Nevada Northern Railway
National Historic Landmark     Ely, NV 

"At the Throttle"

A Series of articles on the Nevada Northern Railway
By Mark Bassett, Executive Director, NNRY


The Queen of Steam — Part II
04 March 2005

No one should undertake the rebuilding of a steam locomotive lightly. The museum had experience. Using outside contractors we had successfully rebuilt steam locomotive 93. The use of outside contractors caused the cost of the rebuild to be stratospheric. The museum simply could not afford the same amount of money for the rebuild on locomotive 40.

Because the museum does run steam, the first step was to find a Master Mechanic that had steam experience. Jack Anderson fit the bill. Jack had rebuilt eight steam locomotives. In addition to steam knowledge, Jack was a machinist. Jack was hired by the museum in November 2003 and started working in January 2004. In March, after getting his feet on the ground, locomotive 40 was brought in and the project started.

To assist in the project, extra manpower from the Heber Valley Railroad was brought over and the teardown started. It was an ambitious project: first, we were going to rebuild a steam locomotive in house; secondly, we were going to have it done in eleven months by the February photo shoots; and thirdly, we had the regular maintenance of keeping an operating museum going.

By November, work had progressed to the extent that tubes were ready to go back in the boiler; the missing tubes were to de delivered right after Thanksgiving. It was going to be tight, but we thought we could have locomotive 40 ready for February.

Everyone took a break for Thanksgiving. The replacements for the missing tubes showed up as promised and it looked like we were going to make it by February. Then, without warning, tragedy struck on the morning of December 1. Jack called in sick; by lunchtime, he was dead. It was a grievous loss felt on many different levels for his family, for his friends, for his coworkers and the locomotive 40 project.

After Jack's services, it looked like the 40 project would be put on hold. Where the museum had knowledgeable workers, no one on payroll had ever totally retubed a boiler. So our first crisis was how to finish the project. The people who had made reservations for the photo shoots were called and told that locomotive 40 would not make an appearance and refunds would be offered.

From the museum's point of view, it doesn't get much worse than this. We had a historic steam locomotive torn apart. The person who had the knowledge to put it back together again had died. And now, there was the possibility that we would have to refund thousands of dollars at a time of the year when we had very little cash coming in. And the cash that was coming in was going out almost as fast as we could deposit it.

This is not the time to ask, "What else could go wrong?" Because something else can always go wrong and it did. I received a phone call from my father. He told me he was dying of cancer. I needed to fly to Chicago and see him, which I did. It looked like he could fight the cancer and that was his plan. After a weeklong visit, I was back in Ely.

While I was gone, an amazing process had started. Offers of help started pouring in; we were encouraged to continue the locomotive 40 project. The museum was put in contact with people who could help us put the locomotive back in service. Questions were asked, ideas were floated, and plans were made.

With the Christmas holidays coming, we had another challenge. There are different ways of putting tubes in the boiler that are based on railroad practices. Jack was going to use one practice that was an uncommon practice, but it was one that he was comfortable with and that he had used in the past. Unfortunately, we could not find the documentation of the practice. And without the documentation, we couldn't go forward on Jack's plan.

More phone calls, more head scratching, and a new plan was put together based on a more common railroad practice. But to implement this plan, we would need to do more work on the tubes and the metal sheets that the tubes would go in on the inside of the boiler.

Christmas was rapidly approaching. We had a plan but we still needed someone on site to oversee the process. Also, I was getting reports from my father that the cancer treatments were not going well.

In late December, we had a plan. We had Dave Grianer, from the Strasburg Railroad, who was going to take his vacation in Ely in January. Dave had just come off the Union Pacific 844 steam locomotive project and thought he would take a busman's holiday by coming to Ely. We were also able to hire Norman Comer, a boilermaker, to assist us in putting the boiler back together. Since the steam fraternity is rather small, Dave and Norm knew each other and had work together.

Dave advised us on how to get the tubes and the interior of the boiler ready for him and Norm. We would do this over the Christmas and New Year holidays and be all set for the New Year. Then on Christmas Eve, I was called and told my father's condition had severely worsened and I should make another trip to Chicago. He died on Christmas Day.

So I went back to the Chicago. The shop crew and volunteers worked over the holidays to get 40 ready for the installation of the tubes.

On January 1, Don Hepler, Robby Peartree, and I met and reviewed plans. A couple of weeks earlier, I had appointed Don the Chief Mechanical Officer of the railroad. With the assistance of Robby, an amazing thing had happened they had developed a plan to put locomotive 40 back together and get it ready to run in February. There would be no extra time and it would be a max effort, but it could just work. So we were off and running.

Norman showed up and shortly after Dave showed up and the work went into high gear. And it was work. The machine shop building is not well heated. So that means everyone needs to wear layer upon layer of clothing. Secondly, it is dirty work. And finally, it is back into the firebox and the smokebox to put the tubes in. In a couple of days, all of the tubes were in 40 and now they would need to be rolled into place.

As this was being done, everyday would be bring with it new challenges. We needed a machinist to make studs for the boiler. We called Heber and borrowed their machinist. We needed extra hands. We got on the phone and called volunteers in. Work start at o'dark-thirty and lasted until dark-thirty. Work went on seven days a week.

In addition to the 40 project, we still had a railroad run. Locomotive 93 was due for its annual inspection in January. We also ran excursion trains in January, which meant track inspections, digging out switches, and maintaining the passenger train. Then to top everything else off, we were in the middle of the $200,000 enginehouse stabilization project. And the White Pine Legislative Coalition had targeted the railroad as a prime project that needed funding from the State of Nevada. So a position paper and a presentation needed to be developed. And then the honor camp inmates were made available to us to do work around the railroad.

I don't think that the Nevada Northern Railway has seen a January quite like this one since the heyday of the copper mining. There were days in January when there were over fifty people working on the property. If you didn't get to the engine house early, finding a parking space was a challenge and it meant a walk.

But the number one question was when would locomotive 40 be ready? It was a question we didn't have an answer to.

 

(Continued next week with The Queen of Steam — Part III).

 

The Queen of Steam