Experiencing the Past on the Train Tracks

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on July 9, 2009
Courtesy of Nevada Northern Railroad Belching black smoke, a train arrives at the East Ely (Nev.) Railroad Depot.

Adam Nini, 21, heaves a shovelful of coal into the firebox of an antique steam engine at the East Ely Railroad Depot, stoking a love for locomotives that's been burning in Ely, Nev. (pop. 4,041), for more than a century.

"Ready?" asks volunteer engineer Don Hepler, 60, as he sounds the whistle on the 100-year-old Engine 93, the oldest locomotive in the Nevada Northern Railway fleet.

"Yeah," replies Nini, a college student from Hastings, Mich., ringing the train's brass bell. "Let's get out of here."

Reminiscent of a scene from the early 20th century, Engine 93 slowly chugs away from the station, hissing steam and belching black smoke while carrying 60 passengers on a seven-mile uphill jaunt to the copper mining town of Ruth.

"This is more fun than you should have on a good day," says Hepler, a mechanical engineer from Globe, Ariz., as he eases back the throttle of the 90-ton locomotive.

Engine 93, which hauled copper ore before being retired in the 1950s, today is an excursion train for the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, one of best preserved short-line railroads in the nation. The 56-acre complex consists of seven steam and diesel locomotives, dozens of railcars and tankers, 66 buildings and structures, 30 miles of track, and railroad artifacts and records dating to the early 1900s.

"You can experience the past here," says Sean Pitts, 47, director of the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum. "You don't just see it; you can hear it, smell it and ride on it."

Established in 1905, the Nevada Northern Railway was built by Mark Requa, the son of a silver mining magnate, to haul ore between the mines in Ruth and a copper smelter in nearby McGill (pop. 1,054). When Kennecott Copper Co. shut down the smelter in 1983, community leaders convinced the mining company to donate the railway to the town of Ely.

Since then, the two-story train depot, massive freight barn and engine house have been restored, 30 miles of track upgraded, and several idled locomotives, including Engine 93, repaired and returned to service.

"We call them divas," says Mark Bassett, 55, executive director of the Nevada Northern Railway. "They're high-maintenance and they cost a lot of money."

Al Gledhill, 67, whose grandfather and father worked on the Nevada Northern, now works with his son, Casey, 34, five days a week to keep the aging locomotives rolling down the track. "That's one of the biggest challenges," says Gledhill, the railway's master mechanic.

Still, the work is a labor of love for Gledhill and eight other full-time Nevada Northern employees, three part-time workers and 180 volunteers who keep the railway running six days a week from Memorial Day through the end of September, and on a more limited schedule the rest of the year.

Nevada Northern employees and volunteers also offer three weeklong camps each year, during which three dozen participants, including adults and teenagers, pay $750 each to learn to manage a historic railroad, rebuild track and operate a diesel locomotive.
Bassett and his wife, Joan, director of RailCamp 2009, are hopeful the educational program will inspire a new generation of railroad enthusiasts to take over the reins of the Nevada Northern, preserving the heritage of the locomotives that helped settle Ely and much of the American West.

"It sure beats making pizzas," says soot-covered Adam Nini, after tossing another shovelful of coal into Engine 93's firebox. "This is so much more fun."