return trip. In 3 hours we had that siding looking like a Marine.

On Labor Day Sunday we were asked if we would load up a couple of motorcars onto trailers and be part of the Trains, Planes, and Automobiles Parade. Quickly we loaded up Rob Finch’s Sheffield and Rod Whitney’s Fairmont M-9 and lead the way through town being followed by about 2-dozen Ultra Light Airplanes taxiing down the street! Really! Behind them were classic automobiles from the Lincoln Highway Association. We had a ball.

Other highlights of our trip included:

  • watching John and Terri Atkinson using their rail bike to transport sagebrush out of the yard;
  • Glen Ford and myself using the Big Shop’s cable winch to load up an old beat up Kalamazoo speeder onto Glen’s trailer so that we can rebuild it for the Museum for their future use (we’re looking for help on this so please call Glen);
  • the weather, which put on a show everyday—not too hot or cold and everyday we seemed to have a storm come in with its lightning and thunder show;
  • the evening speeder runs to either Keystone or up the Hiline to watch the sunsets and storms;
  • the very friendly people of Ely;
  • the personal tour of the railroad shops by Mark Bassett himself;
  • the planet Mars shining brightly in the southeastern night sky;
  • the BBQ potluck dinners we had around our campsite;
  • the dance and BBQ held at the Nevada Northern’s Train Station for their weekend celebration;
  • giving speeder rides to kids pulling the NNs passenger push cart;
  • watching Alco 2-8-0 #93 chugging its way up to Keystone.

The future looks bright for the Nevada Northern, and the speeder hobby too, since they’re purchasing the line up to Shafter and we should be able to operate up there by next summer. They have a customer who needs unrefined oil brought in to his refinery so there will be revenue and consequently maintenance to the tracks. And the museum has an open invitation to anyone who wants to come out and volunteer. When you become a member of the museum their insurance will cover your speeder within the yard limits of the museum. There’s plenty of track and, of course, plenty of work so if you have a hankering this coming year, consider spending some time with these fine folks.

Many thanks to our ambassadors of labor go to Mike Flaherty, Terri and John Atkinson, Rob Finch, Rod Whitney, Glen Ford, Walt Clark and Ken Harrison. Thank you so very much.

Doug’s article was published in LINEUP, the Offical Newsletter of Motorcar Operators West the October 2003 issue. This of course helps to increase the awareness of what we have here in Ely. I also feel the need to thank Doug for allowing me to reprint his article as my column, see Tom Sawyer has nothing on the Nevada Northern Railway.

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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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