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Where’s the Museum?

by J. Joan Bassett

When you hear the word “museum,” what sort of mental picture do you see? If you’re like most people, you probably see a formal looking building, filled with old dusty things, maybe old pictures, books, and stuffed animals.

Sometimes a museum isn’t quite what you expect to see. Some museums can be very different, especially the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. Here, when it comes to railroads, we’re the “whole enchilada.” Instead of an imposing edifice of stone and glass, it is rail yards, all kinds of cars, locomotives, a wide variety of buildings, even the spikes lying on the ground; all of this is the museum. And inside the machine shop building, we’re still maintaining locomotives using the original tools and techniques. In the enginehouse, the hostler is getting the ninety-eight year old steam locomotive ready for another day, just as they have been doing here for a century.

Yes, we have a lot of old things and not all of them are in buildings; rather it is the buildings themselves, along with the locomotives, the tracks, the tools, the tanks, the coal tower and the railroad cars. It is the context of the relationship of the buildings to the track, to the locomotives and to the railroad cars, that tells our story. A small example is the team track and the freight house. The track that is the furthest south in the yard is called the team track, it runs next to the freight house.

The freight house was the first building constructed in the rail yard. Why, you may ask? Because the freight house started generating revenue for the railroad as soon as it was built. Most of the supplies for the mines, businesses, and residents of White Pine County came by rail. It was off-loaded from the boxcars into the freight house and then loaded on to wagons for delivery to local merchants. And why is that track called the team track? The most accepted explanation is that because before freight houses, freight shipments were loaded directly into wagons operated by teamsters. This is just one of the stories that the complex tells. Another interesting story would be our rectangular roundhouse. But I’ll save that for another day.

The Nevada Northern Railway has hundreds of fabulous stories to tell, stories that not only teach our history but also explain the origins of words, titles, even the way that things are done still today. These stories are about how this railroad worked and operated. To tell them, we are using various buildings to set the stage by explaining their uses and how the people worked on this railroad. For example, the scale house displays a realistic figure in it, representing the worker who operated the scale and weighed the cars. It explains how he would record the weight so that the railroad could send out bills to the various mine operators for shipping their ore out for processing.

This is only one of the thousands of stories told at the Nevada Northern. Another is the story related in a display downtown in a window at the Jailhouse (yes, our museum reaches beyond our own property). The story is about the school train, which ran between Ruth and McGill to transport students to the old high school (which is now the middle school). In 1935, one of these school trains became stuck in the snow and this window display is about that event.

Another story is about the copper spike. On September 29 1906, NNRy founder Mark L. Requa pounded in the last spike to complete the rail line to Ely, an event that brought thousands of people to Ely for the celebration, with the whole town draped in red, white, and blue bunting. As was the custom of the times, there were parties and speeches galore.

The car foreman office inside the carpenter shop was used by John Mariani. This office has been restored so that it looks as if he just stepped out to lunch. The work records are in place as well as his radio (which still works), phone, and desk. This office contains many artifacts that are original to the Nevada Northern and are in John’s own handwriting. A little bit of history that is easy to get close to and understand.

In the future, there will be other stories told. Such as the story of the use of the cut-off saw in the carpenter shop, and that is a huge hummer of a saw, its nickname is the “Perils of Pauline” saw. A belt driven saw, it looks just like type of saw used in silent pictures, where an evil villain would tie-up the fair young damsel and threaten to cut her in half if her dad didn’t give him the deed to the ranch.

At the time when the railroad was built, electric motors were incredibly expensive. So instead of putting an electric motor on every piece of equipment as is usual done today, shops such as ours would be equipped with only one electric motor, connected by belts and shafts to a series of machines. The operator would turn on the electric motor and the belts would start turning. The operator would go to the machine that he needed to operate, engage the belt and the piece of machinery would start working. Our long-term plan for the carpenter shop is to get the belt system working again in its entirety. Working demonstrations of the system would then be another living part of the museum.

These are but a few examples of the stories that the museum exists to tell. Already there are hundreds, if not thousands to see, and slowly but surely we’re bringing even more stories to life for you to see and experience.

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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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