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Preserving the Nevada Northern Railway, the last short line in Nevada

24 July 2003


The Nevada Northern Railway, approaching its centenary in three years, is a few steps further ahead of the torch as a result of a recent influx of funds. On 12 June 2003, Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn signed Senate Bill 507, the Capital Improvement Project Fund, which includes an allocation of $500,000 for "the purchase and renovation of 120 miles of Nevada Northern Railroad track."

The fate of the Nevada Northern Railway's main line, currently owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, has been the subject of some concern since the 2001 announcement by LADWP of its intention to sell the route between McGill Junction and Cobre, Nevada. However, the state funds earmarked for the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation (d.b.a. Nevada Northern Railway Museum, Ely, Nevada) to purchase the tracks have ameliorated some of those trepidations.

Both the leadership of the White Pine County Legislative Coalition and county residents themselves lobbied earlier this spring in Carson City for a total of $1 million in railway project funds, split equally between two bills. Assembly Bill 180 sought $500,000 for the purchase and restoration of the Nevada Northern Railway track. Assembly Bill 181 sought the same amount for renovation of the Nevada Northern's historic railway buildings and federally mandated boiler work on locomotive 40, their 1910 Baldwin 4-6-0. Although the Assembly Ways and Means Committee initially met the bills with some enthusiasm, they were both ultimately viewed as "political pork" and summarily killed. However, Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, aware of the potential economic impact of reopening the rail line, asked that the request to purchase the track for development of the railroad and possible reopening of rail freight service be added to SB507, the $218 million capital projects bill. The passage of SB507, which received support by more than two-thirds of each legislative body, was likely aided by its inclusion of $55 million for university and college buildings in Las Vegas as well as $32 million for the governor's priority psychiatric hospital project, also located in powerful Clark County.

The allocation by the state through the Commission on Economic Development will only partially fund the purchase of the Nevada Northern tracks. Although negotiations are in currently in progress, the LADWP purchase price is an estimated $700,000 (the scrap value is estimated at $1.6 million). A surety bond, indemnifying LADWP from any potential environmental reclamation obligations, adds an additional $200,000 in costs. Various licensing fees and equipment expenses are estimated at $300,000. The White Pine Economic Diversification Council approximates that an additional $1.3 million is needed to upgrade the track to Class 1 standards from Cherry Creek north to the Union Pacific interchange at Shafter, Nevada. These estimates, totaling $2.5 million, do not include funds for Phase II renovations that would include substantial work upgrading the track between Ely and Cherry Creek.

Project funds have currently reached $1,100,000: the state allocation of $500,000 through SB507; a HUD Community Development Block Grant of $250,000 administered by the Nevada Commission on Economic Development; $200,000 in USDA funding through a combination grant ($40,000) and no-interest loan ($160,000) to Mt. Wheeler Power obtained specifically for the project; and a $150,000 matching loan from Mount Wheeler Power. In addition, the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation will provide $190,000 of in-kind services. While these funds are sufficient to negotiate with LADWP for the purchase of the track, a grant in excess of $1.2 million to fund the Phase I track renovations between Cherry Creek and Shafter will be resubmitted to the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce after consummation of the purchase.

Subsequent to the purchase, a process estimated to take between six and twelve months, the next steps would focus on renovating the line, reestablishing the connection with the Union Pacific at Shafter, and organizing the Great Basin Railroad as a for-profit entity to operate the rail line. A feasibility study by R.L. Banks & Associates of Washington, D.C. concluded that the existent customer base in White Pine County and the Nye County oil industry could support operations and maintenance of the railroad. The Foreland oil refinery in Railroad Valley, about 75 miles southwest of Ely, would ship unrefined oil via the railway to Ely and haul it from there by truck to its refinery. Exports of refined oil products would make the reverse trip -- short truck haulage to Ely and thence by rail over the Nevada Northern Railway to its final destination. Profits from the rail haulage would be invested in the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, making the Foundation less dependent on funding from grants and donations.

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum would also benefit directly from the increased opportunity for tourist excursions on a longer main line (perhaps as far as Cherry Creek or Elko County, beyond) as well as use of the railway by such groups as the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners and various railcar (speeder) groups. In addition, railcar storage capacity on various sidings along the route could generate income. The railway is also an integral piece of infrastructure required for the resumption of copper mining in the Robinson District and for the potential construction of a Steptoe Valley coal-fired, electrical power plant. As late as last September, several energy companies retained an interest in the concept of a power plant in Steptoe Valley, which would depend on the rail line.

The Nevada Northern Railway, completed in 1906, was a subsidiary of Nevada Consolidated Copper. It hauled copper ore from the mines west of Ely to the mill and smelter at McGill, Nevada, and shipped blister copper from the smelter to interchanges with the Central Pacific at Cobre, Nevada and the Western Pacific at Shafter, Nevada. Through acquisitions and mergers the NN came under control of Utah Copper and subsequently Kennecott Copper. Kennecott closed its mines in the Robinson District in 1978 and the ore trains to McGill were discontinued. The McGill smelter closed in 1983 followed immediately by the cessation of all Nevada Northern Railway operations.

Between 1985 and 1987, Kennecott Copper donated many of its Nevada Northern Railway assets to the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation. They included the East Ely depot, the transportation building, the wooden freight shed, locomotives, four wooden coaches, 32 miles of track between McGill Junction and Keystone, the complete East Ely complex of machine shops, roundhouse, yards and rolling stock, the McGill Depot, and all historic buildings on the main line between Cobre and Ely including the Cherry Creek Depot. Two museums operate at East Ely today: the Nevada Northern Railway Museum and the state owned East Ely Railroad Depot Museum.

In 1987, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power purchased the dormant track between McGill Junction and Cobre (to preclude its abandonment) for a proposed coal-fired power plant near Cherry Creek that never materialized. Subsequently, Broken Hill Proprietary Co., Limited (now BHP Billiton Limited) obtained the mining rights in the region and operated over the line between 1996 and 1999, shipping copper concentrate from their mill at the former site of Riepetown to the interchange with the Union Pacific at Shafter, Nevada.

BHP invested approximately $4 million upgrading the track from Cherry Creek to Shafter, which remains in serviceable condition, according to Steven Leith, vice-chairman of the railroad foundation and former BHP Nevada Railroad locomotive engineer. BHP still owns the 2.9 miles of track between Keystone and the BHP mill at Riepetown. At the northern end of the line, the fate of the disconnected 18 miles of railway between Shafter and the northern terminus of Cobre remains uncertain. The diamond at Shafter was removed in 1985, and it is unclear whether the track northwards will be included as part of the purchase from LADWP.

Keith Albrandt, w
ith information contributed by:

  • Paul Johnson, Chairman, White Pine Legislative Coalition
  • Karen Rajala, Coordinator, White Pine Economic Diversification Council
  • Mark Bassett, Executive Director, Nevada Northern Railway Museum
  • Ely Times

This item first appeared as a Brief in Railway Preservation News, 15 July 2003.

Funds appropriated to purchase Nevada Northern Railway right-of-way

15 June 2003


On 12 June 2003, Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn signed into law Senate Bill 507, the Capital Improvement Project Fund. Included in this legislation, as capital improvement for the Commission on Economic Development, is $500,000 for the “purchase and renovation of 120 miles of Nevada Northern railroad track.”

The original funding request for development of the railroad and possible reopening of rail freight service was in the form of Assembly Bill 180. It was killed in the legislature along with companion AB181 that requested a like amount to renovate both historic structures and locomotive No. 40, which must have its boiler brought up to new federal standards. However, Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins had the $500,000 request for reopening the NN transferred to the Capital Improvement Fund.

The $500,000 earmarked by the legislature is only a portion of the funds necessary to purchase the right of way. LADWP is seeking $700,000 for the line from McGill Junction to Cobre in Elko County, well below its estimated $1.6 million value.

Grant to restore historic structures

15 June 2003


The Nevada Commission for Cultural Affairs awarded the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation a $200,000 grant for the restoration of historic structures. The funds come from a 10-year, $20-million historic preservation bond passed by the Nevada State Legislature.

From the Las Vegas Review Journal, 15 March 2003

Historic Preservation Award

14 May 2003


Mark Bassett, Executive Director of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, is one of twelve Nevadans honored with a 2003 Historic Preservation Award from the State Historic Preservation Office.

An agency of the Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs, the State Historic Preservation Office notes Mr. Bassett's efforts to preserve the Nevada Northern Railway complex in East Ely. State Historic Preservation Officer Ron James said, "We are grateful to this year's award winners for their commitment to historic preservation. Their hard work and contributions are significant to preserving the unique heritage of our state."

From the Ely Times Online News

Railway complex on endangered list

14 May 2003


Preserve Nevada, a statewide preservation organization in partnership with the University of Nevada Las Vegas Public History Program, has named the Nevada Northern Railway complex in East Ely to its annual list of the Eleven Most Endangerd Sites in the Silver State.

"The goal of this list is to bring attention (to) significant buildings, sites and landscapes that face a threat. The Nevada Northern Railway complex is threatened by a general need for ongoing funding to maintain the complex and to keep it operational."

White Piners ask for state aid for railway

26 March 2003


A delegation from White Pine County seeking state funds for restoration of the Nevada Northern Railway got some encouragement from Assembly leaders on Monday, March 24.

Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, praised the delegation for "not looking for a handout but a hand up" as an Assembly Ways and Means Committee hearing on AB180 and AB181 ended.

Ways and Means is considering AB180, which would appropriate $500,000 to help White Pine County buy and restore 120 miles of Nevada Northern Railroad track connecting Ely to the Union Pacific mainline junction near Wells.

The panel also is considering AB181, which appropriates $500,000 to the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation to renovate historic buildings and the foundation's Locomotive 40.

"I'm hopeful we'll be able to find some way to accomplish this," Perkins said, adding that it would be "good for our entire state."

Assembly Minority Leader Lynn Hettrick, R-Gardnerville, and Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, also were encouraging.

"The check's not in the mail," Giunchigliani added.

Assemblyman Pete Goichoechea, R-Eureka, said he wanted the lawmakers to see how many people made the 320-mile trip from Ely to back the railroad bill. Almost everyone in the crowded hearing room stood up. Many had traveled to Carson City on a 40-passenger bus provided by the local school district.

Bob Hadfield of the Nevada Association of Counties said the railroad project was "an incredible treasure" and "really part of the state's overall economy."

Reprinted with permission from the Ely Times Online News.

Legislative Bills

12 March 2003


Two bills concerning the Nevada Northern Railway Museum have been introduced into the Nevada State Legislature by Assemblyman Peter Goicoechea and Senator Dean Rhoads. AB180 addresses the purchase & renovation of the track between Ely and the UP interchange at Shafter. AB181 addresses the renovation of Locomotive No. 40 and historic structures at the Museum.

The text of the bills can be tracked via the web at http://www.leg.state.nv.us (Session info > 2003 Session > Bill Info > Assembly Bills). The Web site also lists all of the state legislators.

It’s been suggested that contacting the sponsors of the bill with an explanation of their significance to the communities of White Pine would certainly help support the efforts. Support from residents outside of Nevada may be particularly helpful in underscoring the national importance of preserving the Nevada Northern and the historically significant collection in Ely.

Peter J. Goicoechea
Nevada State Assembly
401 S. Carson St., Carson City, NV 89701

Dean A. Rhoads
Nevada State Senate
401 S. Carson St., Carson City, NV 89701

If you need more information, contact Mark Bassett, Executive Director, Nevada Northern Railway Museum or County Commissioner Paul Johnson, chairman of the White Pine County Legislative Coalition group.

News Briefs from Ely

14 January 2003


• The city is seeking a $100,000 economic development grant to install a grade crossing on Orson Avenue at North Street. The lowering of the road would allow trains to travel from the East Ely yards to the White Pine Public Museum downtown.

• The Nevada Northern Railway is the subject of two of the three primary legislative priorities set by the White Pine Legislative Coalition. They include state funding to purchase and renovate the NN ROW from McGill to Cobre and funding for the renovation of steam locomotive No. 40.

From the Ely Times Online News



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Last modified 16 January, 2004 -/-