Time for another train stop! Maybe it’s the fact that my family has a railroad history (Dad, uncles and grandfather all worked for Southern Pacific Railroad) or maybe it’s that one of my favorite assignments with California State Parks was as the District Superintendent for Capital District where I managed the California State Railroad Museum, but certainly trains are in my blood. I just can’t resist the opportunity in my travels to visit sites with trains and railroad history. Back in the Fall I visited Promontory Point and celebrated the Transcontinental Railroad:
So it was only natural that I made a slight detour to see the Northern Nevada Railway Museum. It was no accident that I stopped in over a weekend so that I could take a ride on a coal fired steam locomotive. First a little about steam, trains and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad…..
The nineteenth century saw many technological changes, but none of them were to have as wide repercussions as the invention of the train. The power of steam had been known for some time but applying this power to moving heavy goods and people over long distances was one application that would have profound consequences.
In its simplest form, a steam locomotive consists of a firebox, a boiler, a cylinder or cylinders, and wheels, all of which are mounted on a rigid frame. The flames in the firebox heat water in the boiler to create steam. The steam is directed into a cylinder where its force is used to push a plunger attached by a connector rod or gears to the driving wheel of the engine. These connecting elements force the wheels to turn, which moves the engine along the track.
Along with the development of the atomic bomb, the digging of the Panama Canal, and landing the first men on the moon, the construction of a transcontinental railroad was one of the United States’ greatest technological achievements. Railroad track had to be laid over 2,000 miles of rugged terrain, including mountains of solid granite.
Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, travel overland by stagecoach cost $1,000, took five or six months, and involved crossing rugged mountains and arid desert (think Donnor Party). Other alternatives included travel by sea around the tip of South America, a distance of 18,000 miles; or to cross the Isthmus of Panama, then travel north by ship to California. Each route took months and was dangerous and expensive. The completion of the transcontinental railroad made it possible to complete the trip in five days safely and at a much more reasonable cost. When the railroad opened, a First Class ticket from Omaha to Sacramento cost $111, a Second Class ticket $80 and Third Class $40.
“A railroad is like a lie, you have to keep building it to make it stand.” – Mark Twain
By the end of the nineteenth century, railroads crisscrossed America, transporting freight to ports and markets at an unprecedented volume.
Track for the Nevada Northern Railway was laid over a century ago, connecting one of the largest copper mines in North America to the transcontinental routes to the North. The Nevada Northern Railway Complex is the best preserved, least altered, and most complete main yard complex standard-gauge short-line left in North America. The original Nevada Northern dates back to 1905 when it was created as part of the Nevada Consolidated Copper Company to serve the many copper mines in the Ely area. At peak operations during the 1930s and 1940s the railroad was well over 170 miles in length and was dispatching several trains a day to interchange points with the Southern Pacific and Western Pacific.
Unfortunately, the era of dieselization of the railroad industry during the second half of the 20th century led to alterations and demolitions of many railroad yards and shops nationwide. The East Ely yard escaped modernization because of its geographical remoteness (it, like Great Basin NP, is a long way from anywhere) and the decline of the mining industry it once served.
Even with the mining industry decline, traffic on the railroad remained steady until the 1970s when copper prices began forcing the Kennecott Copper Corporation (KCC) to slowly shut down its operations. After the last mine had closed in 1978 and with no more reason to be in operation the Nevada Northern Railway as a commercial common-carrier railroad ceased operations after 78 years of service.
Between 1985 and 1987, KCC donated all its remaining assets to the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation (dba Nevada Northern Railway Museum). This included the East Ely depot building including all furnishings and records, the transportation building, the wooden freight shed and 2000′ of track in front of the depot, Baldwin 4-6-0 No. 40, four wooden coaches, 32 miles of NNRy trackage between McGill Junction and Keystone, the complete East Ely complex of machine shops, roundhouse, yards and rolling stock, the McGill Depot, and all historic buildings on the mainline between Cobre and Ely including the Cherry Creek Depot. In 1990, to assist with care of the historical resource, the Foundation deeded the East Ely depot and freight house to the State of Nevada. In 1992, after restoration to its 1907 appearance, the depot opened as the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum, a unit of the Nevada State Railroad Museum. Today, several of the original large standard-gauge steam locomotives that were ordered and delivered new to the railroad over a century ago are still in operation and have never left the site.
“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Now a registered National Historic Landmark operated by a non-profit as a historic museum, the site consists of those original locomotives, rolling stock, track, passenger station, shops and associated historic buildings. Visitors to the location can ride the historic steam trains (on weekends), visit the museum and tour the train yard and railroad maintenance shops.
I purchased my train ticket the day before worried that the ride may sell out – my fears were unfounded as this was the slow season and the remoteness of the area made for relatively few visitors. There were probably not more than 20 or so folks on the entire train, which made for a great opportunity to visit with the volunteers working the train. Before leaving the station I was able to climb into the cab and chat with the engineer (a volunteer) and see the coal fired boiler in operation. During the 1.5-hour ride the fireman shovels over a tom of coal into the boiler placing each shovel full in a specific location in order to keep the pressure at an optimum level. During the ride the Brakeman and I exchanged railroad stories. A volunteer, he travels all the way from his home near San Fransisco (yes, California) to volunteer on a coal locomotive. He was working his way through the ranks to engineer. Volunteers – especially train volunteers – are certainly a dedicated group.
After the ride most of us joined the narrator from our train (a paid staff) for a tour of the working shops. I was amazed to see that they took us right into the working areas – no waiver, hard hats or promise of first born child. With only a cautionary admonishment to pay attention and not fall into the pit we all were toured around the shops and storage buildings. They do all their own repair work on the locomotives in the historic shops and it reminded me of the California State Railroad Museum shops in Sacramento – but a very much smaller version. There were two locomotives in the process of either restoration or scheduled maintenance. On a steam locomotive scheduled maintenance means tearing apart much of the boiler to be sure of the ability of the boiler to handle the high pressure needed to operate the engine.
While touring the shops we were treated to a visit by one of the shops mascots “Dirt” the shop cat as he wandered the crowd – I couldn’t help but think that at one time his grey fur was actually white but he certainly fit in there around all the trains and I am sure keeps the rodent population down.
Later in the day I walked back to the tracks near the station from my campsite and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the locomotive as it maneuvered itself around for it’s return to the barn for the night. Check out the video and my second foray into embedding video into the blog!
“There’s something about the sound of a train that’s very romantic and nostalgic and hopeful.” – Paul Simon
It was great adding this site to my list of train adventures. The Northern Nevada Railway is a great tourist destination and a recommended stop anytime you are passing through Nevada.