By Mark S. Bassett

If you were anywhere around Ely the last two weekends, you heard a lot of whistles and saw a lot of smoke. Annually, in February, the railroad hosts the Winter Steam Spectacular. Photographers from around the country and from around the world head to Ely to photograph the Nevada Northern Railway.

Why? Because the Nevada Northern Railway is a time capsule, unchanged from the days the iron horse ruled the rails. And better yet, the railroad is original. Sure, those of us involved with the railroad know that Locomotive 93 was delivered here in January 1909 and Locomotive 40 was delivered here in 1910. And that the locomotives are stored in their original 1907 Enginehouse and maintained the 1907 machine shop. And tucked away in the Enginehouse are the steam-powered wrecking crane that is still in operation and the steam-powered rotary snowplow that was cosmetically restored. In the RIP Building is Outfit Car 06 built in 1872 and the Steptoe Valley Flyer passengers cars built in 1906 and 1882. And scattered throughout the yard are the original boxcars from 1912 and the ore cars from 1909.

But when you fire up the locomotives, couple them up to the railroad cars and head out on the original track, then the magic really happens. The landscape is unchanged, the locomotives and the railroad cars have been going up and down this track for over a century. You have truly traveled back in time! There is nothing to imagine, but, rather, it is an in your face experience. You are immersed in the sights and sounds of railroading as it was a century ago. This is not Disneyland or a recreation. It is the Real McCoy! Strip away the color and show the photo to a person and they will think it was taken in the 1920s or 1930s. It is this originality that attracts photographers from around the world to come to Ely in February.

In addition to the originality, you have the weather. It’s cold. The steam instantly condenses into tall plumes over the locomotives. With our bright blue skies and a smattering of clouds, the photographic opportunities are endless.

And to entice photographers from around the world to make the trek to Ely, we sweeten the pot. We fire up the wrecking crane to give a demonstration of how the crane works. We fire up the crane for two reasons. One, it is a cool piece of history to see in action. Secondly, so we can train the next generation of operators on how to operate the crane. And, to my knowledge, our steam crane is the only operating steam crane left in the United States.

As part of the photo shoot we have a night segment. If you think seeing the locomotives and trains operating during the day is magical, the night shoot is out of this world. One of our volunteers, Steve Crise, comes from Los Angeles with his professional lighting equipment. It takes him hours to set up. Once the sun goes down, it’s breathtaking. This year we used Locomotive 93 and Rotary Snow Plow B as the props. Staff and volunteers filled in as extras with period lanterns. Steve forms the photo line, everyone is ready. The countdown is: 1, 2, 3, open! The photographers open their shutters, the lights go off and photographers then close their shutters. Thanks to digital cameras, the photographers can see the results instantaneously. And wow! Over and over it goes, the shutters open, lights go off and a new image is captured. And to me, the biggest surprise is how the lighting Steve brings with him can capture the period lighting. It is truly amazing!

During the day, Locomotives 40 and 93 head up different trains. Locomotive 40 will haul the Steptoe Valley Flyer passenger train and a fast freight train made up of Nevada Northern Railway boxcars with the bright yellow Nevada Northern Railway Caboose from 1909 on the end. Meanwhile, Locomotive 93 will pull the wrecker train out on the line. It will also pull an ore train just like during the heyday of the railroad. And then it will pulled a mixed train.

And for scenery to photograph the trains in, well, I’m prejudice, but I don’t think you can beat the high desert scenery around Ely. We have mountains and valleys with the vistas that seem to go on forever. Photographers can take photos below the trains or above the trains. We also have a tunnel to add something a little special.

The Winter Steam Spectacular Photo Shoots are an all hands drill. Everyone, staff and volunteers alike, work long hours to insure the magic happens. Shop crews show up in the middle of the night to prep the steam locomotives for the day’s activities. Locomotive crews show up later, but still awfully early in the morning. Train crews also show up early to inspect and check the railroad cars that will be used. Behind the scenes the track crew makes sure the track is ready for operations. In the gift shop, staff and volunteers set up a continental breakfast and then at lunch time feed everyone.

The Winter Steam Spectacular is an incredible event! Why do we do it? First it brings in revenue in February when the railroad really needs it. Secondly, what do photographers do with their photos, they show them off! Effectively, every photographer becomes an ambassador of the railroad. They show their images far and wide which generates more interest in the railroad. It’s a win-win!

To see some of the photos from the last photo shoot visit our Facebook page, Or go to and use the keywords Nevada Northern Railway and prepare to be amazed.

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.



Jim Bassett photo What year is it? 2016 or 1916? Yes, it is Locomotive 40 heading to McGill on the HiLine with a load of supplies for the mill. This photo does a great job of showing the magic of the photo shoots.

Jim Bassett photo
What year is it? 2016 or 1916? Yes, it is Locomotive 40 heading to McGill on the HiLine with a load of supplies for the mill. This photo does a great job of showing the magic of the photo shoots.