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Vacationers to Nevada Northern Railway aren't afraid to get their hands dirty.
Photo: Gary, Gene, Anthony, & John Henry (left to right); Martin in Locomotive 204 (below)
There are those who travel to take a trip. And then there are those who travel and immerse themselves into their surroundings. The Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark is a destination for tourists who want to do more than just take a trip.
At the Nevada Northern, we have tourists who want to get their hands dirty. Their efforts are helping to help preserve a national treasure for future generations. Tourists who volunteer at nonprofits are recognized as VolunTourists.
The term actually started in Nevada in 1998. When the then-named Nevada Board of Tourism coined the term to recognize, with a “Voluntourism” Award, volunteers who helped out in tourism in Nevada. This award was created to acknowledge the efforts of residents who volunteered hours of service making Nevada a place to visit and enjoy.
In 2000, a small group of marketing guys decided to incorporate the nonprofit sector with the tourism sector. By combining voluntary service and tourism, they changed the meaning from what Nevada was doing to creating a new term that capitalized the “T”—VolunTourism.
What is Nevada Northern Railway?
Located in remote east-central Nevada, the Nevada Northern Railway is a 19th-century railroad that is fundamentally the same today as it was in its heyday. It is an enormous complex of 56 acres with more than 70 original buildings and structures, most built at the turn of the last century. The railroad also has 30 miles of track to maintain.
Instead of relics in glass cases, the museum operates excursion trains using the two original century-old steam locomotives. The museum’s collection also includes more than 100 pieces of antique railroad cars, with the oldest dating to 1872.
It is the mission of the museum to demonstrate the technology that not only opened up Nevada, but also the western United States. The challenge facing the museum is how to operate a century-old railroad in a small, remote town (leaving town heading west, there is a sign that says, “Next Gas, 167 miles) on a very limited budget.
That limited budget is the root cause of a Catch 22 that the museum finds itself in. To generate revenue to preserve this national treasure, the museum depends on volunteers. The museum overcame this vexing conundrum by being an early adopter of VoluTourism.
Ely and the railroad was built because of the copper deposits in the area. When copper mining ended the community asked for and received the railroad. The goal was to transition from a mining economy to a tourism economy. The crown jewel of this change was the railroad. The vision was to run excursion trains attracting tourists to Ely.
The museum start operating trains using local volunteers. With a small population base, the local volunteers became overwhelmed. Slowly the museum started reaching out and inviting tourists to become volunteers.
Our visitors make the trip to Ely to see our century-old steam locomotives operating. In the cab of the steam locomotive are the fireman and the engineer. These are highly trained individuals who have mastered a 19th-century technological wonder. If an individual is willing to devote the time, they too can enter the steam fraternity here. And, unlike in the 19th century, the opportunities here at the Nevada Northern Railway are available to all—yes, we do have women fireman and engineers.
How to Volunteer
VolunTourism opportunities are open throughout the railroad. Skills needed range from train crews, shop helpers, machinists, tour guides, plumbers, carpenters, gift shop helpers, narrators—you name the job, and chances are we need someone to do it. The success of VolunTourism at the Nevada Northern Railway allowed us to convert one of our buildings into a Volunteer Bunkhouse.
So how does one become a VoluTourist? The simple answer is to just show up. But like any job worth doing, planning is a key component. The first step is to visit the railroad as a tourist. After all, working on a 19th-century railroad in a small, rural Nevada town where the closest Wal-Mart is 200 miles away is not everyone’s cup of tea.
During your visit, walk the grounds and speak to the staff and the other VolunTourists. If you think this is your calling, set your goals. The philosophy of the museum is simple: show up with a desire to learn and work hard. In these tight economic times, it is the volunteers who make the difference and add immensely to our visitors’ experiences.
How Important Are VolunTourists?
Without our volunteers, trains would not run as frequently (if at all); all tours would be self-guided; equipment would not get painted; posters would not be printed; windows would not be fixed—1,001 tasks would go undone.
And just because they are volunteers, that doesn’t mean they are not professionals. There are years of training and experience that allow the volunteers to accomplish hazardous and dangerous tasks.
While in the station, the crew will service the locomotive. We allow the public to approach the locomotive and even offer cab tours. The crews act as our ambassadors; they will answer the same question tens, if not hundreds, of times per day. And their answers will be as fresh and as encompassing as the first time they answered the question and even more importantly, with a smile.
Is It Worth It?
Yes. You can ask Pat and Gene Rogers, who come for the summers. Or David and April Raber; April paints as David works to learn how to be a steam engineer. Or Arnold and LouAnn Studebaker; Arnold is in train service, while LouAnn helps out painting and writing. John ‘Bear’ Langford, one of our steam engineers, if you spy him in the cab of a steam locomotive, you believe that you have truly time traveled.
If you enjoy traveling, learning new skills or sharing your existing skills, then you can make a difference. You can to help preserve a National Treasure. Make the trip to Ely. We have a place for you.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Nevada Northern Railway
PO Box 150040, East Ely, NV 89315-0400