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Unsung Heroes

It was 100 degrees, very unusual weather for the high desert of Nevada. When people think of Nevada, they think Las Vegas and hot summer temperatures. But that’s not Ely, Nevada the home of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. Our high normally tops out at 85, maybe 90 degrees in the summer. People from Las Vegas come to Ely to escape the heat. So what’s the big deal about a 100-degree day? Well normally it’s not such a big deal unless you have to couple up to a trainload of passengers with a 93-year-old, coal-burning steam locomotive to haul them up the hill and bring them back down again.

But I’m getting ahead of my story; the crew who is going to take these paying passengers back through time are volunteers. They have given up their Saturday to share their enthusiasm about the iron horse to people who, except for the old timers, have never rode a train, and have never rode behind a steam locomotive.

The morning starts early. At 4:30 a.m. the fire is lit in the firebox by the hostler and his helper. The hostler is the only paid staff member on the property right now. His helper is a volunteer who drove to Ely the night before to help out and to learn how to operate this iron beast.

Locomotive 93, a 2-8-0, is the pride of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. Built by ALCO in 1909 and delivered to the Nevada Northern Railway the same year. She spent her life hauling copper ore from the mine to the smelter in McGill. Retired, then brought back to life, by volunteers, she suffered an accident where it was thought she would never run again. Volunteers worked to bring her back to life again, with professional assistance. This is noted on her number plate, 93 Dedicated to the Volunteers. Then new boiler rules almost put 93 out of the picture again. But money and manpower was found and new boiler tubes went in 93 to comply with the new Federal Railroad Administration rules. Then it was off to the Olympics to represent Ely and all of Nevada on the world stage. Ninety-three and her coaches Ely and Nevada carried spectators to the Olympic venue at Soldier Hollow.

None of this is really on the mind of the hostling crew. The pride the museum has in 93 is shown by the fact the volunteer will hand wash the locomotive from the top of the steam dome to the rods; before most people get out of bed on a Saturday morning.

Then its the oiling and greasing. Its starting to get hot now, both the days temperature and 93 herself. The oiling points are scattered all around the locomotive, in almost inaccessible locations under the boiler and firebox. But she needs to be oiled and made ready for the day.

Meanwhile, coal is being shoveled into the firebox by hand. Like everything else there is a trick to shoveling coal into the firebox. Its one of those tricks that can only be learned by doing and making mistakes. The fire needs to be light and bright. This is only accomplished by a true shovel artist. This is what the volunteer is here to learn at this ungodly time in the morning.

Soon 93 is really getting hot. Boiler pressure is rising towards 195 pounds per square inch. The temperature in the firebox is over 1400 degrees. More coal is shoveled in.

By now its two hours before train time. The volunteer engineer and fireman show up. They check out the locomotive preparing for the days run. Once satisfied everything is ready, 93 is eased out of the engine house like a prehistoric beast coming out of its lair. Now its starting to get really hot, on the ground and inside the locomotive. The fire is checked, ashes dropped and one more check with the oilcan.

The crew whistles off. The volunteer hostler is now the head brakeman joining the volunteer engineer and fireman. As head brakeman, he or she will be responsible to throw the switches to get 93 from the engine house to her train. Doesnt sound too hard, until you realize there are eight switches that need to be thrown. This means climbing up and down off the locomotive sixteen times and this is before you even reach the train.

Along with the engine crew, the train crew also reported for duty two hours before train time. The conductor, with a rear brakeman and a trainee, now gets the train ready for the day. This means checking the restroom and toilet, does it work? Is it clean? Opening all of the windows on the train. Checking all of the journal boxes and oiling them as necessary. Does the PA system work? Where are the marker lights? Is the train clean? The train crew might have a local working with an out-of-towner. They may or may not have worked together before. Due to Elys location, the out-of-towner probably drove three to four hours to get to Ely; to work on the railroad, all the livelong day.

Now it’s really beginning to get warm. Here you are wearing a long sleeve shirt, denim bib overalls, heavy leather boots, leather gloves, and a hickory striped hat. Fighting with seventy-year-old windows, trying to get them to open. Then concession supplies need to be loaded and iced down.

Along with the engine crew and train crew, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum uses volunteer ticket sellers, gift shop help, concession help and a narrator to explain the highlights of the trip. And nothing is air conditioned, because this is Ely, Nevada and it never gets hot here.

An hour before train time, Locomotive 93 is backing down the lead to couple on to the train. The conductor supervises the coupling of the locomotive to the train. Then a crew meeting so everyone can meet and review who is responsible for what. The plaza is filling up with passengers. The conductor does a radio check with all of the crewmembers, gift shop and office. The train is pumped up, now its time for a terminal air test. Will the brakes on the Nevada act up again or will this be a good day? Air brake test complete, it will be a good day.

Half hour to train time, passengers starting to get a little restless, and the engine crew offers cab tours of 93. Lots of takers, after all how often do you get to climb into the cab of a hot steam locomotive? Engine crews answers the same questions over and over again with a smile.

Fifteen minutes before train time. Conductor decides its time to load. Don’t tell anyone, but this is the reason he drove 200 miles that morning. So he can shout, ALL ABOARD!

Passengers line up and start boarding. The conductor and rear brakeman start their song, Welcome aboard, tickets please, you have the run of the train, you can sit in any car. Over and over again, while at the same time watching to make sure no one has trouble boarding.

Meanwhile up in the cab the crew is making a final check. The fireman has the pressure up, water high in the glass, and deck plate washed down. The head brakeman goes to the concession stand for water, soda, and snacks for the engine crew. The engineer does one last walk around.

At the ticket booth, pandemonium threatens to breakout from the late arrivals. The volunteer ticket sellers promise them the train will not leave without them. The concession operator checks the supplies; everything is ready.

Train time! Final ALL ABOARD! Crew gets on and buttons up the train. Conductor walks toward the caboose, does one final check, is satisfied and gives the highball to the engine crew to push back the train to the mainline. As the train moves back, the narrator welcomes everyone aboard. Conductor and rear brakeman operate as the eyes for the engine crew. The locomotive came this way an hour ago; did they remember to realign the switches for the shove back? Back towards the mainline switch, approaching the crossing, inform the engine crew the crossing is clear, three car lengths to the crossing, two car lengths, one car length. Still pushing back, watching the right a way, checking switch points and checking the train for anything unusual. At the mainline switch, head brakeman drops down on the engineers side. Gives hand signal to stop the train. Crosses the track, unlocks and throws the points. Locks the switch, checks the points, crosses to the track to the engineers side and signals come ahead. Engineer eases out the throttle, and the train starts to move forward.

Slowly the rods and wheels begin to move. No slipping of the drivers, the head brakeman catches the engine handrail and pulls up to the cab deck. Slowly through the yard the train winds. The fireman is now really going to work. The grade will vary from 1 to 1 ¾ percent all the way up the hill. Shovel coal, add water, check right of way, check crossing, ring bell, shovel coal, shovel coal, shovel, coal, add water, check right of way, check crossing, and ring bell. This is the rhythm that will continue for the next hour as 93 hauls the train uphill. The head brakeman watches. He or she is beginning their training that will take them to the engineers seat. After the fire is nice and bright, water at the right level, the fireman will turn the shovel over to the head brakeman. This is why the head brakie started so God forsaken early that morning, for the chance to throw coal into an inferno.

Back in the train, the conductor and rear brakeman talk to the passengers, and answer the same questions over and over again with a smile. At the same time, they are watching the passengers, reminding them to not stick their head and arms out the window. The narrator is now into the history of the railroad. Kids are running to the concession stand. Business is brisk.

Soon the train will be coming to the first tunnel. Clearances are tight. Passengers are told be ready and the passengers on the open car are told to face the rear of the train. Into the tunnel, darkness, smoke and steam, so this why the SP had cab forwards. Out of the tunnel, no cinders in any ones eye. Then into the second tunnel; its a new tunnel and probably could haul double stacks.

The fireman is really busy now. Steam is really needed for the hill. Must keep that balance of steam, water, and coal. Head brake has it really easy. There is no better place in the world to be than on the deck of a hard working steam locomotive; watching the rods flash, turning the drivers as 93 digs in for the climb up the hill. This is living!

On up the line we go to Keystone. Now it is really getting hot. How did the old timers do it? Working 18-hour days moving ore? Now were at Keystone, time for the conductor and rear brake to get to work. Into the left leg of the wye, give car count and stop the train past the switch. Drop down, unlock the switch, throw it, pin it, check the points, cross the track to get on the engineers side, and get on the radio and tell the engineer, Ok, go ahead and back-up. Damn did it again, Ill hear about it once we get back.

Theres the stopping post. Drop off the train, and give the car count, three cars, two cars, one car, half car, and stop. Watch the engineer, signal Im going to close the angle cock on the locomotive and pull the pin. He nods, I close the angle cock and pull pin and signal to him to leave. Again with a deft touch on the throttle, no slipping of the wheels, 93 pulls away from the train, and BHAM, we have dynamited the train. And there goes 93 to run the wye. God, Im beginning to feel sorry for the head brake, six more times climbing up and down the locomotive as he runs the wye. God its really getting hot.

Rear brake mounts the marker lights as the conductor heads for the other end of the train. God, I really hate walking in this tall sagebrush in rattlesnake country.

Hey, where’s the locomotive going? a passenger shouts down.

Well, look at your ticket, you reply. Your ticket states you can ride from Ely to Keystone. It says nothing about going from Keystone to Ely. It;s an old joke. The passenger might not believe you but 93 is heading back towards Ely.

How do we get back to Ely?

Well this is a non-profit operation and we need all of the money we can get. So if youll kick in some money for the trip back, Ill signal the engineer to come back.

Well, 93 is now at the end of the wye, starting to back up on the base leg. God, I hope they forgot my slip up earlier about going ahead and backing up.

Ninety-three is now past the last switch and is backing down the track. You have a train full of passengers and with a volunteer crew. You need to make a coupling on a curve. No problem, we’ve done this many times before. You need to climb a small hill through the sage still looking for rattlesnakes, so the engineer can see you. Give the car counts, 3, 2, 1, half and 93 makes a safety stop 50 feet away from the train.

You move opposite the caboose, the rear brake is in position, okay we’re ready. Passengers are sitting down on the flat. Signal the engineer, come on back. Slowly the rods and then the wheels start moving. Ninety-three is rolling towards you, you watch the engineer, the rear brake, the passengers on the flat, judge distance to the caboose and signal the engineer come on back. The distance is closing, the engineer is watching you, your head is on swivel making sure everyone is where they are suppose to be. The distance narrows. Your arms start going up, still signaling the engineer to come back. Five feet, four feet, glance at the engineer, three feet, arms now three feet apart and narrowing. Two feet, one foot, six inches and the arms come down in the stop signal.

If you judged correctly, the knuckles of the couplers will come together, be pushed together, and the pins will drop and the locomotive will stop, without jarring the train. And it did. Signal the engineer to check the pins, signal stop. Signal going in between the cars, to connect the air; connect the air and open the angle cock, slowly. After all, you don’t want to dynamite the locomotive, do you?

Pump the train, do a set and release, rear brake on, climb on the last passenger car, radio the engineer, its okay to back up. At least you didn’t say, ok go ahead and back up again, maybe they’ll forget’nahh. Drop at the switch, give a car count, and stop the train past the switch. God, now it’s really hot. Throw the switch, lock it, check the points and give the highball, its back to Ely.

Now we’re loafing, it’s all down hill. The fireman can take a break. The head brakie can throw coal on the fire, remember light and bright, cover those holes. Train crew walks the train answers more questions and maybe have some water. The concession stand has been very busy; this is good. Narrator is finishing up on the history of the Nevada Northern Railway and Ely. It’s back through the tunnels and then it’s past what can only be described as an uniquely Nevada attraction. We are going past the Star Dust Ranch, a legal brothel in Ely. A couple of toots of the whistle and a couple of the girls come out and wave to the train and passengers.

Go past the school crossing and Lackawanna crossing and it’s back to the yard. It’s a hundred degrees, no wind and no shade and the bibs are sticking. Cross the depot lead, head brake drops down, train goes by, stop, switch and it’s off to the depot. Approaching the depot, car count, 3, 2, 1, half and stop! Right over the coach stools, yes! Passengers unload, take pictures of 93. Ninety-three is cut off and heads for the house.

So what was accomplished? In a small mining town, in the middle of the high desert of northern Nevada, ten volunteers worked together to move a steam powered passenger train with two hundred passengers out over the mainline and back again. This combined effort raised about $3,500 for the museum. This money will be invested in the preservation of this time capsule.

The volunteers will do this hundreds of times this season. Haul passengers and treat them to a glimpse of the past. Are they heroes? No, I don’t think one of them would claim to be a hero. Why do they do it? I don’t think one of them could really explain why. Other than it just needed to be done, before it’s all gone and forgotten.

You are invited to become one of the Nevada Northern Railway unsung heroes. The museum needs your help. If you are interested in volunteering this summer call Judy Smith at extension 4.

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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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