This railroad “museum” takes hands-on to a whole new level as YOU become the engineer of a real-life locomotive…
Traveling solo across US 50, affectionately known as the “Loneliest Road in America,” I was starting to get a little restless. The podcast I’d been using to pass the time was all spent and my affinity for “wide open spaces” was starting to wane. Thankfully, there’s no better person to help you shake off the lonesome highway blues than Mark Bassett, director of the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, Nevada.
I first met Mark on a trip, that for contractual reasons, I’m not allowed to tell you the purpose of the trip or use any pictures I took of the Nevada Northern Railway museum. He was so dang friendly and told the story of the railway so dang well, I knew I had to stop here again should I ever be randomly traveling through the middle of nowhere. Wouldn’t you know it, I found myself in the middle of nowhere again.
Mark met me at the train depot with the same friendly smile and firm handshake from our last encounter and began showing me around the rail yard and telling railroad stories of the past.
The track and trains for the Nevada Northern Railway were once the lifeblood of the area as the copper mines brought people in and the rich minerals out, and the Nevada Northern Railway Museum keeps the mining heritage of the area alive. Mark even made it a point to show me the passenger rail cars, stressing how these cars told the story of immigrants coming to this part of Nevada.
Unlike most museums, the Nevada Northern Railway doesn’t put the past behind a sheet of plexiglass but works tirelessly through volunteers and donors to bring the past alive. As we toured the rail yard, each building was not only a shrine to the past but a vital part of keeping the place operational.
Thanks to men and women like Mark, the original locomotives which served the copper industry for several decades still billow steam and coal smoke as the Nevada Northern Railway offers a full assortment of train experiences.
The bread-and-butter of the Nevada Northern Railway is its 90-minute train rides. From the Nevada Northern Railway:
Join us for a trip back in time when the iron horse ruled the rails. The Nevada Northern Railway is a living, breathing, operating historic railroad. Sometimes it’s gritty, sometimes it’s dirty, and sometimes it smells of coal smoke, creosote and sweat. Steam engines whistle off, cars clang as they are coupled together and wheels squeal as the locomotive is turned on the wye. It is real.
Pulled by a steam engine on weekends in the summer and one of their vintage diesel engines the rest of the week/year, your ride takes you from Ely, NV up to the Ruth Copper Mining District, passing through 2 tunnels and mountain grades.
Sometimes riding along isn’t enough… You can actually BE the engineer too:
We weren’t lying in the title to this story. The Nevada Northern Railway will actually let YOU be the engineer of one of these beautiful antique locomotive engines. You’ll have to study and take a short little test, but after that it’s time to be mentored a little in the enginehouse. You’ll learn the basics of how to move the locomotive and then you’re off!
Climb up into the engineer’s seat and receive personal instructions from your mentor engineer on controlling the throttle and brake. Once the basics are under your belt, the moment comes for you to sound the whistle, pull out the throttle, and head up the mainline toward the mines. You will be going through two tunnels and climb over 2.5% grades. Up toward the end of the line there is a wye. We will turn the locomotive and head back down to Ely, gaining hands-on experience with controlling a locomotive on a mountain grade. This is real standard-gauge main-line mountain railroading on America’s best-preserved railroad. You are at the throttle. You are the engineer. You are running a locomotive.
Well, that sounds awesome. And terrifying. (To learn more and book your trip, visit their website)
While I didn’t have time to engineer a locomotive this time (oh, I’ll be back to do that someday.), I did have time to take a peek inside the caboose the railway offers for overnight rental. A brilliant concept, the little caboose would be an absolute blast for young children and maybe a hearty grandparent. For slightly posher accommodations, they’ve also renovated the bunkhouse for overnight stays.
Of course, the Nevada Northern Railway also comes alive for special events like their Haunted Ghost Train in October and their Polar Express train rides around Christmastime.
Whether you’re just stopping by for a tour like I did or you’re going for the full experience of actually commanding a vintage steam engine, you won’t regret a single minute spent at the Nevada Northern Railway. I’ve been twice in 6 months, and I can’t wait to come back again.
Oh, we almost forgot… You might recognize our buddy Mark. He’s kind of famous. The Nevada Northern Railway was actually featured on American Restoration. Here’s a little more from the NNR: