Teen RailCamp 2007
26 September 2007

by Mark Blackwell

One has to ask, how does a child fall in love with trains? Was it the Thomas the Tank Engine movies and toys? How about having family involved with railroading in its glory days? Or maybe those trips to the steam tourist railroad near home? Well, for me it was a lot of all three.

I became involved in with the hobby as most of us do, as a child, and soon became aware that it would become much more than a hobby. I started riding on the Wilmington & Western around two years of age, and now am very proud to say that I am a volunteer in my spare time. I was then told about the camp from a friend of mine at the railroad. As soon as I heard of a place where teens can go to perform railroad operations like they did in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I was hooked! I attended the 2006 program in Scranton, Pennsylvania at Steamtown National Historic Site, which was very nice.

I then heard about the program in an old western mining town where native steam trains still rumble past the mountains and through the White Pine Valley of Nevada. Well, I immediately contacted Barry Smith, head coordinator of the RailCamp program. I said, "Barry, I heard about this camp in Nevada. Is there any chance you can get me out there for the 2007 program? Well, you can imagine what he was thinking. Probably something along the lines of, "I just got rid of this guy, and now he wants me to put up with him again in 2007?! Well, in the end Barry was very brave and got me out to the camp. A few of my friends from the 2006 program were also attending: Mark Darling, who works at the Wilmington & Western; Dan Morgan from New Jersey; Eric Steinburg from New York State; Alysia Brown from Pennsylvania; and Devon Parsons from Florida.

So, at four o'clock a.m. on Monday July 30, Mark, Dan, and I headed to Baltimore International Airport for the 3,000-mile flight to Las Vegas, Nevada to meet up with the rest of the campers. We also met up with Barry and Gary Yanko. Gary joined the program at the start of the camp in Nevada as the assistant coordinator. We then got into the vans that would take us the remaining 300 miles to Ely, Nevada. We finally reached Ely around six o'clock p.m. Pacific Time. At dinner, we enjoyed a BBQ chicken dinner, got acquainted with the rest of the campers, and caught up on lost time with old friends.

After dinner, it was down to business. We were told the most important word of the week: safety. We would have a safety meeting every morning before we began our daily operations. We also received our gear consisting of hardhats, notebooks, Nevada Northern Rule books, and our blue caps. Barry then introduced us to Mark Bassett, executive director of the NNRy, and Joan Bassett, curator, dispatcher, and operations assistant. Our other counselor was Joe Virgona, who attended the adult program at the Nevada Northern.

In need of a good night's rest, we headed to our hotel, the Four Sevens, on the other side of town. Funny, my roommate turned out to be my friend Mark Darling from work. We would be in bed every night by eleven o'clock and we would get up at six every morning to head to breakfast at the Hotel Nevada. Immediately after breakfast, we would head down to the East Ely Depot.

Monday morning began with an introduction of some of the NN employees and volunteers and a tour of all fifty buildings and the rail yards. Mr. Bassett calls the tour the "Death March" because it lasts for nearly three hours and you walk the entire property. My favorite part was the machine shops because I really like working on big machines. After the tour, we broke for lunch. The lunches for the week would be catered by the local city drug store. They provided us with fresh sandwiches, chips, fruit, and beverages for the duration of the camp.

Following lunch, we headed out to the Robinson Mine, which is why the Nevada Northern began operation. They annually produce 125 million pounds of copper and 50.000-60,000 ounces of gold. We were then taken for a closer look by van into the "pit" style mine by Mr. Steven Leith. We passed several monster size trucks on the roads in the area. These trucks are Cat 93Cs. The mine owns and maintains sixteen of them. The tires alone are nearly ten feet in diameter and they can hold a 260-ton load! These trucks replaced the trains powered by tank engines from the early to mid 1900s, which hauled the copper out of the pits on switchbacks and would zigzag up the side of the pit. The tour was a great experience and we were all in awe afterwards.

After the tour, we headed to the Steptoe Valley Inn, a local bed and breakfast operated by Paul and Ronnie Branham. It is located about one block from the depot, and we would be eating the majority of our dinners here. They fixed us a great variety of courses starting nights with a salad and then a filling main course topped off with dessert. We then walked down to the depot where we participated in a show-and-tell. Each camper got up and told us about their special interests in railroading, and their family's railroad history. There were slides, albums, old SP Conductor badges, and such. Everyone got a chance to really get to know everyone. We then headed back to the motel to relax and talk with friends, old and new. We were all anxious to start operations, as we would be broken into three groups for the next three days.

Following breakfast on Wednesday morning, we headed down to the East Ely Depot. My group went directly to operations for the day. We would be serving on the train crew all day. The four in my group, Eric and Tom from California, Dan, and I, met the conductor, Gene Rogers. Gene took us to the coaches where he taught us how to inspect them before operation. We checked the journal boxes to make sure the friction bearings had a sufficient amount of lubricant for the trips. We made sure all air hoses were connected and the angle cocks were open to allow airflow between cars to allow the brakes to function properly. We then took turns coupling the locomotive to the consist and hooking up air hoses using proper hand signals. Afterwards, we had our daily safety meeting. Gene explained the "game plan" for the day and when we had written permission from dispatch to occupy the main line.

We then completed a brake test. You must get a "full service application" of at least 20 PSI out of the brake line, walk the train to check for any leaks, and see that all brakes are applied. Then you call for a release and check to see that all brakes are released. We climbed aboard for the nine-thirty departure for Lane City. The trip normally goes as far as Keystone, but they are replacing a small bridge along the line that we can't cross. Throughout the trip, we kept an eye out for hot boxes (sticking brakes), assisted conductor Gene in switching, and took cab rides in the ex-Southern Pacific SD-9.

We took a quick lunch break around twelve and then headed out to start boarding for the afternoon trip on the "Hiline" to Adverse. We took part in the same activities, except a little more efficiently now that all of us warmed up to it. Conductor Gene warned us to look out for rattlesnakes by the rails. Apparently, they like to lie against the sides of the rails to keep warm. Luckily, we didn't see any all week. Later, we were treated to a tour of the dispatching tower back in Ely. Joan Bassett taught us the proper way to use the radios as well as how to fill out a track warrant, similar to the East Coast Form D's, which give trains permission to occupy tracks at a certain time.

We then met up with the rest of the groups to head to the Steptoe Valley Inn for dinner. We would be eating a very traditional dish this evening. The meal was called a pasty (pah´-stee), which the local miners used to pack for their lunch. It is meat, onion, and potatoes that is wrapped in a dough and baked until flaky and golden brown.

After dinner, we headed back to the depot to meet a gentleman named Bill Withuhn. Bill works for the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. and had tons of railroad stories to share with us. He has worked on many different steam locomotives throughout the U.S.A. and he led us on a Q&A session. He would also be teaching us about train handling and the proper way to fire a steam locomotive using a mock-up of one of the NN's locomotive fireboxes. Back at the hotel, we settled down enjoying the air conditioning and television.

Thursday morning was definitely one of the best days of the program for my group. After breakfast, we went down to the depot and broke into groups. My group was in the machine shops this day. We first met Chief Mechanical Officer Marty Westland. Marty showed us how to use a lathe that could cut threads to one hundredth of an inch! It was really interesting. Afterwards, a younger employee came over from the engine house and said, "Hey, you guys want to fire up No. 40?" Well, of course you could imagine the answer from us after we recuperated from the shock. We built and lit the fire, greased all bearings and fittings, washed it down, polished brass, oiled and started the air pumps and generator, and . . . well, just about everything imaginable.

We stopped for a really quick lunch and then got back to work. We did final lubrications and an air brake test and then pulled her out of the engine house. We did some more firing and added coal to the tender. We were now ready to couple up. We headed up to do a blow down to get the sediment out of the boiler and coupled onto the train. We were surprised to hear it was already time to go!

We got back to the motel and got all scrubbed up. I grabbed my swimming trunks and towel because we were heading out to one of the famous Nevada hot springs! The springs come out of the ground at about 200 degrees, and you can see all of the rocks are different colors. It cools off to about 90 degrees where you can swim in it, and is almost like a small pond. Well, before we knew it, the night was over and we slept for most of the ride back.

Friday was the most laborious day for our group because we were on the track gang. A few others and I got up extra early to go and fire up No. 40 again so we were off to a great start. Afterwards, we met up with the gang. We were starting by digging out rail joints at a crossing on the far side of the yard. We all got to cut the bolts off with a cutting torch, which is very hot-especially on a ninety-degree-plus day. We replaced the joints just in time for the nine-thirty train to cross them on their way to Adverse. We then dug out the rest of the crossing so that the train's flanges could pass through easier.

After lunch, we went out on the Hiline to replace some old ties at a speed restriction. We hauled all of the equipment out on a Hirail truck. Our gear consisted of spike mauls, picks, spikes, ties, track jacks, spike pullers, and tie plates. We walked all of the tools down to the tracks, which were in a rock cut where we would be working. We were just in time to see the afternoon train returning from Adverse on its way to the depot. After it passed, we got to work. We replaced three ties in about forty-five minutes, the old-fashioned way. We dug them out, put in new ones, and hammered spikes in. I found I was actually pretty good at it and I did quite a bit of driving that afternoon. By this time, we were being called by Joan Bassett, the NN dispatcher, to return to Ely. We got so involved with work she had to call a few times! So we headed back to the depot and met everyone at the Steptoe Valley Inn for dinner.

After dinner, we went back to the depot to watch two movies. One was on the process of making ore into copper and the other was on a photo shoot that is held every winter at the NN-Winter Spectacular, where they have all of their locomotives out to do photo freights in the snow. Then, we returned to the motel to hit the hay.

Saturday was out last full day at the NN. A few others and I once again got up extra early to go fire up No. 40. We then rode with them over to the depot to hook the steamer up to the train. We would be getting a cab ride later. We then went to the ore yard where we got to be brakeman and engineer to do freight moves. This was a great experience for me because this is what I plan on doing for a career. We had new groups. My group consisted of Alysia, Eric, and Devon. We applied and released hand brakes, threw switches, gave hand signals, gave brake applications, pulled the throttle, and much more. I had never actually operated a locomotive before, but watching from the fireman's seat at my railroad back home, the engineer actually thought I had done it before!

We stopped for lunch and then had our safety meeting with the rest of the train crew before our cab ride. Devon and Eric took the outbound trip and Alysia and I took the inbound. We all got to do switching during the run around of the locomotive. Then we climbed into the cab. We got to do some firing and the engineer let me blow the whistle at the crossings. We really got to see how demanding a locomotive can be on the move. When we got back, we were covered in coal dust and grease. We all got to climb on front for a group photo, and we really fit the part of old time railroaders. We were then treated to a root beer float from the city drug and took a tour of some of the historic landmarks in town.

We then went to dinner at the depot. We received rewards for completing the camp as well as a NRHS complementary membership and pin. Joan also gave us a copper NNRy centennial coin. Afterwards, we all got turns riding one of the museum's speeders built by Kalamazoo and a velocipede, which is a bike with a third wheel used in the past for track inspection. It was now dark so we headed to the motel to pack up our bags and have a last get together in our room. Tonight, we would be surprised by fireworks celebrating the town's centennial, which was built around the NN. So, we had a very nice closing to the week.

Sunday we got up early to go to breakfast with Mark and Joan. We discussed any changes we thought could be made. There were just about no comments because it was such a nice program. Then we all piled into the vans to ride down to the depot one last time, rode the train out to Lane City, and then said out final goodbyes to our friends. They invited us all back anytime, and we are actually planning a small group vacation out to there next year.

We really enjoyed the Nevada Northern RailCamp, and only wished it could last longer. We all went our separate ways at the airport for a sad farewell. We still get to talk frequently, though, and we hope to continue friendships with each other.

The RailCamp program is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. After experiencing both camps, I would have to suggest the Nevada Northern camp. If you have a love of trains or historic preservation, be sure to enroll in RailCamp. The NRHS offers two adult camps at the Nevada Northern Railway and one at Steamtown NHS. They also offer the Teen RailCamp program at Steamtown and the NNRy.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Barry Smith, Gary Yanko, and Joe Virgona for putting up with us all week and taking the time to plan the camp. A big thanks to Barry for getting me the scholarship as well. Thanks to Mark and Joan Bassett and all the NNRy staff and volunteers for all the time they took out of their normal schedules to put on RailCamp. I would like to thank all of the volunteers at the Wilmington & Western Railroad for doing all they have for me to continue in an early railroad career. And lastly, but certainly not least, I would like to thank my grandfather, Claude Blackwell, for getting me interested in railroading and helping me continue my dream.

n.b. The RailCamp program is a joint undertaking between the National Railway Historical Society and the Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark. This was the second year that RailCamp was held in Ely. Plans are underway for the 2008 session.