Northern Nevada Railway: How railroads helped build Nevada

Posted at 8:54 AM, Dec 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-16 13:26:48-05

ELY (KTNV) — Railroads helped build Nevada in the 1800s. Las Vegas was originally a water stop for steam engines between Southern California and Salt Lake City. In northern Nevada -- not far from Great Basin National Park -- there’s a window into that past, a tribute to steam locomotives -- the Northern Nevada Railway.

There are but a handful of working steam locomotives in the US today, but Ely has 3 of them, all surviving relics of the last century.

The Northern Nevada Railway is a hands-on museum, a National Historic Landmark, and the biggest enterprise in the town of Ely, population 6,000, it’s in the part of the state they call “The Big Empty." Empty, except for minerals.

“Ten miles to the west of us is a mountain of copper ore,” says Mark Bassett, director of the Northern Nevada Railway.

When Kennecott ended mining operations in 1983, they GAVE the entire railway to the city of Ely.

“That was great, there’s one small little problem with that…no money came with it, so you have 56 acres, 60 buildings and structures with most of them built between 1907 and 1910, uh, 30 miles of track, and lots of antique equipment,” says Bassett.

Tradition mandates a lot of what happens in this rail yard. Tradition is what they eat, sleep, and breathe. And that’s why the crowds gather on this day…to ride in a relic….actual passenger cars used in the day. It’s a big deal here and no one comes away disappointed, as the authentic antique lumbers down the track.

Con Trumbull is a conductor this day, but he wears many hats…steam engineer, fireman, brakeman… like many of the full-time employees here, he started by volunteering. He has a deep reverence for these metal monuments:

“These are the closest that human beings have ever come to making a living machine. They have personalities, they have good days, bad days…every trip is different,” says Trumbull. “The locomotive does come alive when you put a fire in it, and you run a locomotive by feel, you run it by the seat of your pants,” says David Turner, train engineer.

David Turner’s been working here 20 years, he knows his way around Engine 40, which is known as the ghost engine.

“The legend states that this locomotive was the favorite of the crews and when they retired her, after passenger service ended in 1941, they decided that they weren't gonna let the scrappers get her. And so the story goes that the crews hid her all over the place. They'd run her in the dead of night, up to the mine. They'd run her to McGill. They'd hide her in different buildings. To make sure that she didn't get scrapped. And so the legend goes that her movements like a ghost in the night earned her the nickname, the ghost train of old Ely,” says Trumbull. “Some museums have a feel that they're, they're sterile. They're, they're clean. Uh, don't touch this. Yeah, we're definitely not that everything's dirty. It's grimy. It's just like a working railroad would be,” says Turner.

And so, during our visit, the curators of this gritty museum all gather to mark a first: sounding off the whistles of all three locomotives at once…a first for the railway.