Editor’s Note — At The Throttle was a weekly series of columns written by Mark Bassett, the President of the Nevada Northern Railway Foundation. Those columns are available on the Railroad’s website. Starting with this column, At The Throttle is back as a column in the Ely Times.)
What started out as an idea to offer more opportunities to bring tourists to Ely, has exploded into an incredible opportunity for the Railroad and the community. The Great Basin Star Trains are a joint program between Great Basin National Park and the Nevada Northern Railway. The trains include onboard festivities, coupled with viewing the cosmos through telescopes on our new Star Pad that is north of Ely.
Just about every small town has something to offer visitors such as fishing, hiking or biking. What really sets Ely apart from every other visitor destination, is that we offer our visitors a train ride to see the cosmos.
On a clear, moonless night in Great Basin National Park, thousands of stars, star clusters, meteors, man-made satellites, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye. The area boasts some of the darkest night skies left in the United States. In fact the park is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park. Low humidity and minimal light pollution, combined with high elevation, create a unique window to the universe.
The popularity of the dark skies has brought visitors from around the country and the globe to the Park. The partnership between the park and the railroad grew out of a comment made by a visitor. Their concern was that there was limited lodging near the park. They had an additional concern that if they could not get lodging there, they would be forced to drive 65 miles back to Ely on an unfamiliar two-lane highway at night.
To address the concerns of limited lodging and driving on a two-lane highway, Great Basin National Park and the Railroad kicked around some ideas. The one that we came up with was if visitors couldn’t make it to the park, let’s bring the park’s Dark Sky program closer to Ely and throw in a train ride too.
The end result was the Great Basin Star Train.
The Star Train takes visitors from the railroad depot in Ely to a bench area north of the community. Thanks to the support of the White Pine Tourism and Recreation Board, there is now a concrete star viewing platform there where the rangers set up a temporary observatory. Passengers ride the train to the observatory and see a beautiful Nevada sunset. Once the sun goes down, the passengers get off the train, walk to the telescopes and spend the rest of the evening viewing the heavens.
Now in its sixth year, the Great Basin Star Train has been discovered. It started with the program “CBS Sunday Morning” on Christmas morning 2016. During the program, they had a story on Great Basin’s dark skies with emphasis on the Star Train. Since then, the phones haven’t stopped ringing.
Building on that success, our Star Trains were featured in the Los Angeles Times in July 2019. That feature caused an explosion of publicity. The story shot across the internet. There was a story in Travel + Leisure – This Train Takes You to the Middle of Nowhere to Stargaze — and You Can Spend the Night in a Working Caboose.
Afar published Nevada’s Summer Stargazing Train Offers Views That Are Out of This World.
Then People.com, This Train Takes You to the Middle of Nowhere for Some of the Best Stargazing in America, and then I received an email from Conde Nast in Spain, letting me know that they had a story on their web site, Este Tren Nocturno Te Lleva a Observar las Estrellas al Corazón del Desierto de Nevada. Suffice to say that all this publicity sold out all of the Star Trains for 2019.
Then in mid-July, I received a call from a producer with “CBS This Morning”. He told me that they were doing a series on American Wonders and they wanted to do a story on our Star Trains. I said fine; the producer wanted to do the story on August 2, 2019. Great! We had a Star Train running then. Two days later, I received a call from Denise Rosch from Las Vegas Channel 3. She also wanted to do a story on our Star Trains on August 2nd.
So on Aug. 2, 2019, I was interviewed by Lee Cowan for CBS’s summer series “American Wonders”. The series was exploring places that make America wonderful. After I finished with Lee, I did a similar interview with Denise from Las Vegas Channel 3.
Because the 2019 Star Trains had sold out from all the publicity we had received in July, there were no tickets to sell when the news stories from CBS and Channel 3 broke. To a non-profit museum that was in the process of rebuilding a steam locomotive, missing out on that revenue was not acceptable.
Working with our partners at Great Basin National Park, we decided to post the 2020 Star Train schedule so at least people would have options.
The “CBS This Morning” episode aired on Aug. 7, 2019. Because it was a national story, the calls started coming in at 4 a.m. The phone rang off the hook all day long. Our ticketing system bogged down under the demand. People from across the county were purchasing Star Train tickets for a year out. One by one the trains sold out. Then Denise’s story was broadcast and that sold all of the 2020 Star Trains essentially one year out.
Now in the spring of 2020, with the country locked down because of the coronavirus, the Railroad posted the 2021 Star Train schedule to encourage people to plan beyond the virus. And it is working – people are already purchasing tickets for 2021.
In the long term, the Railroad plans on developing programs that take advantage of our dark skies. New for 2020 is Sunset, Stars and Champaign. This train features the opportunity to experience a marvelous western sunset and watch the stars come out, all while enjoying a relaxing train ride in Nevada’s high desert country.
The train takes you out into the desert, above Steptoe Valley, giving you a wonderful panoramic view of the sunset. On the return trip, enjoy looking up at the stars as they come out in the heavens above. Weather permitting, you should be able to clearly see the heavens with your naked eye. Bring your smartphone to help orient you to the night sky. Please note, we do not bring telescopes on this train. During the trip, enjoy a sparkly glass of champagne, included with your ticket fare. Additional glasses of champagne and other adult beverages will also be available for sale. For those non-champagne drinkers we have sparkling cider and other non-alcoholic drinks.
As part of our long-term plans, we want to explore other opportunities. We think we could offer the Star Trains on more evenings. Another thought is to move the Currie Depot to our star pad. This would accomplish two goals: It would save the structure and we would use it as a support building for the star programs. Truly, the sky is the limit for what we can do to develop our Dark Skies programs.