Take aways from the Nevada Northern Railway Museum

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, March 18, 2020

EAST ELY, Nev. – It has been 10 years since I last visited the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, located far from the maddening crowds of Las Vegas about 3 or 4 hours north of the live entertainment capital of America. Of course, how long it takes to get there (it depends on how fast you drive) is inconsequential. The Nevada Northern is the real deal, in the same league as the Cumbres & Toltec and the East Broad Top. Its locomotives are original. Its rolling stock is original. The engine house, coaling tower, depot, and assorted other buildings are original. It is the Twilight Zone episode of railway preservation – the people just up and left it one day. In fact, if you go inside some of the buildings on the property, the calendars are still set to June 1983, the month and year when the railroad shut down. Walking around the shop complex is a guilty pleasure – every step is one taken on sacred ground. 


Fortunately, there are a host of people, both paid staff and volunteers, who have stepped forward to keep this place not only alive but progressing, too. We enjoyed two days of outstanding photography with locomotives Nos. 40, one of if not the best looking Ten-Wheeler in steam today, and No. 93, a brute of a Consolidation, on mixed trains, freights, passenger consists and for a grand finale, a doubleheader with a mixed freight and passenger train. In addition, the railroad generously rolled out its newly restored track inspection vehicle, and its mascot, Dirt the Cat, who lives in the shop and has become the marketing genius of the railroad, made extra appearances. There was fresh paint on the buildings, new parking areas, station platform lighting, and a pair of wig-wag signals, also original to the line, that salute each departing and arriving train. This railroad is an intoxicating mix of preservation, gritty sweat, and can-do mentality that I wish President Mark Bassett and Marketing Director Eric Mencis, could bottle and sell. They’d make a fortune and boost the U.S. preservation industry.


The biggest effort is the push to restore 2-8-0 No. 81 for the first time in the preservation history of the Nevada Northern. No. 81, Bassett says, is his goldilocks engine. No. 40 is too small and too light for regular service. No. 93 is to hungry for coal and water and too powerful for the light tourist consists that carry some 18,000 passengers back in time each year. But No. 81 is smack in the middle. It should be “just right,” Bassett says. We saw the Consolidation in the back shop in a state of disassembly. The plan was that No. 40 would go out of service this year at the end of its 15-year cycle and No. 81 would step in to replace it. No. 81 won’t be ready this year, and No. 40 may get an extension from the Federal Railroad Administration, which was on site last week to inspect things. But No. 81 will definitely run next year. No. 93 should be good through 2033, and once No. 40 is back it may be possible to operate a three-locomotive extravaganza.


That will delight the steam locomotive lovers among us (myself included). For now, the Nevada Northern is enough. It is appropriately grimy and sooty and polished all at the same time. I am sorry it’s taken me 10 years to get back. I hope it will be a much shorter interval next time.  

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