Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Making History on the Nevada Northern Railway

History books claim that the last letter to be cancelled in a Railway Post Office was on September 30, 1978. After that, all mail was moved by truck and plane and the railroad contracts cancelled. Today, RPO postmarks are valuable among collectors, within and without railway circles.

But wait, what is this? This letter was postmarked September 3, an RPO car! So are the books wrong?

Sort of. The Nevada Northern is known for the high quality of its preservation and interpretation efforts, and partnering with the U.S. Postal Service, opens RPO-baggage car number 20 as a functioning Railway Post Office. Postal employees set up their equipment and process letters that can be sent out or kept as souvenirs. The car didn't move the last time this took place this year's Labor Day weekend, so mail wasn't technically shipped by rail, but it was an actual RPO cancellation performed by the Postal Service in an RPO car.

Conductor and brakeman shoot the breeze next to the soon-to-depart Steptoe Valley Flyer, which uses the original wood-frame coach and RPO-baggage combination car from the early days of the railroad. Just inside the half-open RPO door can be seen the Postal Service employee working the cancellation seal.
This was only a small part of the events of Labor Day Weekend. In addition to the normally scheduled trains, Nevada Northern number 40 was rented as part of their "engineer for a day" program, vintage vehicles were displayed in the parking lot, and on Sunday the steam crane, Wrecker "A", was demonstrated to an enthralled crowd that included several European tourists. This was the sole reason why I packed my car on Friday on a whim and drove out to Ely on Highway 50, the loneliest road in America, with practically no planning. Work schedules had changed, freeing up the weekend, and at the last minute I found out about the crane and had to go.

Lonely? That's an understatement. This was the view that greeted me after an hour of driving since the last exit with services and another hour ahead of me to the next.
First night was spent camped just off the road south of Lynndyl, Utah, on the Union Pacific's Sharp Subdivision. Dozens of trains pass on this track between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City at night, so I only got a few hours of fitful sleep between the departure of the LUL58 from the Intermountain Power plant nearby and the passing of fast intermodal stack trains. The next morning, forgetting the existence of time zones, I arrived in Ely in time to catch and chase an early-morning light run of locomotive 40 to the Keystone mine and back. The bad news: my first battery died five minutes into the chase, and I didn't take my charger.

Steel paths, converging at the sunrise. The Lynndyl Subdivision was built as the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad ("the Arrowhead Route"). A few miles to the north it converges with the Sharp Sub, a remnant of the Utah Southern Railroad that later merged with the Oregon Short Line.

The number 40 emerges from the tunnel on her way back to Ely. The locomotive ran light from Ely to Keystone Wye as part of the NN's "engineer for the day" locomotive rental.

I spent the remainder of Saturday and Sunday trying to conserve battery to be able to film the crane demonstration. Luckily it worked out, but it was stressful watching that blinking battery icon Sunday morning. Regardless, a tour of the enginehouse was in line, I met the roundhouse cat affectionately named Dirt (ever self-respecting engine facility needs a cat, even Golden Spike National Historic Site has one!), saw the other Alco under restoration (rumored to be operational this December) and inquired about the replica 1960s hirailer that the railroad is building (it was in Reno stripped down to the frame). Then to get my envelope stamped; Mark Bassett, the railroad's director, was in line with me with an armful of papers, postcards and letters to be cancelled in the car.

This old mail truck is usually stored out of sight, but was displayed at the depot to represent the transfer of mail from Cobre (the Southern Pacific interchange) and Shafter (the Western Pacific interchange) from train to truck to be delivered in town. After the RPO left on the Steptoe Valley Flyer the truck was put away again.

The Steptoe Valley Flyer turning on the wye at Keystone. The stark beauty of this empty high-desert environment makes the perfect backdrop for the historic train.
After chasing the Steptoe Valley Flyer, night two was spent at Garnet Hill, in the mountains between Ely and Keystone. I wasn't able to find any garnet despite what the tourist guide I picked up in Ely told me, but it did offer an excellent view of the Keystone mine. Then, driving into Ely early in the morning, I watched the first train of the day head out, then set up to record the crane while one of the NN's two Alco diesels rambled around the yard. To add to the wonderful historical ambience, the 40 wandered around a bit too making up the afternoon train, its whistling and chuffing making the Nevada Northern a true immersive experience (it helped that I happened to be wearing my 1915 getup; every once in a while it's necessary to railfan in style, especially when style means a vest and bowler hat).

The crane itself was surprisingly quiet. Boiling water doesn't make much noise, and without a constantly idling internal combustion engine, the machine only made noise when moving, and even then not very much. It was loudest when raising and lowering the boom. Wrecker A was built by Industrial Works in 1907 as construction number 1789. Steam is provided by a vertical boiler situated to the rear of the cab, which in itself acts as part of the counterweight. I have often looked at the nearly identical crane on display at the Utah State Railroad Museum in Ogden (120-tons, construction number 2125) and wondered what it would have sounded like in operation. Now I know!

Long story short, I got my video, 16 of the 35 minutes that I watched the crane before heading out to make it back home before nightfall. The railway put on a show, the staff was friendly, and I was already planning my next trip before I even left Ely city limits Sunday afternoon. A few years ago the railroad had a publicity campaign announcing that "This Place Matters," and they were right.

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