Courtesy photo
Locomotive 81 as she appears today. Her boiler has been stripped down to the shell. The last time she looked this way was a century ago at the Baldwin Locomotive Works.

Courtesy photo
Locomotive 93 is undergoing her 15 year inspection and rebuilt in the original Nevada Northern Railway 1907 engine house.

By Mark Bassett

The First National Bank of Ely has challenged the Nevada Northern Railway Museum to raise $30,000 by December 31, 2017. The Bank will match all donations and memberships – dollar for dollar until then. If you become a member of the museum at the $50 level, the bank will match your contribution and we will receive $100! Already a current member, you can make a donation and the bank DOUBLE your donation too! It’s that simple!

People come to Ely from around the world to see our steam locomotives in operation. The simple fact of the matter is that ticket revenue alone, will not keep the steam locomotives in operation. 60 years ago, nearly brand new steam locomotives were cut up and scrapped by the railroads. Why? A steam locomotive is very expensive to operate, it is not very efficient and it’s dirty.

So why bother keeping this 19th century technology alive in the 21st century? A steam locomotive comes alive, when you put a fire in it. As one of our visitors said, “It’s like waking a sleeping dragon.” Yet, a steam locomotive harkens back to when we as a nation built things that lasted! Both of our steam locomotives are over 100 years old and are still in operation. (Locomotive 93 will roll out the door in January.) These steam locomotives are still doing today, what their designers and builders intended over a century ago; they are still hauling trains. How long will your newest electronic device last?

Keeping our steam locomotives in operation is an ongoing challenge. Recognizing that challenge, the museum started the Phoenix Dare to insure that we can keep the steamers operating. 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 railroad to a ‘T’.

Steam locomotives go through the same cycle as a Phoenix. A steam locomotive’s service cycle is fifteen years. At the end of this cycle, a steam locomotive is removed from service or you could say that she dies. That’s what happened to Locomotive 93 in October 2016, she was removed from service because she hit the 15 year mark. She died. And the rebirth cycle started in February 2017.

Ironically, a Phoenix and a steam locomotive both die because of fire! Every time we light a fire in a steam locomotive, we consume a portion of it. But, just like a Phoenix, a steam locomotive can be regenerated or reborn to begin the cycle all over again! And just like a Phoenix, Locomotive 93 is very close to her rebirth for another 15 year cycle. She should roll out the door in January, in time for her 109th birthday!

Our next challenge is to get Locomotive 81 back in service. You might be wondering why? Why does the museum need to restore Locomotive 81 to operation? Isn’t having Locomotives 40 and 93 in operation enough? Why does the museum need a third steam locomotive, isn’t that overkill?

On the surface, it might appear so, BUT we’ve learned the hard way, if we don’t have an operating steam locomotive, visitors won’t make the long trek to Ely! Our year without steam was 2008. That year our ridership dropped almost 30% and even worse, our revenue dropped over 40%! We cannot, we must not, let that happen again!

We know in 2020, Locomotive 40 will go in for her 15 year inspection and rebuild. Based on her history, she is going to need a thorough going over and rebuild. This will take years and it will be incredibly expensive. That would leave Locomotive 93 as our only steam locomotive for perhaps two or more years. We just can’t risk it, we need two rock solid steam locomotives in operation. We need Locomotive 81 back in operation before then. If you grew up in Ely, you saw Locomotive 81 parked at the White Pine Public Museum next to Locomotive 93. Yes, she sat outside for 30 years, but then again so did Locomotive 93.

When we did the boiler inspection on Locomotive 93, we had our contractor take a look at Locomotive 81’s boiler while he was here. After his examination, he shared with me, “Mark out of all of your steam locomotives, 81 has the best boiler! It has very little wear on it. Also, I’ve looked at the valves and the running gear. The valves look brand new. And running gear looks pretty good too.” Conclusion, Locomotive 81 is in amazingly, good condition!

Here’s our chance to get Locomotive 81 back steaming once again! With your help we can do it, become a member or donate between now and December 31, 2017. If you do, The First National Bank of Ely will DOUBLE your contribution!

The Phoenix is stirring in Locomotive 81, let’s work together and have her reborn! To make become a member or a donation visit our website, give us a call or stop by the museum at 1100 Avenue A, Ely Nevada.

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, Pawn Stars and on PBS. For more information, call 775-289-2085, log onto or to get the latest news “Like” us on the Railway’s Facebook page.