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  Trip Report: The Nevada Northern Railway - Chapter 1
  Steam Operations
NNRY 40 on the Keystone Line
  From: The Nevada Northern Railway
Dates: July 1, 2007 Author: Nathan Holmes

The Nevada Northern was built between mid-1905 and late 1906 to serve the emerging copper mining industry around Ely, Nevada. The line stretches from the mines, located about twelve miles west of Ely, and the interchange with the Southern Pacific at Cobre, NV - a total distance of approximately 151 miles. In addition, there was a short branch from McGill Junction to McGill, and a nine mile branch - known as the Mill Branch, Adverse Branch, or Hiline - running from just east of East Ely to the smelter and mill on the hillside above McGill.

With the cessation of copper mining in the early 1980s, the railroad wrapped up operations on 21-Jun-1983. From 1985-1987, Kennecott slowly donated the line from Keystone to McGill Junction, as well as the East Ely facilities, to the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation. Abandonment was approved for the remainder of the line to the north, but before dismantling, it was sold to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. LADWP was interested in the route due to its proximity to a proposed coal-fired generating facility, and they wanted to assure the route would remain available for possible future construction and coal train use.

The route briefly returned to its mining roots in 1995, when Magma Copper started up production on the mines again. The railroad was reactivated as the Nevada Northern Railroad, which soon became the BHP Nevada Railroad once BHP bought out Magma Copper. The line was operated as far as the Union Pacific (formerly Western Pacific) interchange at Shafter, and soon purchased several old SP SD9s to haul concentrate. This operation was short-lived, though, and BHP ran their final train to the interchange on 9-Jul-1999.

Having no further use for the route after the original generating station was cancelled, LADWP sold the remainder of the line to the City of Ely for $1.5 million in 2006. The sale had been in a state of flux for several years due to a lawsuit by the V&S Railway - associated with railroad scrapper A&K Railroad Materials - and their attempt to seize the route. (Yes, these are the same folks who just bought the Towner Line from the State of Colorado.) However, judgments have been universally in favor of Ely, and the suit was finally dismissed in March of 2007.

Today, there are no freight operations (yet), and the Nevada Northern exists as an operating museum - an ore railway preserved with a large selection of its original equipment. It's really an excellent time capsule, and one of the best-preserved combinations of standard gauge railway and native equipment anywhere. They normally have two steamers up and running - NNRY 40, a 1910 Baldwin 4-6-0, and NNRY 93, a large 1909 Alco 2-8-0. In addition, they also have NNRY 81 - a Baldwin 2-8-0 - in the enginehouse awaiting future restoration. Their collection is not purely steam, however. Their collection also includes one of the very few Alco RS-2s still operating (KCC #105), a couple of RS-3s (one operational, the 109 - and one not so, the 13), some MRS1s, a few SD9s, and a whole assortment of other goodies - a steam rotary, a steam crane, electric locomotives, a Baldwin VO1000, and much more.

The route may still have a future in freight. There are new proposals for a coal-fired generating station along the route (though not involving the City of LA), and my understanding is that the copper mines are once again operating. Newspaper articles in 2006 and early 2007 indicate that the City of Ely is considering investing enough in the route to bring it back up to Class 1 or 2 track as a tool of economic development in the region. The story of the Nevada Northern as more than an operating museum may not be quite finished.

The railroad operates year-round, offering trips for both the casual tourist as well as for the railfan (such as the legendary winter photo freights). Both steam and diesel locomotives are used regularly, and their specific daily assignments are indicated on the railroad's website. For those interested in learning more, please see the official Nevada Northern Railway website. In addition, for those interested in the more historical railfan details of the route, there's Keith Albrandt's interesting Nevada Northern & Railroads of White Pine County website. (As a note, the depot is actually no longer owned by the Nevada Northern, but is actually the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum, a division of the Nevada State Railroad Museum. Still, it's where the NNRY operates their ticket offices and gift shop, and it's a key element to the East Ely yard.)

On my way back from California this last summer, I decided to make my first visit to the Nevada Northern. What follows is basically a very hot summer day (102+ degrees) in the operations of the NNRy, including steam (though the famous 93 was out of service with bearing problems) and a ride behind a rare Alco RS-2. Enjoy! Hopefully if I can get the time and cash together, I'll be back for one of the famous photo freights in February 2008.



Photo 1
Welcome to East Ely (pronounced: eee-lee), Nevada - home of the Nevada Northern Railway
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Photo 2
The Keystone Branch was built to bring ore from the mines above Keystone down towards the smelter above McGill. Trains bound for this line actually go out the east end of the yard, and then swing around the north side of the yard on a track built to bypass Ely. Here's NNRY 40 coming west on the bypass.
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Photo 3
The bypass line crosses a road - it's just sort of odd to see a steam engine and LED crossing signals.
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Photo 4
Immediately west of Ely is the famous tunnel shot, one of only two tunnels originally on the line (the other has been daylighted). This is the west portal, and an afternoon westbound headed for Keystone.
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Photo 5
Normally I'd be annoyed when someone pulls into my shot, but the Ford Model T is very appropriate with #40, a Baldwin 4-6-0 built in 1910. The car could actually be older than the locomotive, with the first Model Ts being produced in 1907, but this one is at least a 1911.
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Photo 6
Another look at the morning Keystone train and the impromptu period prop.
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Photo 7
The end of currently operated trackage is just west of where the line swings away from US 50 at Keystone Junction. The train pulls in the far end of the wye, and then backs out through the spring switch at the west end. This morning train is turned and ready to head for East Ely again.
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Photo 8
Passing a small siding about halfway back to Ely - my guess is that this is Lane, but I can't remember
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Photo 9
Approaching the US Hwy 50 underpass, the train is nearly back to Ely
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Photo 10
The NN track passes through Ely against the northern hillside.
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Photo 11
Once the train arrives back at the East Ely depot, the steamer is cut off and run down to the wye to be turned for the next run.
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Photo 12
A map of the East Ely yard, posted outside, west of the station.
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Photo 13
The entire East Ely yard is intact, with most everything the railroad had when Kennecott pulled out in 1983.
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Photo 14
Probably one of the most famous structures is the repair-in-place shed with the famous "SAFETY FIRST" on the end, located east of the engine house.
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Creative Commons License This work is copyright 2007 by Nathan D. Holmes (maverick@drgw.net), but licensed under a Creative Commons License. This allows and encourages others to copy, modify, use, and distribute my work for non-commercial purposes (only), without the hassle of asking me for explicit permission or fear of copyright violation. I encourage others to consider CC or other Open Content-style licensing of their original works.

All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 20D using either a Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS/USM or a Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS/USM.