Who does it take to bring a railroad museum to life? To find out, just visit the Nevada Northern

Posted by Robert W. Scott
on Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mark Bassett and Bill Hohlt pose for a shot during a night shoot on the Nevada Northern Railway.
Nevada Northern Railway volunteer Kevin Olson and railway staff John Henry McDonnell take a break during a demonstration of the steam crane at Ely, NV.
NN Staff Angie Cracraft poses between work assignments as the hostler in the engine house.
Volunteer Bill Hohlt poses with the pocket watch his grandfather used when in train service on the SP&S Railway.
John Henry McDonnell waits for the clearance to move forward on the passenger engine #40.
Conductor Hohlt has the charge of his train from the 1909 Nevada Northern caboose at the end of a double headed freight train.
In my last blog post, I talked about the fantastic time that I had at the Nevada Northern in Ely, Nevada, when I participated in the railroad’s annual Winter Photo Spectacular, Feb 13-15, 2015. There is not enough that can be said about the operation in Ely. It is truly a class A operation. Executive Director Mark Bassett was a wonderful host to our group and allowed us to experience firsthand what steam railroading in the early 1900s was all about. His cadre of staff and volunteers made it easy to feel like you were there. As Mark puts it, “It’s history you can touch." But in order to make this happen, it takes a large group of people working to make sure it runs, and stays operating.

I am in awe at the capabilities of the Nevada Northern folks and how they run a smooth and efficient operation. Now, I'm not naive, as I know there is a lot behind the scenes that takes place and countless staff and volunteers, but I find myself asking what it takes to makes this operation work?

During my weekend there, I had the chance to talk to just about every type of career and volunteer railroader who was on duty and I found something that was quite apparent. Although some jobs on the railroad were not the fun ones, they were still done to ensure the weekend events went off. Not everyone had the chance to work on the engine or the train out on the mainline. Everyone had a job and assignment and arguably some of those were not glamorous. Engine houses are a dirty place, but that didn't keep the hostlers from washing down the engines and tender decks at the start of the day, or making sure that all of the supplies and oil they would need for the trips was loaded on-board ready for the engine crew. Everyone knew that they had a part in the success of the day.

Each day, the shop came alive between 4 and 5 a.m. with the hostlers building the fires and making the engines ready. Out on the road, I had a chance to talk with the crews and find out why they do it. For some, it’s in their blood. Our conductor for the weekend, Bill Hohlt, talked about his grandfather who worked for the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway in Wishram and Pasco, Wash. In fact he uses his grandfather’s watch on the Nevada Northern and is proud that he can share that link.

Here’s how dedicated the shop crews are. On Saturday morning, 2-8-0 No. 93 was initially scrubbed from operation due to an issue with the grates. Undeterred, the crews allowed to engine, which had been approaching operating pressure, to cool down enough to replace the part. It was up and running by lunch time. It was this type of attention to detail and dedication to the craft that we became to see was normal at the Nevada Northern.

There are countless steam/diesel and electric programs, museums and preservation efforts around the country, and the next time you visit, take the time to recognize the volunteers and staff. Be sure to tell them “thank you” for the hard work and efforts they put into making their operation available to us.

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