The Nevada Northern Railway in Ely is truly the little railroad that could.
Founded in 1905, the railway served for its first 80 years as a working railroad for the Nevada Consolidated Copper Company, which mined and processed nearly all of the copper that came out of eastern Nevada.
In the early 1980s, however, Kennecott Copper Company, which had acquired Nevada Consolidated Copper in 1932, closed down all of its operations in the area, including the railroad.
A group of local residents persuaded the company to donate the railway, including the majestic East Ely Depot, adjacent buildings (a total of 49 other structures), about 30 miles of track and the railroad’s engines and other rolling stock to the community of Ely.
They had this crazy idea that the railway could be turned into a tourist attraction.
And despite the long odds and occasional bumps in the road, the railway has succeeded. Mark Bassett, executive director of the railway, noted recently that more than 200,000 people have ridden on the Nevada Northern since it was revived as an excursion railroad in the late 1980s.
Perhaps the thing that makes the Nevada Northern so special is just how intact it is. Railroad fans often refer to it as one of the best-preserved shortlines in America, and it’s the truth.
Located about 250 miles east of Fallon via U.S. 50, the Nevada Northern still largely looks like it did during its first eight decades.
In its earliest years, the Nevada Northern hauled copper ore from mines at Copper Flat, near Ruth, to a smelter in McGill, which is nine miles north of Ely. After the copper was processed in McGill, it was transported by the railway to the Southern Pacific Railroad line at Cobre, about 140 miles north of Ely.
Within three years of the railroad’s construction, it was offering passenger service to Ely residents, linking the community to the outside world.
For many years, there was even a daily school train that carried McGill youngsters to Ely schools (that service ended in 1941).
The railroad continued operations until 1983, when Kennecott decided to close the copper mines, the smelter and the railroad, all of which were no longer profitable.
Since being acquired by the city of Ely in 1985, the railway’s supporters have worked long and hard to ensure its continued existence. In 1986, Engine #40, dubbed the “Ghost Train of Old Ely,” was restored and steamed up for the first time since the mid-1960s and began offering trips on the railroad.
Additionally, in 1992, state historic preservation funds helped pay for the restoration of the depot building. Mark Bassett — who began working with the railroad as a volunteer — noted that over the past two decades the railway has relied on thousands of hours of volunteer labor.
Additionally, in recent years the popular cable television program, “American Restoration,” shown on the History Channel, has restored about a half-dozen pieces of Nevada Northern equipment and stock.
“We’ve been able to raise the visibility of the museum,” Bassett said. “People are driving hundreds of miles to visit us because of the show.”
In addition to riding on the Nevada Northern, visitors can take a guided tour of the facility, which includes a walk through the two-story East Ely Depot building, the centerpiece of the railroad. Inside, visitors will find elegant antique wood and brass ticket windows, benches and light fixtures.
At the Transportation Building, several Nevada Northern locomotives are on display, including the 1907 steam-powered rotary snowplow, a massive steam-powered crane, also built in 1907, and Engine #40, which was built in 1910.
Other buildings house many of the 50 or so pieces of rolling stock owned by the museum, including early 20th century ore cars, flat cars, cabooses and a 1917 coach car that was converted into a rolling bunk house for mine workers.
Between May and December, the museum offers a regular schedule of excursions on the vintage railroad equipment. Information on the train schedule and fares can be found on the Nevada Northern Railway’s web site, www.nevadanorthernrailway.net.
Several options are available for passengers, including 2-hour excursions and 1 1/2 hour trips on steam or diesel engines. There are also a handful of special event trains, including a Haunted Ghost Train (near Halloween) and the Polar Express (at Christmas). Refer to the web site for more information.
For those wanting a hands-on experience, the “Be the Engineer” program is the ticket. Student engineers (as you’re called) have the option of operating diesel or steam locomotives (following completion of a safety training course).
“You pay us enough money,” Bassett said with a laugh “And we allow you to operate one of our locomotives.”
For more information contact the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, P.O. Box 40, East Ely, NV 89315, 1-866-40STEAM or www.nevadanorthernrailway.net.
Richard Moreno has a passion for Nevada, its towns and people.