Riding the 1905 Nevada Northern Railway

Train 40 emerges from Tunnel #1 northbound toward Ely.

Carrying 4.5 million passengers and tons of smelted copper between the Transcontinental Lines and the mining towns of Ely, McGill, and Ruth Nevada from 1905 until 1983, the Nevada Northern exists today as a National Historic Landmark representing one of America's best preserved original Standard Gauge Short Line Railroads. 

The Non-Profit Nevada Northern Railroad and Museum led by Executive Director Mark Bassett, a friendly bearded gentleman and self-described mayor of a small town, operates seventy structures; yard power; water; thirty miles of active track; a working steam locomotive; two additional steam locomotives presently under overhaul; two 1950's Alco Diesels; other diesel; a working steam crane; a rotary snowplow; and a large collection of out-of-service steam and diesel engines; sixty freight cars; and passenger equipment built as early as 1872.  Mark hosted our Winter Photo Train group throughout all three cold February days telling us great stories of the railroad then, the funding and operating stories now, and the future plans he has for the railroad.

Throughout the year, the Nevada Northern offers a wide range of regular and themed excursions; and special activities for the vintage rail fan and curious tourist.   A 90-minute excursion is the easiest way to ride the railway. The Ghost Train and the Polar Express are holiday events.  But you can also "Be The Engineer" for a day; spend "Railroad Reality Week" learning to maintain the railroad, or take a "Star Train" for some incredible dark sky experiences.  Recent exposure as a plot device on The Big Bang Theory television show and dark sky gazing reports on network news programs have helped build a big social footprint and brought excitement to their 2017 calendar.  The Nevada Northern is located about four hours from Las Vegas Nevada or Salt Lake City Utah, and five hours from Reno Nevada.


Train 40 coasts through a cut along the HiLine in Steptoe Valley.

The Nevada Northern Railway was created by the White Pine Copper Company, organized by Eureka and Palisade RR's Mark Requa, to haul copper from mines near Ruth Nevada to a gravity-fed smelter in McGill Nevada.  The copper blocks would then be shipped north to the transcontinental mainline near Wells Nevada. 

Nevada Northern Railway construction began in 1905 by the Utah Construction Company.  The route started north at a transcontinental connection at Cobre Nevada with the Southern Pacific and then built southward through the Steptoe Valley to reach Ely Nevada.   The railroad was completed in September 1906.


Train 40 atop a fill just north of East Ely Yard on the "Ore Line" bypass.

When the railroad first built the depot and main yard east of the main town, they called the destination Ely, a reference that angered Ely's original residents.  Over the years, several name changes and deals were made, including the construction of an abandoned spur line and depot found in the town of Ely. 

From the yard now named East Ely, the route was expanded in 1907-1908 through an east junction and traveled north of the yard, over a fill at Murray Creek and Ely Warm Springs; and then westward along a ridge to Robinson Canyon west of Ely.  Eastward, the railroad built the "HiLine" up the side of the valley to service a gravity-fed smelter in McGill.


Train 40 races along Gleason Creek on its way to the Kennecut Mine Complex. 

Just outside of town, the route passes through a couple of tunnels and then follows Gleason Creek and Highway 50.  The remains of a third tunnel that was blasted open are passed before swinging south to the Copper Mine facility in Ruth Nevada.

The railroad was slowly absorbed into the Kennecott Mining Company over the early century, becoming a full subsidiary of the mining company in 1942.  Dwindling reserves and lower prices forced the closure of the mine in 1978.  In 1986, donations helped form the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation which operates the remaining assets of the railroad and yard.  The National Park Service confirmed National Historic Landmark status to the railroad in 2006, assuring its protection for many years to come.


Winter Photo Shoot in the Engine House.

Front image from the Engine House Photo Session.

My travel was the Winter Photo Shoot Fen 17-19,  2017, the second of two three-day weekend events centered on an exhibition of the railroad's famous equipment and scenic route landmarks.  Like most photo shoots, photographers and videographers gather to ride in old equipment to various locations, get dropped off, then setup gear to capture the run-bys of the train in action.  February is a popular time for Steam photographer events. Along with the Durango and Silverton Winter Photo Train Event and Grand Canyon Railroad Photo Charter, there is much to do for rail fans in the west over a two-week period.

Friday night's activities were in the Engine Roundhouse where strobes were set up to light Engine #40, a 1910 Baldwin 4-6-0.  The crew was posed in front of the engine and steam was released in front of our wall of cameras. 


Alco Diesels work ore cars in the yard.

The railroad also maintains a set of early Alco Diesels.  Our event photographed the RS-2 / RS-3 pair pushing an ore train through the yard on Friday. On Sunday, the pair joined us for a photo shoot up near Ruth Nevada. While I enjoy photographing steam, I am actually a Diesel fan, with the old Santa Fe Silver and Red FP-45s at the top of my list.  Yes, I know there is one being restored in Perris. 


Engine #40 in action passing Hiline Junction.  Soon the junction may allow trains to McGill.


The future of the Nevada Northern Railway is strong. 

Engine #93, a 1909 American Locomotive 2-8-0 Consolidation, reached the Federal Railway Administration-mandated 15-year / 1472-operating day scheduled boiler inspection and will return to service on July 1.  And Engine #81, a 1917 Baldwin 2-8-0 that was stored inoperable in 1960 will soon re-enter service.  Both overhauls, critical for the reliability and future of Nevada Northern operations, are being funded by a $2 million donation "Phoenix Dare" project.  

Executive Director Mark Bassett has many more projects ahead.  One of the largest is a planned restoration of service to the town of McGill several miles to the north.  He estimates $2 million will be needed - primarily $1.5 million to build three Nevada-DOT approved Highway 93 grade crossings.  This project will give the Nevada Northern a destination - much like the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Line - with local McGill artisans and shops to grow the tourist experience.


Train #40 with its string of box cars and a yellow caboose heads north past Steptoe Creek.

As a railroad photographer, my favorite experience of the weekend resulted in the Caboose photograph above.  Sunday morning out of Ely, our photo train reached Steptoe Creek for an opportunity.  With a somewhat steep fill and my lack of downhill balance, I opted to stay in the 1872 Pullman-built Outfit Car.  Soon I hear Mark ordering the conductor to disconnect #6 from the tail end of the train!  With the tightening of the handbrake and the air release of the coupling, I soon watched the rest of the train drift northward for the run-by. I thought - What a great shot!   Soon I dragged my gear to the open door and lined up the camera for several photos.  The best shot here shows the train tailed by the Yellow NNRY Caboose returning, conductor indoor, with the Steptoe Valley mountains spotlighted by the sun.

Over 100 years ago this was commonplace, and you can visit it all again in the middle of the Nevada desert.


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