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Nevada Northern’s Mark Bassett answers questions from Trains

By Jim Wrinn | April 15, 2021

Nevada tourist line executive director talks about pandemic operations, fundraising, and Dirt the Cat!

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Steam locomotive hauling short freight train in an arid scene. Snowcapped mountains are in the background.
Steam locomotive hauling short freight train in an arid scene. Snowcapped mountains are in the background.
Nevada Northern Railway steam locomotive 2-8-0 No. 93 steams along the railroad with a simulated freight load in this undated photo. Trains: Jim Wrinn

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is one of the best-preserved standard gauge railroads in North America. The former copper hauling railroad exists much like it did until regular operations ended in the early 1980s. Since that time preservationists have made a bold stand in the high desert hundreds of miles away from heavily populated areas. The “Ghost train,” as the NN calls itself, continues to roll on. Here’s what Mark tells us about the last year, current events, and the track ahead.

How’s the Nevada Northern Railway Museum doing overall after 1 year with the pandemic?

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is doing quite well. In 2020, we were closed for 2.5 months and did not run our Christmas Trains. We did tap into government programs. And because of the extremely generous support of our members, we actually ended the year with a small increase in revenue. We did make lemonade out of lemons. Since we were not running trains, staff and volunteers were able to focus in on the restoration of steam locomotive No. 81 and other projects like track.

No. 81 started 2020 as a boiler shell on wheels. By September 2020, all boiler repairs were made and the boiler tubes were installed. The big moment came when the locomotive’s cab installed. No. 81 started to look like a locomotive again. The big moment came Sept. 7, 2020 when the locomotive was fired up for the first time in 62 years. Then on Oct. 17, 2020 all three Nevada Northern Railway steam locomotives, Nos. 40, 81, and 93 were all steamed up together.

Of course trains run on track. Since the trains were not running, we took the opportunity to work on track. A lot of this work was tie work. One of the major projects was to install ties on the East Ely Junction switch. This is a core switch of the railroad that all of our trains go through. Having this switch repaired was a major benefit to the railroad.

Two steam locomotive lead a freight train upgrade through a hilly valley with snow-capped mountains in the background.
Nevada Northern Railway 4-6-0 No. 40 leads 2-8-0 No. 93 on a freight photo charter in arid central Nevada.

What would you have done differently going into the pandemic?

Nothing. We were constantly evaluating the situation and developing options. We closely monitor all of the government programs. We were one of the first recipients of the Payroll Protraction Program in Nevada. This allowed us to keep all of our staff employed.

Then in April, three supporters of the railroad came to me. They had put together a pool of $165,000. Their plan was to have the members match that amount to assist us make it through the shutdown. It was a challenge just to get the message out, but we did and the results were beyond heartening. In the middle of the pandemic, the members of the museum banded together and contributed an astonishing $189,698 in five weeks. This saw us through the shutdown.

Once we knew we were going to open, we wanted to address how we were keeping everything clean. So we did a tongue in cheek video on steam cleaning the train using No. 40 doing a steam blow down on the excursion train. The message was we are enhancing our cleaning procedures. Furthermore, I hired a person to help with the cleaning. Staff and volunteers jumped in to clean the train in between runs.

Rather than being reactive we worked diligently at being proactive to address all of the issues that were caused by the pandemic. We were restricted to operate at 50% reduced capacity. This caused scheduled train to sell out. When this happened, we added extras and some of them sold out, too. Financially, by the end of the year, we had a slight increase in revenue.

What’s the status of the restoration of [steam locomotive] No. 81?

We are about 87% complete on No. 81. She will be operating in time for the Trains magazine 81st anniversary celebration that we have planned in October. We will be doing break-in runs during the summer. We reached into the railroad’s and No. 81’s past and painted the boiler jacket green. The locomotive was delivered green to the Nevada Northern Railway in 1917. In the 1930s the railroad painted Nos. 93, 40, and 81 green. Since we have precedence for the green, it was decided to bring it back. In addition to the boiler jacket, the jacketing on the air pumps, cylinders, and the steam and sand domes also will be green.

What’s next for famous No. 40, the best looking Ten-Wheeler in the U.S., that ran out of tube time last year?

Once we finish No. 81, it’s on to No. 40. No. 40 is an official Nevada State Symbol. Her project is going to be expensive due to her history. She has issues from when she was delivered from Baldwin in 1910. Nineteen years after her delivery, three major events happened that caused the railroad to do only minimum maintenance on No. 40. First was Henry Ford. The workers of the copper company that the railroad served were well paid. Henry Ford made automobiles affordable. The workers purchased these newfangled horseless carriages. Once you have an automobile, you need roads. At this time White Pine County was the power house county of Nevada and had political muscle. The new car owners were demanding roads and the politicians delivered. The first hard surface road in Nevada went from Ely towards Salt Lake City.

As more people owned cars and with improved roads, the railroad’s passenger business started drying up. Then the Great Depression hit. The railroad’s passenger revenues were already down, and the Great Depression only made a bad situation worse. Since the passenger trains did not bring in revenue, the railroad only did minimal maintenance to keep No. 40 legal. On July 31, 1941, No. 40 hauled the last Nevada Northern Railway passenger train. Thankfully as part of the discontinuance the Public Utilities Commission ordered the railroad to save a passenger train. So, No. 40, Baggage/RPO No. 20, and coach No, 5 were kept.

What that means is that we have to not only do the boiler work, but also running gear work and tender work too. The restoration of No. 40 is estimated at $2 million.

What’s the status of the [freight] depot ownership?

The City of Ely and the Nevada Northern Railway Foundation give the East Ely depot and freight depot Buildings to the State of Nevada to create a major railroad museum here. The development of that museum never happened. The Foundation is asking for the two building be returned to the original owners the City of Ely and the Foundation. It is the Foundations intent to develop the freight depot as a museum to explain the Nevada Northern Railway and copper mining in the area.

Soot and dirt cover a tan-and-white cat with think fur.
Dirt the Cat. Trains: Jim Wrinn

How’s Dirt the Cat and his new sidekick?

Dirt is doing well. He is the grand old man of the machine shop and the engine house. He is literally beloved by thousands. In fact one of his fans has a college project that will measure the impact of Dirt on the railroad. The fan is from Scotland. DJ is Dirt’s new sidekick. DJ stands for Dirt Junior. DJ is a year old now and has really adopted to living and “working” at the railroad. He actually gave a tour to a family group the other day. The family followed him from the front door through the machine shop and engine house and then back to the door.

What big events should we anticipate this year?

The biggest event we have scheduled for this year is the return of Nevada Northern Railway No. 81. It was delivered here in April 1917. It was retired in 1958 and was put on outdoor display until 1990 when she was returned to the engine house. No one ever thought that No. 81 would ever operate again. Well, they were wrong, she will be back in operation this year and will be the star of TRAINS magazine’s 81 for 81 this October. Prior to that we will have No. 81 weekends to show her off. Additional events will be the return of our ever-popular Star Trains and the Sunset, Stars, and Champagne trains. These trains have a world-wide following and allow us to expand our appeal to a new market segment.

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