That’s because the Nevada Northern Railway Museum is not your typical museum. William Withuhn, the Smithsonian’s late transportation curator, called the museum complex one of the “most complete, most authentic, and best cared-for” historic railroad sites in North America. Spread out over 56 acres on the edge of historic Ely, Nev., are more than 100 rail cars, 58 buildings and structures, three restored steam locomotives, one Internet-famous cat and countless artifacts that contribute to the site’s designation as a National Historic Landmark. It’s one of the few historic railroads in the country to achieve such distinguished status.
Railroad tracks were first put down in this remote stretch of the Nevada desert — located about four hours north of Las Vegas and 3½ hours southwest of Salt Lake City — about 116 years ago, shortly after copper was discovered in the mountains that surround Ely. At the time, the nation’s need for copper was booming as electricity and telephone lines spread across the country. Ely’s economy boomed, too, and a railroad was built from the mines just south of there north to McGill, where raw copper ore was processed, then on to Cobre and Shafter, where the finished product was handed off to massive transcontinental railroads for shipment to market.
In the 1910s and 1920s, dozens of trains would chug through Ely around the clock, taking raw ore to the smelter at McGill. The railroad also operated passenger trains to take miners to work and children to school. One train, the Steptoe Valley Flyer, ran all the way to Cobre, where passengers could transfer to a mainline train bound for the big cities to the east and west.
Passenger trains stopped running in 1941 after better roads opened up in the area, but the government regulator that oversaw the railroad required it to keep one passenger train — steam locomotive and all — just in case those newfangled automobiles didn’t pan out. That decision would have a big effect on the community a few decades later.
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Moving copper kept the railroad busy until around the 1980s, when demand waned and the mines closed. Almost overnight, the railroad had nothing to haul, so its owner, the Kennecott Copper Corporation, shut it down in June 1983. The busy little rail yard in Ely, which had hummed with the sounds of trains coming and going day and night for about 77 years, fell silent. The closure of both the mine and the railroad spelled trouble for the town.
“The plug had been pulled on the town, and they were scared, because if you look at the history of Nevada, you’ll see a lot of towns that died when the mine closed,” Bassett said. “The people of Ely knew that if they didn’t do something, the town might just dry up and blow away into the desert.”
Although there was no way for the town to reopen the mine, some community members thought reopening the railroad and running excursion trains reopen could help attract tourists. They approached Kennecott about donating some track, locomotives and cars. Instead, the company gave the town almost everything, including that old passenger train that had been stored back in 1941. In May 1987, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum opened for business, with locomotive No. 40 — a 4-6-0 steam locomotive built in 1910 for passenger trains — leading the way.
Initially, the museum’s volunteers were primarily interested in running train excursions for locals and tourists. But as the years went on, they realized that Kennecott had given them something pretty special. Due in part to the area’s remoteness, much of the railroad and its facilities were never upgraded. When updates did come along, as when modern diesel locomotives arrived in the 1950s, the old equipment was just pushed out of the way instead of being scrapped.
The Nevada Northern employees were also pack rats. Along with railroad equipment, the Nevada Northern has what it believes is one of the largest and most intact collections of corporate paperwork anywhere in the country, with documents dating back to the construction in 1905 and 1906. “They didn’t throw anything away, ‘ said archivist and trainmaster Con Trumbull, the man tasked with sorting through the museum’s artifacts. “When you’re here, you’re really stepping into a time warp, and you’re able to see what a railroad looked and felt like in the 1920s and 1930s.”
To maintain that “time warp” quality, the organization doesn’t rope off exhibits or put up “Keep Out” signs; Visitors can wander the grounds as they please and watch up close as workers maintain the vintage steam locomotives. That unusual access is what Bassett loved about the place when he first visited in the late 1990s and why he quickly came back as a volunteer. In 2002, he became executive director and president of the railroad.
Bassett said maintaining that type of unfettered access is challenging at times, but it’s something he believes is important. Once visitors arrive at the museum — after buying a ticket at the depot — they receive constant safety reminders: to stand back at least six feet from moving equipment, to not climb onto anything and to be aware of their surroundings. The message is even incorporated into the railroad’s logo.
Who needs a railroad museum? You can ride these circa-1870 rails yourself.
One of the highlights of any visit to the Nevada Northern, though, is the train ride. On most weekends from March until December, and daily from spring until fall, visitors can take a ride through Robinson Canyon, along the same route that copper ore traveled a century or so ago. Vintage steam locomotives power the train, giving visitors a smoky but unforgettable experience.
On select Friday nights from May until September, the railroad runs a train out into the desert where it’s met by a park ranger with telescopes from nearby Great Basin National Park, known for having some of the darkest skies in the Lower 48. The excursions regularly sell out a year in advance.
The railroad employs about 20 people and many volunteers, who run and maintain trains, write grants, archive and more. However, the most famous on-site personality is a cat named Dirt. Born inside the locomotive shop in 2008, the orange-and-white cat was adopted by the workers and spends his days exploring the complex and welcoming visitors. He’s also built up a considerable following on social media. One look at Dirt and the reason for his name quickly becomes clear: Living inside an active railroad shop is a dirty affair, but there’s no doubt the cat is well cared for, as exemplified by the bags of treats everywhere and the affection he gets from workers.
Although the museum offers guided tours and interpretive signage, Trumbull said it’s important to remember that a visit to the Northern Nevada isn’t your typical museum experience. The reason to visit is to immerse oneself in a place as it existed a century ago — warts and all.
“When you visit the Nevada Northern, you’re going to smell coal smoke and sweat,” he said. We’re not fancy here. This is a blue-collar railroad.”
The bet made more than 30 years ago to turn an unused railroad into a tourist attraction is also paying off for the community. In 1987, the first year excursions ran, the railroad hauled about 4,000 people; Now, it regularly moves about 36,000 passengers annually. The railroad also hosts a number of experiences that draw visitors from around the world. Among the most popular is “Be the Engineer,” which allows participants to learn how to run a locomotive before taking it out on the line leading a freight train. (People pay nearly $800 to run the diesel locomotive and about $3,000 to run a steam locomotive on a 14-mile round trip through the sagebrush.)
Ely Mayor Nathan Robertson said the railroad has become one of the area’s largest attractions in recent years, and national chains have opened hotels in the area because of it and Great Basin National Park.
Although the early-20th-century steam railroad draws visitors to Ely from thousands of miles away, for Robertson and other locals, it’s just a part of daily life.
“Sometimes I’ll be on the phone at city hall and the person on the other end will hear the steam whistle in the background and ask, ‘What’s that?!’ and I’ll just respond, ‘Oh, that’s the steam train,’ ” Robertson said.
It’s a sound that’s irresistible to many, including the museum’s own staff. Trumbull, the archivist and trainmaster, splits his time between Ely and his family’s ranch in Wyoming. Because of the nature of archival work, he’s able to do a lot of it remotely, but the best days are the ones when he’s able to step back in time at the railroad.
“I have a 10-hour commute to work, and people ask me how I do it. I always say, ‘If this place wasn’t so special, I wouldn’t make the drive,’ ” he said.
Franz is a writer based in Montana. His website is justinfranz.com. Find him on Twitter (@jfranz88(and Instagram)@justinfranz).
Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall
- 501 Aultman St., Ely, Nev.
Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall opened in 1929. More than a place to stay, the six-story building has plenty of history of its own. It also features a full-service bar, casino and Denny’s restaurant. Rooms from $57 per night.
Prospector Hotel & Gambling Hall
- 1501 E. Aultman St.
Located close to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, this four-star hotel and gambling hall combines modern amenities with western flare. Its location along Route 93 makes it easy to find after a long day of exploring. Rooms from $109 per night.
Mr. Gino’s Italian Restaurant & Bar
- 484 Aultman St.
Mr. Gino’s is an Italian restaurant located in downtown Ely, across the street from Hotel Nevada. The restaurant features a wide-ranging menu, including pasta, sandwiches and more. Open daily 4 to 10 pm Entrees from $13.
Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant & Steak House
- 1501 E. Aultman St.
Located inside the Prospector Hotel & Gambling Hall, Margarita’s has an extensive menu as well as a traditional American fare. Open daily 9 to 11 am for breakfast and 11 am to 9 pm for lunch and dinner. Entrees from $12.
Nardi’s Family Restaurant
- 1204 E. Aultman St.
There’s something for everyone at this family restaurant with reasonable prices. Open Monday 8 am to 2 pm, Thursday and Friday 8 am to 4 pm, and weekends 6 am to 4 pm Closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Entrees from $8.95.
Nevada Northern Railway Museum
- 1100 Ave. A
The Nevada Northern features a 56-acre rail yard and steam train excursions on more than 30 miles of track in and around Ely. Museum open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Jan. 2. Check website for full schedule of train rides and events; trains generally run most weekends March to December and daily June to September. Museum admission $10 per adult, $5 per child. Guided tours $15 per adult, $8 per child. Train rides from $35 per adult, $10 per child ages 4 to 12, under 4 free. Prices increase for special event trains, including the Star Train and the Christmas-themed train.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.