By Mark Bassett

On January 16th, at 4:30 pm, the Fireworks Express pulled out of the East Ely Depot with 100 passengers on board. The Fireworks Express is a dichotomy. It was the last train of our 2015 season and it is the first train of the New Year. That train was the poster child for the challenges of 2015 and the adventures that await us in 2016.

In 2015, the railroad carried 13,574 riders, it was our third biggest year since the railroad started hauling passenger in 1987. December’s ridership alone was 3,009 passengers. Ridership was up 13% from the previous year and up an astounding 34% over 2014!

December was the largest month that the railroad has ever experienced. And it was the fourth month in a row that has broken ridership records. This past September, October, November and December broke all records. Each month was the largest ever for that month. But December was astounding – 3,009 passengers! We carried more passenger in one month than the railroad did in some of its earlier years.

The secret of December was the Polar Expresses. The ridership numbers tell only part of the story. We ran less trains and carried more people per train then we ever had in our history. This is good. But it would not have happened without the dedication and the hard work of the staff and volunteers. We served 235 gallons of hot chocolate and served 3,759 cookies. On the heaviest trains, there was only an hour to turn the train. That meant getting the 4:30 passengers off and getting ready for the 7:00 pm passengers. We carried more passengers in one weekend than we do during some of the months in the summer.

2015 was a good year for the railroad. Our operating revenue was $1,094,181 a 4% increase over the previous year. Non-operating revenue was $364,297 up 41% from the previous year. Total revenue was $1,458,478 for the year.

On the expense side, total expenses were $1,308,251. The railroad made a profit of $150,227 before depreciation is factored in. This was a 4% increase over the previous year.

It is interesting where the revenue for the railroad comes from. In 2015, $305,167 came from donations. $97,221 came from the gift shop, train operations $398,951, room tax revenue $214,574, and $442,565 in grants and miscellaneous income. What we have been trying to do is spread out where we receive our income. The reason being is, if one segment goes down, it will hurt but it won’t be devastating.

If you slice and dice the numbers a little finer, the vast majority of that money comes from outside White Pine County. 94% of the members of the museum live outside White Pine County. 96% of our riders are from outside White Pine County. What does that mean? Out of every dollar the railroad brings in, about 95¢ comes from outside White Pine County into our community.

Now that is just the money that comes to the railroad. As we all know, Ely is isolated, it’s a long drive here from anywhere. And 99.9999% of our customers come by automobile. So what does that mean to the community? That means additional money is being spent in our community because of the people who come to Ely to visit the railroad. If you went to a restaurant in December at 6:30 pm, you might have had to wait for a seat. Why, because we just let 180 people off the train who were from out of town and hungry and we had 180 people who were getting something to eat before they went on the 7:00 pm Polar Express. That’s 360 hungry customers hitting Ely’s restaurants all at once.

Looking at this a little closer. In the course of a year about 21,000 people come visit the railroad from outside White Pine County. (Not all visitors ride a train.) And for sake of argument, let’s say the average number of people in a group is 3.  So that is 7,000 groups that are visiting the railroad in a year. And let’s say their average journey here was 600 miles round trip. What this means is that a visitor to the railroad is going to full up with gas, have at least one meal, if not two or three, purchase snacks and gifts and will most likely spend the night. So their visit to White Pine County and the railroad will cost them about somewhere around $550 on average. That is about $4,000,000 that is left in the community every year. And if we take that a step further, since the excursion trains started, 243,070 people have ridden the Nevada Northern. Take that number, add our visitors and since the museum opened we have brought approximately $70,000,000 into White Pine County.

When Kennecott closed its operations here in 1983. The economic loss to the community was devastating. The community assessed its assets and the largest one was the railroad. The thinking was that if the railroad could be saved, maybe, just maybe, the economic loss to the community would not be so overwhelming. Far-sighted community leaders asked for and received the railroad. It was that vision that has gotten us to where we are today.

Moving into 2016, we will have big challenges: the rebuilding of Locomotives 81 and 309. Investing $1,400,000 in our track. We will be making repairs to our buildings and structures. And we are looking for a continuation of the record months of visitation to continue in 2016.

Looking at where we’re at, you could say we’re an overnight success, it just took us 29 years to get here.

About the Nevada Northern Railway:  The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is a designated National Historic Landmark.  Voted the state’s Best Rural Museum and the Best Place to Take the Kids by readers of Nevada Magazine, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum also has been featured on Modern Marvels, American Restorations and on PBS. For more information, call 775-289-2085, log onto or to get the latest news “Like” the Railway’s Facebook page.

Courtesy photo People come to White Pine County from around the world to visit the Nevada Northern Railway. Their visits to the railroad have a sizeable impact in our community’s economy.

Courtesy photo
People come to White Pine County from around the world to visit the Nevada Northern Railway. Their visits to the railroad have a sizeable impact in our community’s economy.