Monday, June 25, 2007
Riding the Rails in Ely
A thick, dark smoke pours out of old Number 40.
The engineer taps a gauge and pulls on the steam whistle cord.
The conductor ushers the last stray into a passenger car and waves.
The Nevada Northern Railway is ready to roll.
Each summer, hundreds of visitors travel to Ely (located about 300 miles east of Carson City via U.S. 50) to see an operational railroad that some consider one of the best preserved shortlines in the country.
But unlike most tourist railroads, the Nevada Northern Railway is also a museum. And because the railroad operated as a commercial business until the early 1980s, everything appears much as it did during the Nevada Northern’s heyday.
The Nevada Northern was constructed in 1905-06 by the Nevada Consolidated Copper Company. Its main job was to haul copper ore from mines at Copper Flat, located west of Ely, to a smelter in McGill, 9 miles north of Ely.
After processing, the copper was then transported on the railroad from McGill to the Southern Pacific Railroad lines at Cobre, a station located 130 miles north.
By 1908, the railroad was offering passenger service. During 80 years of commercial operation, more than four million passengers traveled on the Nevada Northern Railway. A special daily school train carried McGill youngsters to Ely until 1941.
In 1915, Kennecott Copper Company began acquiring the stock of the Nevada Consolidated Copper Company, completing its purchase in 1932.
The railroad continued operations until 1983, when Kennecott decided to shut down the copper mines, the smelter and the railroad, which were no longer financial practical.
By 1985, Kennecott donated to the city of Ely the East Ely Depot, the adjacent buildings, several miles of track and the railroad rolling stock. In 1992, the depot building was restored.
Wandering through the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, you feel as if you’re in a time-warp. Nearly everything, from oak roll-top desks to the dirt floor blacksmith shop, is the way it was during the 80 years that the Nevada Northern was operating.
There’s a sense that the railroad is still run by the copper company—that everyone just went home for the weekend and is coming back on Monday.
The oak desks, filing cabinets and even the black ceramic telephones in the depot building are original equipment installed when the railroad was built in 1906. The railroad never replaced or removed anything.
The guided tour usually begins with a walk through the two-story East Ely Depot building, the centerpiece of the museum. Inside, visitors will find elegant antique wood and brass ticket windows, benches and light fixtures.
At the Transportation Building, several Nevada Northern locomotives are on display, including a rare 1907 steam-powered rotary snow plow, a massive steam-powered crane, also built in 1907, and the handsome steam ten-wheel Baldwin locomotive, Number 40—called the “Ghost Train of Old Ely”—which was built in 1910.
Other buildings house many of the 50 or so pieces of rolling stock owned by the museum, including early 20th century ore cars, flat cars, cabooses and a 1917 coach car that was converted into a rolling bunk house for mine workers.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, guided tours are offered four times daily. The rest of the year, someone is usually working in the shops, so you can usually get an informal tour of the facility.
Of course, the other treat is a ride on the old rolling stock. On summer weekends, you can enjoy an hour and a half trip on the old steam engine Number 40, which travels from the East Ely depot to the nearby copper mines at Ruth (passing through the only curved tunnel in the state).
The museum also operates two vintage diesel trains on the "Hiline" route through the beautiful Steptoe Valley.
One unique service offered by the Nevada Northern Museum is the opportunity to actually rent the train. For a fee, you can learn to pilot the train around the yard or on one of the excursion routes.
While I’ve never done it, I’ve ridden in the engine cab and imagine it would be a blast to actually guide one of these several ton goliaths through a brief workout.
A gift shop, the Rail Place, offers an excellent selection of railroad memorabilia, books and other items. For more information contact the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, P.O. Box 40, East Ely, NV 89315, 1-866-407-8326, www.nevadanorthernrailway.net.