The Queen of Ely

Posted by Justin Franz
on Thursday, September 5, 2019

Nevada Northern Railway No. 40 leads a passenger train. Photo by Justin Franz.
Ask me what my favorite steam locomotive is and I honestly don’t think I’d be able to give you a straight answer. Sure, I might be able to give you a list of potential contenders, but putting that list into some sort of actual order would almost certainly be impossible. 

Canadian Pacific 4-6-2 No. 2317 and Canadian National 2-8-2 No. 3254, the two main line locomotives at Steamtown National Historic Site in the 1990s, were the first large steam locomotives I ever saw and both would undoubtedly earn spots in my top 10. Southern Pacific “Daylight” No. 4449, the largest main line locomotive that operates somewhat regularly in my corner of the country, is a no brainer. Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway 0-4-4T No. 9, the well-proportioned Maine 2-footer that was recently restored back home might even earn a spot in the top three. And of course, Union Pacific “Big Boy” No. 4014 muscled its way into my best of list the moment I saw it roar through Weber Canyon earlier this spring. 

To be honest, I can’t think of a steam locomotive that I’ve seen run that I don’t like. 

Nevada Northern Railway No. 40 at the East Ely shop. Photo by Justin Franz.
The recent announcement that Trains Magazine is hosting a photo charter on the Nevada Northern Railway in March 2020, reminded me of yet another steam locomotive of which I’m fond of: NNRy 4-6-0 No. 40. 

Locomotive No. 40 is often regarded as the “Queen” of the NNRy fleet. The Nevada Northern’s steam fleet during the first half of the 20th century could be pretty much divided into two categories: 4-6-0s for fast passenger service and 2-8-0s for heavy freight work. No. 40 was the last 4-6-0 acquired by the NNRy when it was purchased from Baldwin for $13,139 in July 1910. With 69-inch drivers, No. 40 was the fastest steam locomotive ever built for the railroad and it spent 30 years leading the Steptoe Valley Flyer from Cobre to Ely. 

In 1941, the NNRy ended passenger service to Ely but the railroad couldn’t rid itself of its equipment. As part of the agreement allowing it to curtail service it was required to keep some equipment to run a passenger train should the need ever arise. No. 40 was rolled into storage in East Ely and promptly forgotten about. No. 40 sat in the East Ely roundhouse for more than a decade before being reactivated in 1956 to celebrate the railroad’s 50th anniversary. The locomotive led some excursions before being put away again. 

The NNRy soldiered on for another quarter century before shutting down in 1983. In the mid-1980s, the railroad’s parent company, Kennecott Copper Corporation, donated nearly everything in East Ely to a non-profit established with the hope of preserving and operating it as a heritage railway. No. 40 got a new lease on life. 

Nevada Northern Railway fireman Con Trumbull shovels another load of coal into the firebox of 4-6-0 No. 40. Photo by Justin Franz.
Since the 1980s, the locomotive has been a staple at the railroad and I’ve been lucky enough to see it twice during the annual winter photography charter. Locomotive No. 40 is a classic short line locomotive and looks right at home on the light rail out of East Ely. The locomotive is a little slippery when leading a freight, especially compared to its freight-hauling stablemate 2-8-0 No. 93, but she puts on a grand show in all scenarios. However, she looks most at home leading the railroad’s two-car wooden passenger train. When that happens, it’s like a photo out of Lucius Beebe’s Mixed Train Daily. 

No. 40 will be the star of a Trains Magazine photo charter in 2020. The event is being billed as a farewell to the locomotive before it has to be rebuilt as part of its Federal Railroad Administration 1,472-day inspection. Executive Director Mark Bassett says No. 40 also needs extensive running gear work, something that has been put off for decades. While No. 40 is down, No. 93 and another 2-8-0 currently under restoration, No.81, will pick up the slack. 

But I have no doubt that we’ll see No. 40 again soon. If the past has proved anything, being shuffled off to storage for good just isn’t her style. 

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