By Mark Bassett
With Memorial Day coming I started reflecting on the people who had gone before us at the Nevada Northern Railway. On Memorial Day, we all should take a moment to remember and to thank the ones who stood at the front lines, so we could enjoy our freedom.
As I started reflecting on Memorial Day, I also started reflecting and remembering the men and women who worked at the railroad over the past century. Since I’ve been here the railroad has lost some very special people. You might call these people the Ghosts of the Ghost Train of Old Ely.
In our welcome center is a sign that proclaims, “Railroads are people serving people.” For without the people, the locomotives and the buildings don’t come alive. In fact, the Nevada Northern Railway exists today only because of the dreams and commitment of many, many individuals.
“Let me show you where the hot water is.” “What, why do I need to know where the hot is?” I asked. Because we hand wash the locomotives and then your hands won’t get cold was Al’s reply. Al was Al Gledhill at that time he was the shop the foreman and I was as green as they come. He was later promoted to Master Mechanic. Al died earlier this year and yet he’s still with us. I kept sending green individuals down to the shop and Al kept instructing and training them. Al is still with us because of the time he took training John Henry, Angie and others.
Al’s grandfather was killed by the Nevada Northern’s wrecking crane. He never liked working on the crane. Al’s father also worked for the Nevada Northern as a conductor. Now Al, his father and his grandfather are some of the ghosts I was referring to earlier.
Another person that we recently lost, was Bob Dallons. Bob was a volunteer who was on his second retirement. After retiring from the medical supply industry, he worked for the Denver Post delivering newspapers. After he retired from that, he looked for a railroad where he could volunteer at and he selected the Nevada Northern. Bob was an all-around hand: brakeman, tour guide, narrator, historian and concessionaire. Bob is another ghost of the railroad.
When people thank of the railroad they think of the trains, not the mountain of paper that is necessary to keep the trains going. Jim and Sondra Blaylock would come up from Las Vegas to volunteer here. Jim would be in train service and Sondra would help with that mountain of paperwork. We lost Sondra earlier this year too. And that mountain of paperwork just keeps getting bigger. Every time I look at it, I remember Sondra and miss her help.
Jack Anderson became our Master Mechanic in 2004. We needed to rebuild the boiler on Locomotive 40. Jack took the boiler completely apart. You could stand in the front of the locomotive and look through the locomotive. He and I discussed his work plan. One morning he called Al and said he’d be late that day, he had a headache and would be in later. By noon, Jack was dead. The railroad has lost a Master Mechanic, the steam fraternity has lost an expert and I had lost a friend. I went down to the machine shop that night and stood in front of Locomotive 40 and wondered how on earth we were going to get that locomotive back together again. At that time, I decided it was the mission of the railroad to train the next generation so these marvelous machines will keep running.
People volunteer at the railroad for different reasons. Woody Richie wanted to be a steam engineer. To be a steam engineer you need to be a fireman first. Woody took to the job and worked hard at it. He’d be in shop helping the shop crews even when the locomotive wasn’t fired up. He wanted to learn. Unfortunately Woody left us before he became an engineer, but I remember his dedication.
Another volunteer that is missed is Helen Reck. When I first started here Helen helped in the ticket office. At that time we didn’t have a cash register, just a cashbox. Helen always knew how much money was in the cashbox to the penny. After a particular busy day, I challenged her to race on counting out the cashbox. I used a calculator and she hand counted and she beat me! In the area between the depot and the freight house is a yellow rose planted in her memory.
We have two different types of diesel locomotives here at the railroad. One was manufactured by General Motors and the others manufactured by ALCO. Every time we fire up one of the ALCOs I think of Darrel Hall. The ALCOs were Darrel’s babies. He kept them running. As Darrel got older he couldn’t climb and work on the locomotive. One day, the locomotives needed some simple maintenance. Darrel came to the engine house as Steve Leith and I worked under his tutelage. He was still contributing and still sharing his knowledge and Steve and I got the locomotive maintained.
A fixture at our volunteer banquets for years was Tom Lake. A machinist for the Nevada Northern, Tom was generous with his knowledge too. But it was a tradition at the end of the volunteer banquet that Tom would commandeer the microphone and tell jokes or read a Robert Service poem. Unfortunately that tradition ended with Tom’s passing.
In 1986, when the first excursion trains ran, you had a bunch of eager volunteers that had no knowledge of how to actually make the locomotives go. Luckily there was TJ Lani. TJ worked on the steam locomotives during the day. He was very willing to share his knowledge and he even taught a woman, Lynn. I mention that because TJ was from the generation where the woman stayed home and the man did the work. But Lynn worked hard and proved herself and TJ signed her off as an engineer. TJ’s funeral was on a Saturday. The locomotive for that day was 93. TJ was instrumental in getting Locomotive 93 back in operation. The excursion train stopped overlooking the cemetery, when TJ was interned, the engineer pulled down on 93’s whistle cord for one final salute.
Annually at the volunteer banquet we read the list of the all of the volunteers who have won awards over the years. We gave a very special award, Herding Sheep with a Locomotive to Richard Barnes. Richard was another volunteer who moved to Ely because of the Nevada Northern Railway. Richard loved the steam locomotives. He loved lighting them off. At the time the first person in lit off the locomotive. Al also like lighting off the locomotive. So it became a contest, to see who would come in first Al or Richard. They started at 6:00 am, then 5:30 am, 5:00 am, 4:30 am, 4:00 am, 3:30 am and finally the first one came in at 3:00 am. Then I put my foot down and we just alternated who fired off the locomotive. If I go into the engine house early in the morning, I still feel that Richard is there wanting to fire off the locomotive.
Railroading is dangerous, the job has to be done the right way every time, there are no do overs. Most people who look at a steam locomotive don’t understand the danger. Steam locomotives are rolling pressure vessels and they can explode. Every crew member who goes into the cab knows this. One day Brett Covlin was the fireman on the excursion train. Locomotive 93 was on the point and the train was heading towards the tunnel. Unbeknownst to the train crew, a railroad car loaded with ties had gotten away from the contractor at Keystone. The railroad car sped down hill at incredible speeds. It shot through the tunnel as Locomotive 93 was approaching and slammed into 93 with such force that the tender broke free and slid into the cab. Brett was in that cab, Lynn was the engineer. Brett and Lynn did their job and shut down the locomotive before they exited the cab. After the wreck, Brett still volunteered until he too became one of the Ghosts.
The railroad operates today because of a long line of dedicated people. If you go into the machine shop you’ll see the engine board with the names of the previous engine crews. Names on that board still have ties to the community, like Reck, Bath, Cahill and others.
Yes our nickname is the Ghost Train of Old Ely and yes we do have ghosts. As you walk the grounds, look at the locomotives and watch the people you can see signs of the impact that our “ghost’ have had on the railroad. It’s not the locomotives or cars but as the sign says, “Railroading is people serving people” Even if they are no longer with us.
Down the Tracks at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum
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.
Museum, gift shop and ticket office hours are: Mondays through Thursday 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, on Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 am to 6:30 pm, Sundays 8 am to 4 pm. We are closed on Tuesdays.
Currently, our steam-powered excursion trains operate on Fridays at 4:30 pm, Saturdays at 1:00 pm and 4:30 pm and Sundays at 9:30 am. Tickets can be purchased on line at www.nnry.com or call the ticket office at (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.
If you are interested in joining us in preserving the Nevada Northern Railway, memberships in the museum are available at these levels: Active $30; Contributing $50; Centennial $100; Sustaining $250; Patron $500; Friend $1000; Supporter $2,500; Benefactor $5,000 and Leader $10,000. Please contact the museum for more information.
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.