A first-timer visits the Nevada Northern, and oh! What a steam show!

Posted by Robert W. Scott
on Monday, February 23, 2015

Nevada Northern #93 steams away in the distance as the conductor walks back along the train as the brakeman walks the top of the cars.
“Its four hours from anywhere” is the quote that would stick in my head as I planned my trip to the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, Nev., to be a part of the annual Winter Photo Spectacular. Ahead for me was an experience that I would not soon forget and will look forward to returning to participate in. In my years being a railroad photographer and enthusiast, I have often not given steam operations and preservation groups a second look.

For two consecutive weekends in February the Nevada Northern Railway hosts its Winter Steam Photo Spectacular where the photographers are given full access to the railroad and an unlimited amount of photo possibilities. I was told that this event was one that should not be missed. At the urging of my friends Blair Kooistra, Kit Courter, and Michael Repp, I made plans to attend the second weekend event in February. Mike Repp would be travelling with me and would also be a first time attendee. We had hoped that the Winter Spectacular would include snow, but we would see balmy temperatures and days of mostly sunny skies.

Given the location of Ely, Nev., one could fly into Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, or Reno and have a good drive ahead of them to get to the site in the eastern central part of the state. We chose to fly into Las Vegas, rent a car, and vacation in Las Vegas and take rail photos around Cima Hill and on the Needles Sub. On the Thursday prior to the event we hit the road towards Ely but not before driving into Rainbow Canyon and Meadow Valley Wash and Caliente, Nev., in attempts to photograph Union Pacific’s LA&SL route.

Kennecott Copper caboose sits at the end of a cut of cars in the yard at East Ely as seen from the dispatchers office.
We arrived in Ely just after dark on Thursday night and we settled in for what would be a fantastic long weekend. Early on Friday morning we checked in at the depot at Ely to confirm our attendance for the event. This weekend would be a smaller group of photographers with only about 18 in attendance. We visited with some of the other photographers and talked about the weekend’s events. The first actual activities would not occur until that afternoon but we were given access to the engine house as the steam locomotives were readied for service.

Entering the engine house it is like taking a step back a century. If you look past the Alco, EMD, and Baldwin diesels in the far end of the house, it’s easy to imagine its 1915 and the shop crews are busy readying the locomotives for service. The smell of coal smoke, valve oil and grease hang in the air. The sunlight is beaming through the smoke tinged air through the clearstory windows. Among the hiss of steam and thumping of the engine mounted air compressors, the hostlers scurry about making last minute preparations.

Almost all of the railroad personnel are in period dress from the era of the early 20th century. Dungarees and long work shirts are the norm as is a pinstripe, pokadot hat or more formal fedora or driving cap. The only anachronism you can see here is the mobile phone or iPod some of the crew members are plugged into, or the tripods and digital cameras of the photographers.

Our host for the event was Mark Bassett who is the executive director of the Nevada Northern. He, along with his crew, was accommodating to our requests and ideas. During the course of the weekend, we were presented with numerous photo run-bys, staged photo opportunities, and numerous times we were allowed to roam the engine house, machine shop, and yard grounds. Mark gave us quite a history lesson on the Nevada Northern and its life as a copper ore hauler. It’s hard to believe that at its peak of operation, up to 60 trains per day ran on this line from the mine to the mills. It was told that the local residents were so used to the noise of the railroad, that when it stopped the citizens were quickly able to notice the quiet. We had hoped that we could refill the air with the sights and sounds of 1915 that weekend.

There were several different photo consists set up for us. On Friday afternoon this included a small freight train that was set up with Engine #93. We were also given a demonstration of the 100 ton 1907 Industrial Works coal fire steam crane as it rerailed an ore car in the ore yard. What was most unique about the steam crane operation was that it was done almost entirely with hand signals and almost no verbal contact between the operators and ground crews.

Nevada Northern #93 stomps into the yard next to a well weathered maintenance shed at East Ely with a freight train nearing sunset.
The steam engines for our weekend included No. 40 a high stepping 1910 Baldwin-built 4-6-0 which was used in their passenger service and No. 93, a 1909 Alco-built 2-8-0 freight engine. Friday night, photographer Steve Crise set up a night photo shoot of the No. 93 and No. 40 posed in front of the East Ely depot for the group. This two-hour photo event was one of the highlights of the trip as Steve expertly lit the scene for us and set up photo props and staged personnel for us.

Saturday morning found setting up for a photo shoot of the passenger engine No. 40 as it stomped out of the engine house for the day’s event. It was hooked up to an RPO and passenger car for static photos at the coaling toward and a photo run by on the Keystone line where tunnel No. 1 is located just south of Ely. That afternoon No. 93 led a short string of wood box cars build in the nineteen teens to the Hi-Line junction north of Ely for photo run-bys. Saturday evening we were treated with a detailed history presentation by Mark Bassett of the Nevada Northern with everything from its early history through it present day preservation efforts.

Sunday proved to be a spectacular day on the railway. We arrive early that morning to find both No. 40 and No. 93 being readied in the engine house to lead a doubleheader steam up the Hi-Line. While wading through the steam filled air I managed to shoot several photos of the engine hostlers and train crews before we departed. The No. 40 would lead and the No. 93 would be cut in just ahead of the caboose. The caboose was a wooden cupola caboose build for the Nevada Northern in 1909. As we neared departure, I inquired about riding the cab of No. 40 on the head end of the 10-car freight train. I climbed into the cab and had a chance to chat with the engine crew as we worked north along the main line. Both engines are coal burners and the watching the crews operate was like watching a choreographed dance. When the fire needed coal, the fireman, swung down from his seat box and slid the coal shovel into the pile that cascaded down from the tender. A hiss of air filled the cab as the butterfly doors opened as the fireman stepped on the actuator pedal. With craft and skill, he shoveled in a dozen scoops of the Colorado coal, deftly placing it in just the right place of the firebox with a twist of the wrist or arm. Just as quickly as he was done and climbed back on the seat box, the head end brakeman went to work sweeping up the coal area and keeping the tender plate clear of any errant coal chunks.

Engine #93 rolls into the yard with a cut of box cars that were built in the 1910’s after a photo excursion.
We performed several run-bys with the double header train up the Hi-Line before heading back into Ely. There was a static photo display of the non-operable 1907 Rotary snow plow for us that afternoon before the final run of the event which would be a wreck train that would run up the Keystone line. Locomotive No. 93 led the steam crane, outfit car, rider coach and caboose No. 3. This was to be my favorite place to ride during the entire weekend, trading off between riding in the caboose cupola or on the rear step as we venture down the line. This also allowed me to talk to the crew members and find out what they like about the railroad and why they work there. Just as we have travelled some distance to get to Ely, some of the railroads volunteers drive from California to work these weekend events and support the local staff.

And just like that as quickly as it had started it was over and we were faced with the long drive back to Las Vegas and a flight back home to the Pacific Northwest. The photos from this weekend will be a lasting impression on the but also will remind me of the professional career and volunteer railroads that helped reinvigorate me to steam and helped me walk back in time a century. I will be back!

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