By Mark Bassett
Special to the Times
This past Saturday at about 10:00 pm, I was walking home after the last Polar Express. Everyone had left and it was quiet. There was a gentle snowfall, the depot and the grounds were still lit up and I was able to reflect on Polar Express time at the Nevada Northern Railway.
This is our busiest time of the year. We will carry about one-quarter of our annual ridership from mid-November through the end of the year. In
November, we carried 750 people to the North Pole to see Santa. Our first Polar Express was November 21, the Saturday before Thanksgiving. We started running that train as warm up to the Polar Express season. But no more, the first Polar Express had 163 passengers on it. That meant we needed to use all three passenger car sand there would be no warm up.
Everything needs to work right the first time. Entering into the Thanksgiving holiday weekend we had four trains, two on Friday and two on Saturday. The average passenger load was 146 people per train. And those trains illustrate why I call it the Polar Express Symphony.
For every Polar Express to be a success, multiple pieces must come together at the right time. Just like a symphony, timing is everything. If a musician misses his or her mark, everyone knows a misstep could be disastrous and do-overs are not allowed. Working jointly, the staff and volunteers create a magical experience for our passengers. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, our Polar Expresses will carry more than 3,300 passengers to the North Pole.
And our passengers travel long distances to ride our Polar Express. In fact, over 95% of our visitors come from outside White Pine County. We’ve had visitors from Louisiana, Los Angeles and just about every place in between. I spoke to some of our passengers from Los Angeles and they came to Ely because they wanted to experience the cold and snow. This past weekend Mother Nature did not disappoint. Though, I think, the winner for traveling the farthest was the family who was from North Pole, Alaska. Yes, there is such a place. They came to Ely to ride the Polar Express to the North Pole and then came back to Ely, to go home, to the North Pole. Go figure.
For me, as the leader of the band, the Polar Expresses are high anxiety. Everything needs to work right the first time. There are no do-overs here either. To do the Polar Express, we had to sign a contract with Warner Brothers, the copyright holder for the movie. The contract ourlines certain responsibilities that we need to follow. And annually, a representative comes to Ely to make sure that we are living up to our part of the agreement.
Preparation begins months in advance. Polar Express merchandise, bells and hot chocolate will be ordered. Special Polar Express Train tickets that match the ones in the move are printed. Advertisements in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City are placed. The North Pole needs to be decorated. One of the biggest challenges facing the museum is how to keep the coaches warm while traveling to the North Pole. In years past we have used pellet stoves. They were pretty to look and but if you were seated further down the coach, they were not all that warm. This past summer we received a grant from the John H. Emery Rail Heritage Trust that allowed us to upgrade the heating in two of our coaches. Now you can ride to the North Pole and be warm too.
The big switcheroo starts November 1. The railroad was decorated for our Haunted Ghost Trains. All of the Halloween decorations needed to come down and the Christmas decorations need to go up. Almost overnight, the scariness goes away and we’re transformed into a winter wonderland thanks to the staff and volunteers.
At the North Pole (known as Renaissance Village the rest of the year), Roger and his team transform into Santa’s workshops. Lights, lights and more lights are strung. (Every year Roger adds more and more lights. I tell him that the astronauts at the International Space Station always send a thank you, because they can see our North Pole from the space station.) Buildings and trees are decorated, Santa’s sleigh is placed in front of the reindeer barn and now all is ready.
If you live in Ely you know it was cold here over Thanksgiving weekend. Temperatures were below zero and the highs were only in the 20s. The cold just makes everything that much harder to do. The locomotive is more difficult to start, the air brakes on the Polar Express take more time to charge and are slower to react.
More demands are placed on the century old electrical systems in the depot with the result being one of the circuits that we use for lights and heating the water went out over the weekend. After a little juggling, Plan B was implemented.
As train time approaches the locomotive leaves the Enginehouse to couple up to the train. Track switches are checked and cleaned. Soon our passengers begin to show up. Heather and her crew start mixing the “hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars”. Volunteer servers also begin to appear and change into white coats and don white chef hats. Cookies and hot cocoa are loaded on to the train getting it ready for the trip north.
The locomotive is coupled to the Polar Express. A brake test is done. Then there is the train crew briefing to insure that everyone knows his or hers job. More passengers arrive, you can begin to feel the intensity. Children and adults are excited and yes, some are dressed in their pajamas with robes. With most of our customers being from warmer climates, the snow is a treat. Finally, the Conductor appears, “ALL ABOARD for the North Pole. Well are you coming?”
Children squeal. “Ticket’s please” the Conductor says are he reaches for everyone’s ticket. The Conductor stresses to all of the passengers, “Don’t lose your ticket. I’ll be punching the ticket as we go to the North Pole and every passenger must have a ticket or you’re thrown off the train. No hobos ride my train!”
Tickets are tightly gripped now. Passengers board and take their seats. Soon everyone is aboard and seated. The energy level in the train is intense. Hot chocolate is loaded and poured into cups. Finally the conductor gives one last “ALL ABOARD!”
There are two toots from the locomotive’s horn. The locomotive starts moving, slowly the passenger coaches start moving. We’re on the way to the North Pole! Inside the cars the song the Polar Express is played. The Conductor starts punching tickets and asks all of the passengers, “Do you believe in Santa?” If they believe, the Conductor punches an ‘I’ for ‘I Believe’ into their ticket.
Meanwhile, the Servers start serving hot cocoa and cookies to all of the passengers. Songs from the movie the Polar Express are played as they do this. (Although, I do confess, our servers do not dance on the car’s ceilings, maybe next year, right Heather.)
As the hot cocoa is being served, the train rolls through the railroad yard heading for the Magic Switch. Slowly the train comes to a stop. The Conductor radios the Engineer, “Has the Magic Switch been lined for the North Pole?” Now the Magic Switch is a very extraordinary railroad switch and is core to the Polar Express. Throwing the Magic Switch allows the Polar Express to reach the North Pole. The Engineer replies, “Yes, North Pole Control has lined the Magic Switch and Santa says come on up!” When those words are spoken there is a roar in the passenger cars! Slowly the Polar Express begins its journey north.
Then the Narrator comes on the public address system and asks for quiet for now it is time to read the story the Polar Express. The passengers quiet down and the Narrator begins to read the story, “On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed…”
As the Narrator reads the story, the Servers walk the aisles of the cars showing the pictures from the book. The Narrators continues reading until, “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.” That’s the end of the story and the Polar Express is just minutes away from the North Pole!
Sure enough the locomotive blows its horn, lights appear in the distance and the Polar Express begins to slow down. And as the North Pole comes into view, there on the platform is Santa Claus!
Santa boards the train and greets everyone on board. He makes his way through the coaches wishing everyone a Merry Christmas! And if you believe, you receive a silver bell. All too quickly our time at the North Pole is over. Santa has greeted all of the passengers. Everyone has received their bell and Santa leaves the train and goes back onto the platform. The locomotive gives three blasts from its horn and slowly the train makes its way back to Ely.
Inside the coaches, the passengers start singing Christmas carols. Slowly the Polar Express picks up speed as it heads back to Ely. The trip back is a lot faster than the trip to the North Pole. Once again the train goes through the Magic Switch and starts to slow down and comes to a stop.
The Magic Switch is lined for the East Ely Depot, two blasts from the locomotives horn and the Polar Express rolls towards the depot. Within minutes the train pulls into the depot and rolls to a stop, the trip is over.
Well that’s not quite correct. The trip is over for the passengers but not for the staff and the volunteers. The train needs to be cleaned up for the next Polar Express, more hot cocoa made and everything put into readiness, for another trip to the North Pole. The cycle will repeat twenty-eight times. By the last Polar Express on December 28th, we will have brought over 3,300 people to the North Pole, with over 3,000 of them being from outside White Pine County. We will have made and served 155 gallons of hot cocoa and served more than 3,300 cookies. Calamities will happen, the staff and volunteers will deal with them. To our passengers, it will seem like just another trip.
The success of the Polar Expresses can be attributed to everyone doing their jobs with gusto. But a few people need shout-outs:
Heather for making sure that everything is where it was supposed to be and people were where they were supposed to be. Tammie and Mike for ably assisting Heather. Roger for leading his team in lighting up the North Pole. Henry, John Henry, Gary North, Nathan, Carlin and Ahlvers Plumbing for getting the furnaces installed, propane tanks installed and the furnaces enclosed. Angie for working on the sound and the iPad and with Rail Events on the music. Ed, Jim, Don and Howard for being great Santa’s and Lennox for once again helping out as both the bell delivery person and hot chocolate server. Kurt, Mike and Aaron for keeping the tracks clear to the North Pole. Joan for opening the gift shop in the early morning hours and dispatching the Polar Expresses. And Bill Hohlt for being the Conductor Extraordinaire that he is.
The Polar Expresses are magical, but that magic just doesn’t happen. It is the combined efforts of lots and lots of people. And to all of them, I give a tip of the hat.
Down the Tracks at the Museum
Museum, gift shop and ticket office hours are: Mondays through Thursday, 8:00 to 5:00, Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 to 7:00, Sundays 8 to 4, Closed Tuesdays.
Currently we do have tickets on all of the Polar Express trains, but reservations are strongly encouraged. Train schedules and tickets are available online at www.nnry.com or call the ticket office (775) 289-2085.
Volunteers are always needed at the museum. We need tour guides, narrators, concessionaires, gift shop helpers and train crew members. If you have some spare time and would be interested in helping out, give the railroad a call at (775) 289-2085. You don’t need to live in Ely to volunteer.
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the museum. He can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com; or by first class mail at: 1100 Avenue A, PO Box 150040, East Ely, NV 89315.