By Mark Bassett

The Nevada Northern Railway was given to the City of Ely and the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation over 30 years ago. And it has been quite the rodeo ever since. The railroad was given to the community after Kennecott closed the mill and smelter in McGill. Kennecott had already closed the mine years previously. The only major asset left was the railroad. Kennecott donated the southern third of the railroad to the community and sold the northern two-thirds to the City of Los Angeles. For thirty years the railroad has been surviving – barely. It has been a hand to mouth existence.

It’s now time to change the financial dynamics of the railroad. To do so, we are about to undertake a bold project, which we’ve named the Phoenix Dare! It’s daring, audacious and critical to the continued success of this National Historic Landmark railroad.

Our objective is to preserve this 19th century railroad and keep it operating in the 21st century. Our immediate goal is to keep our two original steam locomotives running.  The next step is to restore our two remaining original, century-old, steam locomotives to operation!

The Phoenix Dare is a capital campaign to raise the money necessary to preserve the historic locomotives, rolling stock and buildings of the railroad. The first part of the Dare addresses the needs of our locomotives, especially our four steam locomotives.

These are the surviving original steam locomotives. So why bother? The Dare matters because the Nevada Northern Railway tells the story of when we, as a country, dreamed BIG. We took risks and accomplished MIGHTY goals! We conquered a continent and reached for the stars! As a country, we overcame huge challenges and built things that lasted. That is the take away of the Phoenix Dare – it is the story of BIG Dreams and NEW Beginnings!

There was a time when the United States was the industrial powerhouse in the world. Walking through our machine shop and engine house complex today is like walking through a morgue. You can see the names of great companies that are no more – Baldwin Locomotive Works, American Locomotive Company, Cincinnati Machine Company and many, many others.

If you have some grey in your hair, chances are you took shop in school, turned wrenches on your first car, and today you continue to fix things. We are no longer a nation of people who fix things instead we are now a throwaway society. Repair something? Maybe, if you could find the person with the tools, parts, skills and knowledge.

This is the crucial challenge that is facing our museum and our nation. Where do you find the necessary mechanical and industrial skills needed to maintain our century old locomotives, rolling stock and buildings? On a national level, where is the next generation of mechanics and craftsmen coming from?

The survival depends on our members and we have members in every state of the union and six foreign counties. I’m asking the residents of White Pine County to join with us in the Phoenix Dare. I’m asking you to become a member of the railroad museum.  By doing so you will be creating the opportunity and supporting the dreams of young men and women who want to learn these skills. And who knows, maybe those dreams started by watching a steam locomotive in operation!

But to accomplish the Dare, I need your help. Ridership revenue is not enough to keep the railroad running. Our secret weapon is our members. They are the ones who through their memberships provide the money needed to make the repairs to keep the steamers steaming.

I asking the residents of White Pine County to become a member of the museum. Keeping this railroad in operation is a team effort which relies on memberships and donations from people just like you! And better yet, if you contribute now, your impact will be doubled. The First National Bank of Ely will match every donation up to $30,000! And Mt Wheeler Power will match every donation up to $10,000. They are doubling your Dare, doubling your dollars!

Why a Phoenix? From mythology, a Phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn. A Phoenix typically dies by fire and rises from the ashes. The symbolism of a Phoenix, fits a steam locomotive to a ‘T’.

Steam locomotives go through the same cycle as a Phoenix. Every time we light a fire in a steam locomotive, we consume a portion of it. A steam locomotive boiler’s life cycle is fifteen years, as mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). At the end of this fifteen year cycle, a steam locomotive dies. But, just like a Phoenix, a steam locomotive can be reborn, to begin the cycle all over again! And that’s what the Phoenix Dare is all about, regenerating this 19th century railroad to face the challenges of the 21st century!

Our steam program is facing a crisis. We currently have two steam locomotives in operation Locomotives 40 & 93. In October 2016, we will be required to begin the fifteen year, FRA mandated maintenance cycle on Locomotive 93’s boiler. But before she even gets there, Locomotive 93 needs repairs to her pilot truck and drivers if she is to operate in 2016 at all! This winter, we need to profile her wheels so she can operate during the upcoming season. This is the first part of the Dare.

Then in October 2016, Locomotive 93 will begin her fifteen year boiler inspection. In addition to the boiler work, the entire locomotive and her tender will be examined closely. Locomotive 93 will be 107 years old by then, and I’m sure that we will find other issues that will need to be repaired. How long those repairs will take is anyone’s guess.

That leaves Locomotive 40, our other operating steam locomotive to carry the work load by herself. She can’t do it. She has known issues dating back to the 1930s that could sideline her for months, if not years. If this happens, it would be a financial catastrophe not to have an operating steam locomotive!

The simple fact is that people come to Ely, Nevada to see our steam locomotives in operation. If a person is going to commit to making a 1,000 mile, or more, round trip then they want to see one of our steam locomotives hot. We learned this lesson in 2008. We did not have an operating steam locomotive and it was devastating. Our visitation dropped by almost a third, causing a massive loss of revenue. We cannot, and will not, allow this to happen again. And we won’t, with your help!

We need you to partner with us in the Phoenix Dare! Why a Dare? Because our goal is audacious: restore 2 steam locomotives, in 2 years, and keep our other 2 locomotives steaming! To accomplish this, we will need to raise $2,000,000, and the clock is ticking. To insure that we have operating steam locomotives, we need to restore our third and fourth steam locomotives.

First up is Locomotive 81. She was purchased new by the Nevada Northern Railway in March of 1917. She is our “Goldilocks” locomotive. Locomotive 93 is too big for what we do, and Locomotive 40 is too small. Locomotive 81 is just right! She is also our “newest” locomotive. Of course, “newest” is a relative term here. Locomotive 81 was delivered with all of the latest technology for 1917.

Restoring Locomotive 81 will allow the museum to take advantage of this technology. What does this mean? Because of the improvements that Locomotive 81 received and her size, this should equate to lower operating costs for the Museum.

The same holds true today as it did a century ago; businesses are always trying to lower their operating costs. The Museum is no different, we need to stretch every dollar. The restoration of Locomotive 81 will allow us to operate our steam trains more efficiently or, in other words, less costly!

The other locomotive to be restored is Locomotive 309. She is on the other end of the spectrum from Locomotive 81, she is tiny. She only has four drivers. She was built to handle the switching at McGill. The copper mill and smelter were originally called the Steptoe Valley Smelting and Mining Company. And the railroad that served it, had the same name. It had purchased a series of small switchers, all of which were scrapped, except for Locomotive 309. The stock market crash in 1929 saved her. In 1960, she went to California and worked on tourist railroads there. In December 2010, she was given back to the Nevada Northern Railway and returned home.

Why restore Locomotive 309? The restoration work on the locomotive has already been started. I have a skilled volunteer who will donate his time and talent. And there are economies of scale in doing the restoration of Locomotive 309 at the same time as Locomotive 81. In other words, doing both locomotive at once will cost less than doing them separately.

The huge plus to restoring Locomotive 309 is economics. It costs approximately $2,000 to fire up either Locomotive 40, 93 or 81. The estimated cost to fire up Locomotive 309 is $500.  This savings will allow us to offer more steam programs and operating days at a lower cost. It is a win-win-win situation. More steam operations, on more days, at less cost! That’s why we need to restore Locomotive 309!

Is the Phoenix Dare a tall order? Yes! Is it ambitious? Utterly! Is it audacious? Absolutely! So why is the Dare so gosh darn important? Why is it worth doing?

The Nevada Northern Railway is a magical place; time stopped here. It’s as if the workers went to lunch and never came back, and they left behind a complete railroad. The grounds include over 70 buildings, structures and 30 miles of track. Here two original century-old steam locomotives still operate. They are maintained in the original 1907 machine shop, and they are stored in the original 107 year-old engine house. It is considered the premier preserved railroad left in the United States.

But be warned! It has not been prettified, it is the real McCoy. It’s gritty. It’s dirty. It smells of coal smoke, creosote and sweat. It is not a mishmash of equipment from different railroads, but rather it is the original equipment still doing today what their designers and builders intended over a century ago; they’re still rolling down the track.

This is in your face, touchable history, but it comes with a cost; a huge cost, and we are in danger of losing it. I need White Pine County to become part of that touchable history, I need you to become a member and a supporter of the Phoenix Dare!

Everything that we have as a society, has roots in steam railroading. The steam locomotive changed everything. It freed society from animal power and wind power. There would be no White Pine County today if there was no Nevada Northern Railway. Without the railroad there would not have been the copper mine. Now the railroad needs the help of the community.

The Nevada Northern Railway is an extraordinary place. In fact, it is a National Historic Landmark. National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the federal government because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.

A visit to the Nevada Northern Railway illustrates those lofty words. But here illustrating and interpreting is hands on. We are not your typical museum. Here, instead of artifacts in glass cases, exhibits behind ropes, or repainted old equipment on static display, the Nevada Northern is a working steam railroad. We encourage our visitors to explore and interact. Our mission statement requires us to operate the railroad for future generations. Here, the technology that built our country engages you!

So there you have it, people talk all the time, about how they want to make a difference. Well here’s your chance: Become a member! Join with us in the Phoenix Dare! Help keep this 19th century railroad running in the 21st century. Help preserve these wonderful machines for the next generation. Don’t delay, the clock is ticking!

Our very survival depends on us repairing Locomotive 93 this winter and successfully restoring Locomotive 81 to operation by March 2017.

Remember, every dollar contributed will be matched dollar for dollar up to $30,000 by First National Bank of Ely and dollar for dollar by Mt Wheeler Power up to $10,000! By joining the Dare, you can double your donation and be part of our success!

So how do you join the museum? It’s easy, you can stop by the depot at 1100 Avenue A here in Ely. Or give us a call at (775) 289-2085 or go on line to All new and renewing members will received the 2016 Phoenix Dare Coin and tickets to ride the Nevada Northern Railway in 2016. So what are you waiting for?  Be Daring! I double dare ya!

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 there are some tickets available for some of the Polar Express trains, but reservations are strongly encouraged. Train schedules and tickets are available online at 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:; or by first class mail at:  1100 Avenue A, PO Box 150040, East Ely, NV 89315.Train-BW1