By Mark S. Bassett
People ask me all the time what is the take away from the museum? What should visitors remember when they leave? What relevance does it have to today’s plugged-in, always on, smartphone, find-it-on-the-internet society? Why is the railroad worth preserving?
My answer usually surprises them. What I want to the visitor to remember is; not the locomotives, not the buildings, nor the train ride, but perseverance. Why perseverance? Because that is the story of the railroad. Steadfastness, in doing something despite difficulty.
I want our visitor to understand that 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 created a country that is the envy of the world.
Here in White Pine County we had big dreams too. Mark Requa, was the founder of the copper dream here. He saw that there was a demand for copper and he knew that there was a mountain of copper ore at Ruth. Requa had a vision and he was in a hurry. He optioned copper claims in October 1902. On February 15, 1903, he organized the White Pine Copper Company to develop the copper claims. An experimental mill proved that the low grade ore could be smelted profitably. He also undertook a geological survey that confirmed the extent of the copper ore body.
As Requa was developing his claims, others were also doing exploration work. On November 17, 1904, Requa merged his companies with the neighboring claims to form the Nevada Consolidated Copper Company. (That’s what the N. C. C. Co. stands for the on the side of Locomotive 93.) Requa had proven that it was economically feasible to mine the copper around Ruth.
In 1904, Ely’s population was just 307 people! Mark Requa had imagination, he saw a day when there would be a copper mine, a mill and a smelter; to make this happen he needed a railroad. On June 1, 1905 the Nevada Northern Railway Company (NN Ry) was incorporated. On September 29, 1906, the railroad reached Ely. During that year Requa battled the worse winter in years and then as spring was arriving and construction could commence, the San Francisco earthquake struck. A sizeable number of his railroad workers were from there. The news caused them to take their tools and head home. A lesser man might have given up, but not Requa. He persevered. The Nevada Northern Railway arrived in Ely in September 1906.
By August 1907, the railroad reached the mines at Ruth. As this was happening the enormous mill and smelter was being constructed at McGill. By March 1908, tracks had arrived at the mill at McGill. On April 12, 1908, operations at the mill commenced with the arrival of the first ore train. In less than five years, copper mines were developed, a railroad constructed, a mill and a smelter built. Towns had sprung up where there had just been sagebrush. By 1910, the population was 7,441!
Think about it! In an era before computers, before heavy haul trucks and even before roads for that matter, a man had a dream and in the middle of nowhere, created a mining, milling and smelting infrastructure that changed the way society lived!
The copper that was mined and smelted in White Pine County was turned into wire that electrified buildings throughout the country. It also provided the wire for the telephone wires that tied the country together.
The railroad has plenty of big stories. One of my favorites is the rebuilding of the smelter in McGill. If you live in a mining community, you go through boom and bust cycles. During World War 1, copper was needed for the war. It was (and is) a core component of ammunition. The mine and the mill worked around the clock mining and processing copper. Wages were good and there was plenty of overtime, White Pine County was awash in money.
When the war ended there was glut of copper on the world markets. In March 1921, due to the world-wide glut of copper, the mine, mill and smelter were closed and the workers laid-off. It took over a year before the McGill facilities started processing the copper ore again.
Then disaster struck. On Sunday evening, July 9, 1922, a fire started in the ore bins in the southeast corner of the mill. Strong winds fanned the fire until the entire mill complex was involved. The McGill Fire Department assisted by the Ely Fire Department and company workers could not stop the fire. The entire seven acre complex was consumed by the flames. The only part of the complex saved was the concrete foundations.
After the conflagration the mill consisted of melted and twisted beams lying on the ground. There was no more mill. The repercussions of the fire rippled through the communities. Without the mill, there was no need for the copper mine. With no copper mine and no mill, the railroad was superfluous. Following on the heels of the 1921 depression and closure, it looked like this was the end of the copper dream in White Pine County.
The Nevada Consolidated Copper Company General Manager in McGill, called a meeting in his house. Attending were mill managers, influential people from Ely, bankers, merchants, and other interested parties. The question was what would happen? A lengthy, detailed telegram was sent to D. C. Jackling, President of the copper company in Salt Lake City.
It was a very restless night in Ruth, Ely and McGill. Would thousands of people lose their jobs? Would the three towns disappear, like all of the other towns in Nevada that had busted and be turned into ghost towns? It was a very long night, the future of the communities hung in the balance.
The next morning, J.C. Kinnear, Vice President and General Manger in McGill received a reply to his lengthy telegram that he had sent the night before. It was from D.C. Jackling, it consisted of two words, “Rebuild it.” Short, sweet and to the point! You could probably hear the collective sigh and celebration from Ely in Salt Lake City!
And rebuild it they did, reconstruction of the mill proceeded at a frenzied pace. In 45 days a temporary mill was put in operation! Think of it, in just a month and half, copper ore was once again being processed in White Pine County. The new mill was finished in 523 days. The fire was a blessing in disguise. The new mill increased efficiency by utilizing the latest technology. Mill capacity was doubled. These improvements drove down the cost of processing the copper, making the company even more profitable. One person, one decision, two words and the future of White Pine County was assured.
One more story, and this is a recent one that happened to us at the museum but it illustrates the same point – preserving. It was Polar Express time. This is the busiest time of the year for the railroad. The vast majority of our passengers that ride the Polar Expresses are visitors from outside White Pine County. The children have been told that they are going to ride the Polar Express to see Santa Claus. And it was a sold out train, no pressure there.
It was about 3:00 pm, on a day that had been warm but with the sun going down and it was beginning to cool off and get cold. The engine crew was bringing Locomotive 204 from the Enginehouse to the train. To do so, they need to go through a series of railroad track switches. (A railroad track switch allows a train to go down one track or the other.) We have to do this every time a locomotive goes from the Enginehouse to the train. On this day, the head brakeman decided to ride the pilot of the locomotive so he could see the track clearly.
Since it had been a warm day, the snow had melted near the track. With the sun going down and temperatures dropping, the snow melt started to freeze. This snow melt found its way between the switch point and the running rail. As the snow melt froze, the water expanded and forced the point away from the running rail. As Locomotive 204 entered the track switch, the small gap allowed the flange on the locomotive wheel to enter the gap. What this means is that the locomotive instead of going either to the right or to the left continued to travel straight where there was no track!
The brakeman saw what was happening and give the engineer the emergency stop signal. But it takes time and distance to stop 280,000 pounds of diesel locomotive. Axle 1 dropped off the track, followed by axle 2 and axle 3 then everything came to a halt. The lead truck was on the ground. The track switch where it happened, block all of the tracks from the Enginehouse, so another locomotive could not get around Locomotive 204. And at the depot was a sold out train of families from Las Vegas and elsewhere who were expecting to go to the North Pole. And there was another sold train that was scheduled to follow the current Polar Express train.
Radios squawked and phones went off. Track crew, shop crew and I all met at the locomotive. What to do? And we had to do it quickly. Al Gledhill was the Master Mechanic at the time. I remember that he stood there calming smoking a cigarette. He told the track crew to bring him tie plates and joint bars. After they did so, then he and the shop crew built an incline plane or ramp behind the closest locomotive wheel. When Al was happy with the construction, the command was given to the engineer, back up easy. Slowly the wheel rode up the ramp, it was getting dark now. Now all railroad wheels have a flange on the inside that normally keeps the wheel inside the rail and guides the wheel around curves and switches. This flange is about 1.25 inches tall. Doesn’t sound like much, until you have a 280,000 pound locomotive on that flange and that flange rolls over the top of the rail and then drops back in where its suppose to with BANG!!! All stop!
Flashlights come out and examine the wheel, the wheel has dropped back into the position! The ramps are moved behind the second wheel. Slowly, Locomotive 204 backs again and BANG!!! Axle 2 is back on the rails. Finally, the ramps are moved one more time, everything is in readiness. Locomotive 204 moves, breaths are being held and BANG!!! Locomotive 204 is back on the rails!!!
The locomotive backs up, the switch is checked and spiked. Locomotive 204 is given permission to move to her train. A short while later, Locomotive 204 couple up to the Polar Express. Brakes are checked, the Conductor shouts, “All Aboard for the North Pole!” Two blasts of the whistle and the Polar Express departs on time.
The shop crew heads back to the shop, the track crew inspects the switch one more time along with the other track switches that the Polar Express will cross. Locomotive 204 gives a couple more blasts of her whistle as she clears the yard and heads to the North Pole. Just another day at the Nevada Northern Railway.
These three stories all have a common theme – perseverance. Believing in yourself, believing in your ideas and believing you can succeed! Can you succeed all of the time, no. But if you don’t attempt it, I’ll guarantee it won’t happen. That is the take away that I want our visitors to have. That ordinary people can band together and do the impossible. That’s what the staff, volunteers and members do here every day.
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 www.NNRY.com or to get the latest news “Like” the Railway’s Facebook page.
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the museum. He can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or by first class mail at: 1100 Avenue A, PO Box 150040, East Ely, NV 89315.