By Mark Bassett
Executive Director, NNRY
Annually in February, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum hosts its two and a half day Winter Steam Spectacular Photo Shoots. A photo shoot is an opportunity to photograph the original Nevada Northern Railway equipment as it was during the day. The photo shoots consist of having our railroad equipment operating on their original rails and in their original context, such as ore trains, passenger trains, the Steam Crane, Snow Equipment, and the Outfit Car.
On a photo shoot, the photographers load up at the station, head a few miles down the track and then everyone unloads. The train moves back, comes ahead, stops and the cycle is repeated two or three times. Then the train moves forward picks everyone up and we move down the tracks to the next photo opportunity.
So why do photographers from around the world come to Ely, Nevada to experience this very rare opportunity? It’s our authenticity. The Nevada Northern Railway is not a mishmash of equipment from different railroads or different countries, nor is the equipment prettified or garish. This is the original railroad equipment in the original paint schemes in the original setting. All of this equipment has been on the property for decades and in lots of cases more than a century. The trains operate on the original track that was graded and laid a century ago. Strip the color out of the photograph and its hard to tell what century the photograph was taken in.
Of course locomotives, rolling stock and tracks are a big and obvious part of this railroad. But it’s just part of what makes a railroad work. We also have the infrastructure: enginehouse, machine shop, carpenter shop, blacksmith shop, depot and dispatcher building. Oh and don’t forget, the locomotives go nowhere without stopping at the coaling tower and water standpipes. We have those too, the original ones!
A highlight of the weekend is the Friday night photo shoot. Steve Crise a professional photographer from Los Angeles sets up his lighting equipment. He brings a piece of Hollywood to Ely for the night shoot. This year the steam locomotives were staged in front of the East Ely Depot. Using Steve’s expertise and his lighting equipment, the individual photographers have the opportunity to capture magical photographs of the locomotives in front of the depot as if they are ready to leave on a trip.
For the staff and volunteers of the railroad, the winter photo shoots are a very intense time. Our modern equipment is moved out of the yard and all of the original equipment is gone through to prepare it for the two weekends. Equipment that is over a century old needs some TLC before it can be used. This year was a little more intense than usual because repairs were needed to locomotive 93. These repairs were completed the day before the photo shoots started.
The photo shoots would not happen without the passionate teamwork of the staff and volunteers. The photo shoots call for very long days. Steam crews arrive at 4:00 am to get the locomotives ready for their 7:00 am curtain call. Next up is the gift shop staff who start their day at 5:30 am. At 6:30 am train crews start showing up getting the century old cars ready for the day. By 8:00 am track crews and the dispatcher are on duty as the trains are made up. Depending on the day, trains start departing between 8:30 and 9:30 am. Occasionally we have two trains out on the track. This takes lots of coordination between train crews.
Trains are back at the depot by lunch time. Here the gift shop staff severs a hot lunch and the trains depart once more for an afternoon of additional photo shoots. By sunset the trains return. Now there are still hours of work that need to be done before the train crews can leave. Historic railroad cars need to be put away and the steam locomotives need to be put in the engine house.
Unlike a car or truck, you don’t just turn off a steam locomotive. Ash from the burning coal needs to be dropped at the ash pit. Then the locomotive heads to the engine house where the fire is banked and miscellaneous pipes and hoses are blown out so the water doesn’t freeze in them. By the time they are down it can be 9:00 pm. That means in just 7 hours, the morning crew will be there knocking out the fires and getting the locomotives ready for another day.
The weather this year was very unusual, no snow and warm temperatures. But as it turned out that was plus. The photographers were able to get photographs that were not possible in previous years. Participants have won numerous photo contests, recording timeless scenes of our historical railroad that are second to none. Many of the “Winter Spectacular” photos rival the best that National Geographic has to offer.
Participants come from around the world and across the United States to participate in this amazing opportunity to capture history in motion. The winter photo shoots are an economic win for the community and the railroad in what is normally a slow time of year for tourists in Ely.
Next year the photo shoots are February 12-14 and 19-21. So make plans to come to Ely and be sure to set your watch back a century.