Ely, Nevada: April 25-28, 2012

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Now it was time to earn the Nevada sticker on our map. We were legitimate, having stayed in Boulder City and visited Las Vegas. We had missed the opportunity to do Reno and environs because of the threat of snow last October. But we owed the state more than we’d done.

The answer was to visit the two most prominent cities on its eastern coast border (sorry, that was an easternism). Ely – pronounced Eeely – was the first, a little over 200 miles north of St. George and the county seat of White Pine County. Our destination was a hotel/casino called Iron Horse, which offered RV spaces with utilities for a low cost. No reservations, but the deal when we got there was “find a site if you can and then come in and pay for it.” Since we do our best to arrive everywhere by early afternoon, we had our pick – and pulled right into one close in. In the lobby, we got our credentials and a discount certificate for their restaurant.

The Iron Horse was a little north of the town center. We had a small amount of local knowledge, but we wanted to be in touch with everything available. So we set out for the downtown Visitors’ Center. On the way through the heart of town, we passed between two public houses, the Hotel Nevada/Casino and the Jailhouse Motel/Casino. We couldn’t resist walking through the lobby of the Nevada and enjoyed the bronze cowboy as much as the atmosphere.

A delightful woman in the Chamber office listed the must-see items, and then she added that we should visit Renaissance Village, though it wasn’t yet open for the season. The Village is a collection of early houses and common buildings built up on the hill above Main Street that have been lovingly restored to represent the many nationalities that came to Ely for its mining opportunities. Each house has been adopted by a family that decorated and oversees it, in some cases by obtaining the furnishings of an earlier resident. The Slavic House honors Serbs and Croats and has furnishings from the Evasovic family. The Spanish House was adopted by Leonora and Phil Leibold; Leonora has Spanish roots here. Brenda and Al Moeller maintain the Italian House in honor of her antecedents who worked on the railroads and the charcoal burners. John and Jhan Steinhauer caretake the Asian House to honor the mineworkers, rail workers and farmers whose lives are indelibly linked to our country’s growth. And on it went. We couldn’t see inside, but we could see the devoted care that is going into the restorations.

We continued to focus on the lifecycle of this town. The community was created and influenced by the existence of its rich geology. Like so much of Nevada, the lodes were multiple, but the mother lode here is copper – then and now. Up to $2 billion of the metal has been shipped; it’s the heart of the largest copper district of Nevada.

For years, the smelting plants required charcoal, which burned much hotter than coal, to fire their furnaces. We passed beehive ovens on the way in, and now was the time to drive back about 20 miles south of town to study them. The Ward Charcoal Ovensremain as the time they were used in the late 19th century. Each oven required about 35 cords of timber to fill it, and it took about 12 days to convert the wood to 1,750 bushels of charcoal by controlled drafting of the fire. Each oven is 30 feet high and 27 feet diameter at the base; the walls are almost 3 feet thick (see pic below). Incidentally, the Ward mine primarily produced silver.

Back in town, our next visit was to the White Plains Public Museum (WPPM), housed in the old Ely Jail. What a valuable resource; The Museum’s exhibits helped us to understand the breadth and chronology of the area. We have certainly visited numerous exhibits of kind, and we have picked up more learning from each of them. WPPM was one of the better; it included two unique features – and a surprise.

We’ll start with the back room. The Giant Short Nosed Bear was discovered in the region in 1982, awakened after 12,000 years of hibernation. The remains of two were unearthed, one very complete. His cast is now on proud exhibit in this museum, along with the story of his rescue. Below are not only two pictures of his reproduction but also a file photo showing his relative size – obviously not a character to fool with! That wing also exhibited other fauna indigenous to the area.

Moving along, we learned about the early occupation of the Shoshone and the later influx of prospectors and explorers. The Pony Express passed through the area starting in 1860. The excavation of ore to extract its multiple resources ebbed and flowed during the late 1800’s, but when the railroad arrived in 1906, the boom began.

The museum itself had a collection of relics from most of these eras. For us easterners, who lived in New England and consider antiquity to be in the 17th century, it’s an interesting study in more compressed time. On the other hand, seeing development that happened during the time that our parents were born (mine were 1901-02) is a fascinating new epoch. There is an extensive medical exhibit, for example, and pictures below include a suppository maker and the last vestige of the premium bootleg liquor made in the 1920’s by Charley Johnson and Oscar Forman. Also shown is a fascinating model of the underground mine shoring used to make excavation possible. Geology and Indian baskets have their rightful place, of course. Catch the mag in the last picture!

But wait, there’s much more. Ely’s best-known citizen is a woman named Thelma Catherine Ryan. Born just outside of Ely on March 16, 1912, we went on to marry a guy named Nixon and became the First Lady of the United States. A big festival, which featured Julie Nixon Eisenhower as celebrity guest, honored the hundredth anniversary of her birth just months before our arrival.

Passing original jail cells on the way, we headed out the back door of the museum to discover both an old log cabin and the Cherry Creek Railroad Depot. Cherry Creek is located about 45 miles north of Ely and was a stop on the Nevada Northern Railroad. The depot, built in 1906, was an all-purpose facility. The front contains a ticket office, waiting room and baggage facility. The back includes a living room and bedroom for the agent, and a kitchen was added in 1917. When Nevada Northern ceased operation in 1983, the buyers of the property gave it to the WPPM on condition that it be moved. After thorough documentation, the move took place on a special trailer in early December, 1991.

On the outside of the museum is a big mural celebrating the Fourth of July. It is the first of a series of murals appearing around downtown, thanks to the efforts of the Ely Renaissance Society. Over two dozen others chart the community, including a cattle drive, the Shoshones, ethnic diversity, mining operations and the power of children to unite a community.

Not far down the road was my pièce de résistance site. The aforementioned Northern Nevada Railway(NNRy) had its major terminal in Ely, and it’s still very much alive.

The discovery of a major source of copper ore in the Robinson District, about 10 miles northwest of Ely, inspired Mark Requa, president of the Eureka and Palisade Railroad in central Nevada to buy two of White Pine County’s largest mines. Expansion followed, creating enough need for rail transportation. The Northern Nevada Railway was chartered in 1905; the initial line carried passengers and freight fifty miles north to Cobre, where it met the Central Pacific. It was celebrated with the driving of a Copper Spike by Requa in Ely. Additional track quickly created the Ore Line, carrying ore from area mines to the mill and smelter in McGill, a run of about 25 miles. The town of Ruth was formed to create a community for mine workers. In 1941, passenger service was discontinued; 1978 saw the end of the ore trains; and 1983 was the last freight run to Cobre. In the same year, Kennecott, which now owned the mines and the railroad, deeded the property, buildings and equipment in Ely to the White Pine Historical Railroad Commission, chartered to create and maintain an operating railroad museum.

The Northern Nevada Railway Museum is actively preserving the roots of American railroading in ways I’ve never seen before. And what they’re doing appeals to the kid in all of us. The museum part is the minor attraction. Sure, there are relics to be seen. The dispatcher’s office is very realistic. The weigh station in the middle of the yard has a mannequin who’s weighing each car as it goes by. All the essentials required for operation are there: over 60 buildings, including water towers, coal stations, repair facilities, etc., 32 miles of tracks, nine restorable engines (five in service), and over 70 pieces of running gear. But the real secret behind The Museum’s success is appealing to our need to connect to the past in a realistic way.

Throughout our journey, we have experienced time from today forward and/or from today backward. In the latter, we so often find teachers and physical sites where we get a real understanding of what our forebears had to do to survive and prosper. The more hands-on these experiences are, the more we respect them. Those challenging today’s world would likely think differently, but the true blessing of this journey for me has been the perspective derived through time.

The NNRy was hands-on. After a review of the close-in sights, I headed toward the main attraction: the Engine House. It is there that all of the engine repair, restoration and maintenance takes place. The best part: visitors are allowed to roam its interior at will, provided a staff member is there. I walked across six tracks to the shop and went in, meeting an employee who made sure I’d gotten the indoctrination. I had, and while I didn’t have the requisite long pants and closed-toe shoes, I promised to not fall into any of the repair pits nor blame them for grease on my clothes. He granted a dispensation.

The first room held a work in progress (diesel engine) and a mass of machine tools. Moving on to the big room, the museum’s biggest prizes loomed in front of me, attended by a half dozen other behemoths. I wandered up and down in awe. Here’s a peek at a few.

Steam No. 40, a 4-6-0 passenger engine, was purchased by the NNRy in 1910 from the Baldwin Locomotive Works. For the next 31 years, she pulled a coach car and a post office car on a daily round trip between Ely and Cobre, the northern limit of the line. She was then stored and pulled out for occasional celebrations, such as the 50th anniversary of the Line. Once The Museum was created, she was restored and activated as part of the NNRy operating line in 1987. But she was threatened with obsolescence in 2001, when the Federal Railroad Administration issued new boiler rules, to which she did not comply. No. 93 (below) was much easier to make compliant, and The Museum focused its efforts on her. But her hardcore fans wouldn’t give up and eventually found a way to bring her into compliance. On February 12, 2005, her whistle once again echoed through the Great Basin.

Steam No. 93 is a 2-8-0 built in 1909 in Pittsburgh by the American Selters Securities Company for service on the NNRy. In 1921, the Consolidated Copper Mines (Copper Con) bought the engine and tender. The NNRy, provided the thoroughfare and support in both eras. In 1961, it was donated to The Museum, where it was restored and put back into “service.” During the 2002 Utah Olympics, it was part of the steam train system. I have seen an article dated March 2011 indicating that No. 93 is being converted to electric operation because of the exhorbitant price of coal, with sound and visual; effects to conceal the conversion. Dirty pool, in my judgment!

The diesel fleet includes Nos. 104, 109 and 204. The diesel era blossomed in earnest in the 1950’s, with several companies in hot competition. The American Locomotive Company (ALCO) built No. 104 around 1956 as one of 383 Model RS-2 engines they built. ALCO stepped up the horespower from 1500 to 1600 late in the decade, and No. 109is the stronger RS-3. No. 204 represents General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division’s (EMD) SD-9 model, of which 515 were built between ’54 and ’59 with 1750 hp.

Other engines are in various states of restoration in the shop, including a rotary snowthrower. The yard is peppered with a snowplow engine and many cars in various states of renewal.

Now for The Museum’s revenue secret: everything is available to the public. You can ride numerous excursion trains for a couple of hours for $29, and you can ride in the cab or caboose for an extra charge. You can enjoy themed trains, like the Polar Express Train, Haunted Ghost Train, Fireworks Train (with or without BBQ), Chocolate Express, Oktoberfest (adults only!) or the Pizza and Beer Run — all for reasonable prices.

Got compelling lust and anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand in your wallet? You can take a steam or diesel engine for a spin. The engineer will train you (pun intended) on a 14 mile run up to McGill and you’ll drive it back. You can attach a caboose or one or more cars to your personal train. You can spend a week workin’ on the railroad — and eating and sleeping, too. You can rent a three car train excursion, either steam or diesel powered, for your party of up to 140 for two hours. Many food/drink options are available, up to a full dinner. You can rent the plaza or stay in a caboose overnight. Or you can join one or both of the special Winter Photo Excursions in February. I don’t know how many of these premier jaunts are sold, but on the day of my second visit, both a steam and diesel engine were retained for a “drive-your-own” run. Those two couples spent about $1.5k for the extreme pleasure. Frankly, I was impressed and encouraged that people were enough immersed in railroad history to contract these excursions.

These rentals were a boon for me. The Museum has a paid staff of about 14, and a volunteer corps of more than fifty. I befriended Angie, a young woman who joined the Museum as a gift shop coordinator and, after being recognized as Ms. Fixit, got a position on the shop staff and was now a steam locomotive brakeman. She invited me to return the following morning to watch No. 40 get fired up. I wouldn’t have miss it for the world.

When I arrived at 8am, they already had the fire glowing in No. 40 and were building steam. Angie gave me a tour of the cockpit, with its golden fire blazing in the pit. They planned to move both engines out around 11, so after absorbing the experience, I ran for coffee. Change of plans; when I got back about 20 minutes later, back, No. 109 was towing No. 40 out to the coaling station. They uncoupled, and No. 109 took off with her renting crew. No. 40 took on coal and water and waited for the return of the diesel before taking her guests on their sensational ride. I left, but we saw No. 109 returning to the depot from our campground, whistle ablaring. That’s Angie in the last picture below! Incidentally, no rolling stock can move without the federally required paperwork, including a route plan and a track usage permit.

Ruth has seen its ups and downs, but in 1994, a new mill was erected at the mine site,and since then, it has used huge equipment to extract about 40,000 tons of ore a day, yielding 800 tons of copper concentrate. It’s shipped by truck and rail to the state of Washington, from whence it goes to China or Japan for finished processing. (Gotta get those jobs back!)

One brief codicil. I’m not sure what your TV habits include, but we are afficianados of The History Channel, and three shows in particular: American Pickers, Pawn Stars and American Restorations. The last two are set in Las Vegas and are related; when the Pawn Shop takes in an antique that needs restoration, they give the job to Rick Dale. Now he has his own show, doing great work for walk-ins and referrals from old banks to locked safes. I’m telling you all this because Rick’s Restorations restored the industrial railroad vacuum, left, for the NNRy, and it’s back in use today.

We had one more special attraction to visit. In McGill, just a dozen miles north of Ely, there’s a pharmacy frozen in time. The town of McGill, where the ore was smelted, was a company town born in the 1910’s. The town was very segregated, both socially and economically, but there were two places that everybody patronized: the post office and the McGill Drug Store. Originally the Steptoe Drug Store, built around 1908, it became McGill Drug around 1915, and while it went through a succession of owners, the name stuck. Shortly after the last owner, Gerry Culbert, died in 1979, his wife closed the store. A decade later, the family donated it to the WPPM, with the proviso that it would remain intact. Its curator is Dan Braddock, a man who retired back to White Pine County and is on the Museum board. He has personally seen to it that the promises have been kept. It still displays the Ipana Toothpaste and Instamatic Cameras and Dippity-Do that filled its shelves decades ago. Meanwhile, the prescription and other records are yielding a treasure trove of history; people come from far and wide to use these archives to pose a family question that the files may be able to answer. Dan has always been accommodating to requests; in fact, he came down this day on ten minutes notice to open the shop and give us a private tour. And he dispenses ice cream from its fountain on special weekends!

I owe thanks to Howard Bohrn, Director of the White Pine Public Museum, for filling in details for me by e-mail. I wish I could go back to Ely and sit down and listen to him for about 48 hours. Ely ranks near the top of my list of the hundred stops we’ve made. I’ve asked him to read this post and critique it – and correct what are probably a plethora of errors. I piece together memory, photos of signs, collected brochures and local websites for each stop’s post. I traditionally discard all literature from each location (space gets tight in a RV), but I’m saving everything from Ely. Ely satisfiedour quest for another intimate look at the roots of our nation. If there is one thing we can honestly say, it’s that we’re not parochial anymore. That’s the most sensational aspect of this adventure.

But it’s far from over!

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