Plan Your Vacation Back in Time
Nevada Northern Railway is a real trip.
BY MARK S. BASSETT
Nevada is home to many distinct opportunities, but there’s one that sets itself apart from the other myriad reasons to visit. In the small eastern town of Ely, you can take a vacation back in time. The Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark reveals what it was like to live in Nevada a century ago. The museum offers touchable history that can completely immerse you in the past. Time appears to have stopped at the museum; it’s as if the workers went to lunch and never came back.
The Nevada Northern Railway is not your typical museum. Instead of relics behind glass or repainted equipment on static display, you can actually experience history. But be warned, the railroad is gritty. It’s dirty. It smells of coal smoke, creosote, and sweat. It is the real McCoy.
BE A PART OF HISTORY
If you’ve always wanted to put your hands on a piece of American history, the Hands on History program is just the ticket. This ultimate hands-on experience is the opportunity to be the engineer of a century-old steam locomotive. That’s right; you can climb into the cab of a steam locomotive and operate it. You are in the engineer’s seat where you’ll receive instruction on controlling the iron horse.
Once the basics are under your belt, the moment comes for you to sound the whistle, put your hand on the throttle, and head up the mainline. You’ll be going through two tunnels and climbing a 2 percent grade. At the top of the hill, the train is turned, and it’s up to you to bring 100 tons of steam locomotive down the hill. You will likely learn a whole new appreciation for gravity. Most folks do this experience with just the locomotive, but if you want a bigger thrill, you can operate the locomotive while pulling a train.
If you’re not ready to be the engineer, consider the Ride with the Engineer program. Sitting front and center in the locomotive cab with the engineer and fireman, you will see the railroad as very few visitors have. You will be able to see the track ahead, and watch the fireman shovel coal as the engineer controls the iron horse.
START THE YEAR OFF RIGHT
Speaking of fireworks, have you ever heard of fireworks being shot off of a moving train; being pulled by a steam locomotive; over a city? You probably haven’t! Then you have never heard of the Fire and Ice Fireworks Express! On Jan. 13, we will once again head up the hill, but with a twist. On the way back down the hill our fireworks train is coupled on to our train, and then we head to Ely. Once clear of the tunnel, passengers are invited to the open-air car to watch the first fireworks explode over the train and downtown Ely. The fireworks are shot in a natural amphitheater, where the sound is incredible, and the light is reflected off the canyon walls.
LOVE THOSE PHOTOS
During two weekends in February, the Winter Steam Photo Shoot Spectacular happens. The photo shoots are a world-class photographic opportunity. You’ll be able to photograph steam locomotives pulling vintage freight and passenger cars that are original to the railroad. Here, trains are still made up with wooden cars whose origins date back as far as 1872. The crews will be in period dress, adding to the experience. Strip the color out of the photo, add a little sepia toning, and you have proof that you traveled through time. This year’s events are Feb. 9-11, and Feb. 16-18.
IT’S WARMING UP
Starting in April and running into October, popular excursion trains offer 90-minute trips. All trains depart from the East Ely Depot, as they have done for more than a century. Most of the trips head southwest, through two tunnels and up a mountain grade through Robinson Canyon, toward the Ruth Copper Mining District. Each trip is narrated to point out local sights and history.
If you’re looking for a little something extra with your train ride, consider one of the themed train rides.
THINGS GET A LITTLE WILD
Back when things were a little wilder, every so often, trains would get held up by a band of outlaws. That very same thing happens on the Wild West Trains; join the ride for a wild-west adventure aboard a real century-old steam train. Yes, there will be cowboys, horses, and outlaws—so hold on to your wallet!
PONIES AND IRON HORSES
Experience the excitement of the 1860s, when young men risked their lives to deliver the mail on the Pony Express Limited train. Passengers receive a stamped, commemorative envelope that has been hand-cancelled by U.S. postal clerks in our Railway Post Office car. Once the train arrives at Keystone Station, witness a Pony Express hand-off staged by Ely’s own Pony Express Riders. You can even have your envelope placed in the Pony Express rider’s mochila (pouch) and have it delivered via Pony Express.
NO LIGHTS, PLEASE
The Dark Rangers from Great Basin National Park present Star Trains from May through September. These rangers know all about the night sky. Riders begin by heading up the mountains to watch the sun set, while the Dark Rangers give an overview of the evening’s events. Once the train arrives at a temporary observatory, passengers get to view the heavens through the ranger’s telescopes. Thanks to the area’s famous dark skies, it will appear you can reach out and touch the heavens.
MORE BIG BANGS
Summer excitement reaches its peak with the 4th of July Fireworks Express. Similar to the New Year’s event, the train stops at the perfect viewing location to see Ely’s fireworks display. Riders can watch from the train, or bring lawn chairs for a unique, fun way to celebrate Independence Day.
As summer winds down, the nights get cooler and strange things start happening at the railroad with the Haunted Ghost Trains. Prepare yourself for a scary trip as we dare to send our train up the hill. Ghost stories come alive, with zombies, ghosts, ghouls, aliens, and maybe even Big Foot; you never know what you’ll see around the next bend. Costumes are encouraged unless you’re just naturally scary.
HO, HO, HO
Finally, plan your end-of-the-year trip so you can ride The Polar Express. This is the most magical train of the year, as attendees head to the North Pole to visit with Santa Claus. Along the way, guests are served hot chocolate and cookies, and read the story of “The Polar Express.” And if you believe, Santa has a special gift for you!
All trains have a restroom and wheelchair accessibility, plus snacks and beverages are available for purchase. There is the choice of coach or open-air seating, and guests are free to roam between the two.
Tickets come with a complementary tour of the engine house and machine shop. If you get there early, you may witness the crew firing up a steam locomotive. As one young visitors said, “It’s like watching a sleeping dragon wake up!”
The Nevada Northern Railway is a very special place. William L. Withum, curator emeritus, History of Technology and Transportation at the Smithsonian Institution, stated, “Among all railroad historic sites anywhere in North America, the Nevada Northern Railway complex at East Ely is no question in my view, the most complete, most authentic, and best cared-for, bar none. It’s a living American treasure and a stand-out one.”
So plan your vacation back in time at the Nevada Northern Railway, just remember, when you get here, be sure to turn your watch back a century.
GET TO PLANNIN’
Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark
1100 Avenue A
Ely, NV 89301