A group of Chinese travel agents view the night sky during the Nevada Northern Railway Star Train excursion on Wednesday, Oct. 16.
Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent

By Jackie Valley

The Nevada Independent

On a chilly fall evening, a train conductor clad in a flat-topped hat and gold-buttoned suit jacket inhaled deeply and delivered his customary greeting.

“All aboard!” he shouted, lingering on each syllable.

The announcement spurred action at the Nevada Northern Railway’s train depot in Ely, where a group of Chinese travel agents formed a line last week. Single file, they boarded the red-lit passenger cars bound for a desert area outside Great Basin National Park. They hoped to see a pristine nighttime sky free of light pollution and, therefore, full of stars.

Several years ago, this scene — international travel agents scouting an attraction in Ely (population: 4,000) — may have seemed outlandish. But not anymore. What started as an out-of-the-box idea has turned into an economic boon for this mountain mining town.

“We’re all surprised,” said Mark Bassett, president of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, which operates the Great Basin Star Train. “With us, we walk outside, we see the stars. That’s what we see. What we didn’t know is that 85 percent of the people in the country can’t see the stars.”

The genesis

The idea to create a stargazing-themed train ride came to Bassett about five years ago when he overheard a museum customer lament the distance to Great Basin National Park, which is a certified International Dark Sky Park. The national park is about 60 miles east of Ely. Bassett assumed other people might feel the same way, so he contacted the park about forging a partnership: He’d provide the train if the park provided rangers who could help with the astronomy.

They agreed. So the railway began offering occasional train rides that ferried passengers to a patch of desert, where park rangers and a telescope were waiting. 

The concept of a themed train ride wasn’t new in Ely. The Nevada Northern Railway offers a variety of train excursions — for instance, the Haunted Ghost Train, Santa’s Reindeer Flyer and a geology-themed ride. Interest in the star train built slowly over time, with the railway adding a few more rides each year. 

“Sometimes when we think out of the box, it takes us a while to get the public to join us outside of the box,” Bassett said.

But CBS News visited Ely in 2016 to film a television segment. It aired on Christmas Day, creating an initial buzz of traffic to the Nevada Northern Railway’s website. By March, all of the 2017 star train rides had been booked, Bassett said. The following two years eventually sold out, too. 

Then the Los Angeles Times published a travel story about the star train ride this July. The story shot across the internet like “wildfire,” Bassett said, igniting another round of interest. Suddenly, other media outlets wanted to do pieces about the attraction. CBS News broadcast another story about it in early August, lighting up the museum’s phone lines around 4:45 a.m. Viewers on the East Coast clamored to book rides.

“I showed up for work at 7:30 in the morning and all five of our incoming lines are going nuts,” Bassett said.

The financial effect

The 18 Great Basin Star Train rides scheduled for next year — on Fridays from May through September — have sold out. Each ride can accommodate 100 people, so with tickets costing $41 per adult, the excursion can bring in as much as $4,100 a night. Multiply that by 18, and the haul from ticket prices alone could top $73,000. 

That might be chump change in Las Vegas, the neon-lit tourist mecca roughly four hours south. But to Ely, it’s symbolic of a tourism bump. After all, consider the makeup of star train passengers: A star train ride scheduled for June has riders coming from Indiana, California, Michigan, Montana, Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, Alabama, Iowa, Tennessee, New Jersey, New York, Kansas, Utah, Missouri, Florida and Texas.

Local tourism officials estimate that 80 percent of the attraction’s guests stay overnight. Occupancy rates at local hotels fell between 80 percent and 100 percent this summer, said Kyle Horvath, director of tourism for White Pine County. He said the economic effect of the Nevada Northern Railway’s excursions, including the star train, is likely $2.5 million annually when factoring in overnight stays. 

A White Pine County tourist spends, on average, $113 per day on hotel, food, gas, tickets and trinkets, Horvath said. Visitor spending in White Pine County has been steadily increasing from $40.8 million in 2013 to $45.9 million last year, according to data from the Nevada Division of Tourism. But of Nevada’s 17 counties, White Pine ranks 10th in terms of visitor spending — indicating ample room for growth.

Horvath credits the star train’s popularity with giving free advertising to the entire county, where frontier history intersects with outdoor recreation opportunities. Viral news stories or videos have sparked interest in the region’s other offerings, he said.

“I think Ely has been able to keep its true Nevada nostalgia without having the feeling of being a depressed historic town,” he said. “If you really want to honor your history, write another chapter of it.”

Bassett, who has been president of the Nevada Northern Railway since 2002, is optimistic interest in the star train rides will continue. The railway’s annual ridership was 6,000 when he started but broke 16,000 last year. 

Eventually, he’d like to offer the excursion on Wednesdays, which wouldn’t conflict with Great Basin National Park’s own astronomy programs. While the glittering lights of Las Vegas attract millions of tourists each year, Bassett said Ely’s dark skies can draw its own set of visitors.

“Especially out west, every town has mountains. Every town has a fishing lake. Every town has bike paths,” he said. “But Ely is very fortunate in that we have dark skies. And this is something that is very rare and to be able to develop this is even rarer.”

Horvath put the region’s tourism potential a different way:

“Right now, in Ely, it’s like the sky is the limit.”

This article first ran on TheNevadaIndependent.com website.