By Mark Bassett and Shadrach Michaels
Special to The Ely Times
In 1956, the Nevada Northern Railway purchased a new Pontiac Chieftain Station Wagon from the Fairmont Motor Car company.
At first glance, it looked like any other station wagon, but on closer inspection, you would see small railroad wheels under the car. These special wheels allowed the car to operate on railroad tracks while still enabling normal road travel. That original ‘56 Pontiac however, disappeared after many years of use, was lost and forgotten, becoming another part of the long history of Ely’s National Historic Landmark Railroad. Until five years ago.
In 2015, history and opportunity came knocking in the form of a found black and white image of that ‘56 wagon, a HY-RAIL, sitting on the rails at the Ely depot, sparking imaginations.
Taking this image from the railroad’s past, NNRY President Mark Bassett along with the Railway Museum’s Board, set out to make the idea of converting a found, reclaimed and beat up 1956 Pontiac Station Wagon into a fully operational and museum quality recreation of the original Nevada Northern Railway HY-RAIL MOTOR CAR No. 18.
Piecing together details from old pictures and an archive of 60 year old purchase orders and shipping receipts the project began.
After thousands of hours of hard restorative work over the last five years, the HY-RAIL MOTOR CAR No. 18 has returned home to Ely. Following this process and brief showcase display at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, the station wagon will now be used to help add to the history and the heritage of the railroad. Like 60 years ago, HY-RAIL MOTOR CAR No. 18 will be considerably more economical to operate than a train. Today the automobile will live long into the future as a showpiece for visitors of the museum.
The way in which a HY-RAIL operates is simple, one merely drives the car to a railroad crossing, angle the car so it’s on the track, drop down the small railroad wheels and lock them into place allowing the vehicle to drive down the track. Once you arrive at your destination, drive off the railroad at another crossing, raise the railroad wheels and you are on your way. With this extraordinary vehicle, now everyone has the opportunity to drive a piece of history down the rails.
About the same time the museum received a donated ‘56 Pontiac, the State of Nevada announced a grant program for tourism projects. Applying, the NNRY received $20,000 and then sought additional assistance from the Great Basin Heritage Partnership through their grant program, receiving an additional $35,000. After raising additional funds from hundreds of museum members and private donors, and getting generous assistance from the E.L. Cord Foundation along with Travel Nevada, Bassett and the railway set off to make history come alive again.
Hauling the station wagon from Ely to Doc Bailey Construction and Equipment in San Lorenzo, California, and then back to Al’s Rod and Custom, Inc in Sparks, the Pontiac Station Wagon received a full sandblasting strip down, rebuild, overhaul, and HY-RAIL assembly and refurbishment.
Once completed, the car made it’s feature debut in the 2019 Nevada Day Parade in Carson City. Now, the one-of-a-kind track-ready automobile can be enjoyed by everyone who lives in and visits Ely, Nevada.
The ultimate experience is to operate the Hy-Railer from behind the wheel! Similarly to the Museum’s “Be the Engineer” amusement option, patrons of the museum can now choose to “Be the Driver”. The price to “Be the Driver” is $277 for members and $325 for non-members. You can have up to two people go with you as passengers. Rider tickets in the Hy-Railer are $85 for members and $100 for non-members.
Visit the Nevada Northern Railway’s website or their office for driving schedules and availability. As a permanent addition to the Nevada Northern Railway’s curated collection of historical vehicles, Ely and White Pine County can celebrate that the only ‘56 HY-RAIL Pontiac Station Wagon left in existance resides right here at home.