Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Review: Jim Boyd's "The Steam Locomotive Century of North American Classics"

Cover art for "The Steam Locomotive"

I have always liked books. I know its certainly a stereotype of my generation to paint us as screen enslaved and never having touched a book in our lives... but even as a little kid I found myself reading a lot. Part of it traces back to memories of elementary school libraries, Scholastic book fairs, and the like. I remember the first time I heard of Union Pacific's Big Boy locomotive was in some sort of DK cross section book. I voraciously read everything I could get my hands on from Star Wars, Lego, and other favorites of  mine growing up. In Junior High School I remember going on a bit of a Jules Verne kick, reading the likes of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. The library was the place to hang out in-between classes; and it became more so in High School were after lunch my friends and I would browse the bookshelves or break out the library's chess set before we had to head back to class.

One of the books I remember the most from my High School library that I first encountered sometime in 2008 or 2009 or so was part of the school's small selection on railroad technology. Jim Boyd's The Steam Locomotive Century of North American Classics was just the right style of large coffee table book with beautiful photographs and excellent writing to capture my attention. The book was published in 2000, and covers many preserved steam activities from the 1960's onto its publishing date. The book was produced collaboratively between Boyd and the Railfan and Railroad team, and Barnes and Noble's MetroBooks arm.

For me, the early 2010's were a different time in railfanning. Facebook was still the platform to connect with grandparents and long lost friends; its use to host hobby discussions really hadn't blossomed yet. There was (and still isn't) no reason in hell to pay money to use a discussion forum with a paid subscription service like Train Orders then. My only railfanning connection was really the small, free to use, and teetering on near constant collapse RR.Picture.Archives website and the occasional copy of Model Railroader that showed up in local grocery stores. I had no way of really knowing that Jim Boyd the author of the book I so often read in the library had written countless other railfan books and articles for Railfan and Railroad where he worked for many years as chief editor. I had no idea that he died in early January of 2011 while I was still in my junior year of High School.

But Jim's book opened up a world for me. Before opening its pages; I honestly knew almost nothing about the many of the subjects in the book. UP's Steam Program before then was only a vague memory of an opening shot from Shining Time Station with UP 844 and small whispers of Utah's own Echo Canyon being like a holy ground for Union Pacific's steamers. NW 611, Southern 4501, and even SP 4449; had I ever heard of them before that book... only existed as snippets in my mind before then. Jim Boyd's book in many ways opened up a larger world of railfanning beyond what I was familiar with growing up in the shadow of the Tooele Valley.

Of course now, The Steam Locomotive feels almost like a time capsule of a world almost lost. Yes there are indeed evergreen faces in Jim's book; 844 and 4449 in particular stand out, with other stalwart engines like ATSF 3751 and NKP 765 also highlights of the pages. But the book also highlights engine's who's sound of their whistles are now distant memory and have returned to static display, stuck in long restorations or are in storage; such as C&O 614, PRR 1361 and even UP 3985. In the eight years going on since I graduated High School, I have grown increasingly curious how The Steam Locomotive would hold up under modern inspection. So I ordered a copy of Amazon, and decided to give the book a fresh glance over!

One of the first observations getting the book and flipping through its pages... in a way this almost reads "in memory of..." 20 years after it was published. I counted about 46 preserved steam engines featured in the book focusing on those that were shown in operation (plus the static photo of C&O 1309 because a restoration effort on the engine would start many years after the book was published). Of those 46 engines, only 12 of them are still operational with about 6 or 7 undergoing current restorations to operations. Not surprisingly many of the engines still operational in the present day are some of the big celebrities of the preservation world, NKP 765, SP 4449... you get the picture. One of the engines showcased in the book was even Britain's LNER 4472 Flying Scotsman during its brief North American tour, meaning that of the 12 engines still presently operational; at least this one isn't even in the Western Hemisphere anymore!

A sample of the standard page and photo layout of the book.

This is in part due to the book's narration focusing on the development of North American mainline steam. As such the popular 2-8-0's and 4-6-0's that remain staples of the current historic railway circuit, get only a brief mention before the larger 4-8-4's and other big modernized engines take the center stage. It certainly helps create a cohesive narrative of America's motive power growing over the years from the diminutive start with engines such as John Bull up to the mighty articulated at the twilight of the steam age.

Of course one of the sadder tales from the book is the mid-60's failed steam program operated by Richard Jensen. Boyd doesn't shy away from publishing a photo of Jensen's GTW  5629 being scrapped, with its flues exposed to the open air as the torches come down upon it. CB&Q 5632, another one of Jensen's former locomotives gets its own spotlight including its briefly lived gold scheme; is like the GTW engine now in the "roundhouse in the sky." CB&Q 4960, one of Jensen's other engines though remains in service to this day at the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Arizona as Grand Canyon 4960; so there is indeed one silver lining to the tragic collapse of the Jensen steam program.

Speaking of silver linings and a touch of grey... Boyd is obviously a big fan of The Grateful Dead. Its a bit of an interesting experience realizing how much Jerry Garcia is being channeled into the book by Boyd. Even UP 8444's roll out in Greyhound paint doesn't escape Boyd showing off his status as a Deadhead. It helps to flavor the text, even if it firmly dates Boyd's age and creates a bit of a generational gap while trying to read this book.

Salmon colored highlight pages pull out unique pieces of history or steam technology from the main body text in the book.

Many of the programs Boyd mentions are now currently stalled or have been trapped in long restorations; such as PRR 1361's long process to return to steam that is still ongoing, or C&O 614's two decade long absence from mainline action with only a touch of green paint and a few static displays marking its entire 21st century activity. Perhaps the most upsetting engine to see sidelined is Cotton Belt 819, which had been restored by a small town effort that Boyd writes about very well, and is currently waiting an eventual restart in its restoration. Some engines, like the Pennsylvania Railroad engines used on the Strasburg, have gone onto become static museum display pieces. Of course, when I first read this book all those years ago I had no clue that Southern Railway 4501 or NW 611 would have returned to steam in the years since, let alone have made trips on the Norfolk Southern mainline in the 21st century... so never say never when it comes to some of these steam locomotives.

There is oddly enough, a bit of future foretelling that Boyd never could have imagined would come true... The parting pages of his book are first dedicated to old black and white photos of the Pennsylvania Railroad's duplex locomotives, including the shark-nosed T1 class. 13 years after the book was published, and two years after Boyd's death a modern project to rebuild a T1 began with the T1 Locomotive Trust and their planned Pennsylvania Railroad 5550. While the original T1's are a memory, slowly piece by piece a new one is rising from cast steel.

Secondly, Boyd finishes his book with perhaps the most famous steam locomotive class of American history; UP's Big Boy. Boyd bets on the wrong horse, stating that perhaps UP 4012 at Steamtown and UP 4018 in Texas would be the prime candidates for restoration; ignoring the now famous locomotive that was sitting in a fair-park in Los Angeles at the time... and it seems clear Boyd doesn't guess it would be Union Pacific itself to tackle the restoration. But... his closing words on the subject feel almost prophetic:

"Will the 4012 or 4018- or any other Big Boy ever run again?
Like Mount Everest, because it's there."

Some of my own photos taken in May of the restored Big Boy.

In May 2019, myself and countless other railfans witnessed that Mount Everest finally being climbed; when UP 4014 made its inaugural break in run from Cheyenne to Ogden for the Golden Spike 150th Anniversary celebration; and countless more would get to witness or re-witness 4014 in steam again over the coming year.

I can't help but wonder what Jim Boyd would think if he was still around now to see the current rail preservation scene. Yes, plenty of the locomotives featured in his book are now silent display pieces. But with UP 4014, Skookum, PRR 5550, Nashville 576, ATSF 2926, C&O 1309 and C&O 2716 all recently restored or in process of restoration/reconstruction... it seems the 21st century is about to be full of a new cast of steam locomotives that Boyd never could have imagined would someday be plying the rails once more. Particularly the support CSX has given Kentucky Steam with their C&O 2716 project seems to suggest that the old adage of "CSX doesn't allow steam trains on their railroad" might vanish once 2716 returns to the mainline. Not to mention the affect social media has had on exposing UP 4014 to tens of thousands of people during its multiple cross country journey's last year.

Maybe in another few years... the editors at Railfan and Railroad should maybe consider the idea that Jim Boyd's book will need a sequel...  😁

- Jacob Lyman

I am sure this is the music Boyd would want you to be listening to right now.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Steam Locos in Profile: My favorite YouTube railfan series

YouTube will probably be looked back on as the content platform of the decade. Despite its bouts with controversy (*cough* COPPA *cough*); YouTube has successfully allowed many amateurs a platform to express their voice and contribute to their hobbies. The railfan community has of course benefited from this; and there are many "RailTube"channels, all focused on railfanning and rail preservation. Some of you might remember one of the first things we did as a group was help Josh make his documentary Trackside and release it on his YouTube channel. When I find myself bored, I will often flip through videos of steam locomotives posted by countless creators on YouTube; both revisiting familiar railroads and watching footage of distant operations I have yet to see.

Trailer for the USATC S160s episode of SLIPs detailing the American built 2-8-0's that have proven popular in British preservation.

Today though, I want to highlight one series and its spin offs in particular; Chris Eden Green's Steam Locos in Profile (SLIPs) and its spin off series Sole SLIP and Gauge the Issue. I (and probably countless other American railfans) got a little taste for British railroading and preservation thanks to a certain book & TV series I watched as a child staring a certain blue 0-6-0T locomotive... and its been hard to brush off that appeal of the country that served as the birthplace of steam railroading. SLIPs is a documentary style series that focuses on Britain's preserved steam locomotive classes narrated by Chris. The footage is rather well shot, and oftentimes shows multiple examples of the same locomotive class in action. Most of the older episodes, are available exclusively for purchase online or on a DVD, while the newer episodes are free on YouTube. The quality of the series I feel justifies the purchase to watch the older episodes. Each episode takes its focus on one particular class of engine, and its history in service and preservation.

A comparison of Britain with the western United States shows the type of tight compact geography that would make SLIPs work in Britain, but be highly impractical in the United States.

First off, this is the type of series which really could have only originated on the preservation focused and compact British islands. As much as I would love to see SLIPs be imitated in America, it would be near impossible due to geography alone. To point out my own 2019 railfan trips across the western USA, I could have covered the entirety of Britain with that kind of mileage; where-as I was only able to see a very small sample of the railroad museums in America. Britain in comparison is very compact, with plenty of road and public transportation options to reach countless heritage railways and museums all in one area. I often think of northern Wales as the holy Mecca of steam railroading when I look on a map and try and count every single heritage operation just surrounding the Snowdonia National Park. Its hard not to feel a bit envious of Britain's close together and robust rail preservation scene!

Second, Britain's own unique railway history makes it far easier to homogenize the preserved locomotives into railway specific classes. Prior to nationalization, most of Britain was operated by "The Big Four;" four private railroads with their own unique locomotive classes and styles, while the advent of British Rail brought a single company to control the entire mainline operations on the island. Thanks to the preservation efforts, particularly from the many locomotives rescued from the Barry Scrapyard; its not uncommon for a single locomotive class in Britain to have nearly a dozen survivors or more in the present day. A far cry from the States were iconic classes of engines such as the Challenger only have two surviving examples (and both from Union Pacific with all other railroad's Challengers scrapped).

The spin off series Sole SLIP provides the opportunity to review rarer and one-off locomotives that don't have enough material to justify a full episode length SLIPs feature.

As such SLIPs takes advantage of this by filming many locomotives of a same class in action on various railways (most of them just a day trip away for Chris and his film crew); then editing the footage together to create a cohesive documentary style episode. The narration for the episodes owes a bit of influence to another British staple... Top Gear. We're talking about the golden era of Clarkson, Hammond, May in particular and their presentation style. Chris's narration for SLIPs; much like the best years of Top Gear is information dense, sprinkled with a dose of dry and sometimes crass British humor. It gives the show a notable personality that many other railfan films sorely lack.

The Top Gear style comes in full influence in the sister series Gauge the Issue which is a lower budget editorial series. Chris let's his opinions and narration do all the talking; using his own footage and stock photos to discuss preservation topics, review rail related material and give an additional dose of perspective to his primary documentary focused SLIPs. If SLIPs is like Top Gear's road testing and challenge segments, then Gauge the Issue is most like Top Gear's studio segments; minus the obligatory celebrity interviews. While SLIPs is very British focused, Gauge the Issue allows the occasional discourse into international subjects. In one instance Chris even spoofs the railfan's who want a modern replica of an E2 0-6-0T (the model Thomas the Tank Engine is based on) by pointing out the much more interesting locomotives that survive in the present age including our own Big Boy. Another favorite Gauge the Issue episode of mine discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the growing trend of new build steam locomotives particularly following the success of the A1 Steam Trust's Tornado.

Ultimately what elevates SLIPs and its sister series for me, is Chris being able to inflect his personality to his channel. This helps elevate it above many of the more monotonous presentations of trackside video that populate YouTube and other social media platforms. Compared to the old guard of railroad videos such as Pentrex that are either narrator-less or have a dull monotone narration; this extra bit of personality helps SLIPs take on an identity of its own. 

SLIPs is the type of series I wish could exist in America, but as I mentioned already our geographic challenges and wildly different preservation attitude would make a SLIPs-like series a much more daunting task in the United States. As such, SLIPs still feels uniquely British; taking advantage of all the historic and geographic influences that make British railroading unique. I recommend this series highly for any railfan interested in British rail preservation, and looking for an example of what is possible with high production values in a railfan series. 

Now, lets blow up some Pacers: 

- Jacob Lyman

Thursday, December 12, 2019

A Look Back, Three Railfan Trips 2019: Part 3: Western Nevada and Sumpter, Oregon.

On October 10, we took a stop in Elko, Nevada to check out WP 727 on display in a downtown park.

Fall Break would be the grandest trip of them all… a five-state tour across the west to several of the most prominent steam railroads in the region. October marked Big Boy’s second return to Utah, and again after another few days of swimming through crowds I was able to convince a few friends that the best form of post-Big Boy therapy was a trip to a much quieter steam railroad out of state. Josh joined me again on the adventure, and another one of our friends Jacob Morgan joined as our third-party member. Schon decided to sit this one out since he was adjusting to a new apartment at that time. On Wednesday night, Jacob and Josh brought their cars to Tooele to leave at my house. On Thursday, October 10th we all hopped in my car early morning and began our westward trek across I-80.

I prepared for this trip, I borrowed a DSLR camera from extended family so I would be able to best capture all the destinations we had in mind. First in Nevada we’d visit the primary branch of the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, making it so Josh and I had seen both branches of that museum on opposite ends of the state in the same year. On Friday, it was time to visit the famed Virginia and Truckee, then swing up north to Oregon so by Saturday morning we would be on the Sumpter Valley Railroad’s fall photo charter! It was ambitious, full of historic railroading and the capstone trip for the year.

The preserved Southern Pacific depot in Lovelock, Nevada was built by the Central Pacific in 1880.

On our first day we stopped in Elko, Nevada for both breakfast and a quick shot of the WP GP locomotive displayed downtown. It gave me a chance to get used to my rented camera’s settings. We followed along I-80, stopping for a few of the old curiosities along the former Southern Pacific railroad route until we finally got into Reno. One of the highlights was an SP depot dating back to the Central Pacific era, that has been preserved near the tracks in Lovelock, Nevada. This beautiful two-story depot definitely caught our eye in this small town.

In Reno a former SP narrow gauge locomotive is on display off I-80. SP 8 was prior to that a part of the Nevada California & Oregon railroad. My grandmother who passed away after my first trip had ancestry who worked for the NCO, so I was proud to see a bit of family heritage in that engine. Sadly, the fence around it makes it impossible to get a good photograph of; so, I was just glad to be able to see it in person. Another one of the surviving NCO engines, SP 18 has returned to steam recently; and spent most of 2019 on loan to the Durango and Silverton Railroad in Colorado.
We were soon back on the highway soon and pulling into the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City. 

The Virginia and Truckee McKeen motorcar was running for training purposes when we arrived at the museum.

V&T Inyo and Dayton starting in 1969 up through the 1970's were used as "stand in" locomotives at the Promontory Summit site for the Golden Spike Historic Site display. They were replaced with the two O'Conner Engineering replicas, and returned to Nevada in 1978. For the Golden Spike 150th, the two engines were pilot to pilot inside the museum to honor their previous roles masquerading as UP 119 and Jupiter back in the 1970's.

Arriving at the museum we were greeted to the surprise sight of the museum’s McKeen Motorcar roaming about the tracks along the museum property. The only preserved McKeen Motorcar that is operational in the world, it was an instant win for us; Josh, Jacob and I made sure to take plenty of photos! We made it inside and walked around the gorgeous locomotives on display in the museum, admiring their own Golden Spike 150th exhibits. Outside in the roundhouse we got to meet Oscar The Dog who was there with his owner. I think Oscar might give Dirt back in Ely a run for his money for cutest railroad animal. Jacob asked the museum staff, and was able to get us back into the storage area to see Nevada’s Merci Car up close.

The McKeen motor car just fits barely onto the turntable. The car is powered by axle in the lead pilot truck, leading to its weight being off center while on the turntable.

After we left the roundhouse we got a few photos of the McKeen as it approached the turntable. The “strong arm” turntable is pushed manually to align it to the right whisker track, and to our surprise the museum staff asked us if we would be willing to help push the turntable to align the McKeen back to its stall! With Oscar the dog supervising we pushed the turntable around to line it up. Turns out, the McKeen is an off-balance railcar due to its drive mechanisms all in one forward axle… Jacob and I were on an end where the turntable felt light as a feather to push… while Josh on the opposite end felt the weight of pushing the full railcar. Once lined up the McKeen pulled into its stall, where Oscar promptly plopped down in front of it to take a snooze.

Oscar supervising the McKeen car after it returned to its stall.

Leaving Carson City, we drove past scenic Lake Tahoe to Truckee California. The rail traffic in Truckee was a bust, but I got a kick of seeing all the snow fighting equipment stored in town used for winter use on Donner Pass. After eating dinner in a diner, we traveled back alongside Tahoe blanketed in sunset and returned to a hotel in Carson City.

A retired SP rotary snowplow on display in Truckee, California.

Stored snow fighting locomotives in Truckee waiting for the winter season.

Nevada Neon in downtown Carson City.

October 11th, we woke up early to arrive to Virginia City. This spectacularly preserved western town caters to tourists now, but the resurrected Virginia and Truckee Railroad is a spectacular treat. I had been to the V&T as a teenager once, and being back there again seeing V&T 29 the line’s 2-8-0 in action was awesome. 29 works hard for a steam locomotive, and its barks and hisses could be heard all throughout the surrounding hills as it climbed the treacherous grades along the route. After chasing 29 we rode a quick 30-minute diesel excursion from Virginia City to Gold Hill. Our train’s conductor made a great narrator for the route, and I got to add another ‘railroad dog’ to my list when the train’s engineer brought his dog along for the ride.

V&T 29 leading an excursion train with three passenger cars between Mound House and Gold Hill on October 11. This little 2-8-0 was barking and working hard to get up the grade.

Having cut of its third car, the now two car train being pulled by V&T 29 rolls past an abandoned headframe at Gold Hill, Nevada. Originally built for the Louisiana & Pacific Railway in 1916, this small Baldwin feels at home on the sharp grades and twisting track of the V&T.

The spectacular mining headframes and tailings piles give the area an otherworldly feel with strong yellow’s and oranges in the hillsides. After our train ride we took a moment to tour the St Mary in the Mountains museum, the train used to pass through a cut/tunnel right in front of the church’s basement! The museum guides had plenty of local history photos of the Comstock district and the railroad. We visited the original V&T locomotive preserved up the road, then began the long drive from Nevada to Oregon.

Jacob Morgan observes the 29 departing Gold Hill.

The West Coast Railroaders Group provides fire protection service on the V&T; their orange speeder is seen here trailing behind 29's returning train in Virginia City.

The conductor on-board the V&T's diesel train from Virginia City to Gold Hill narrating the journey.

Like the spring break trip, staying awake relied on the most absurd of railfan discussions. This time, Jacob kept us awake by reading bits of Railway Series lore from the Thomas the Tank Engine wiki… and about the time we were passing near Boise, Idaho we may have felt we knew more about British Railway history than we ever needed to know. It eventually evolved into discussing just how awful Thomas and the Magic Railway was (sparkle sparkle sparkle). Finally stumbling into our lodging in Baker City, Oregon; we got ready for our next grand adventure on the Sumpter Valley’s photo charter.

W.H. Eccles Lumber #3 illuminates the 3' gauge rails in McEwan, Oregon on the morning of October 12.

Like the Virginia and Truckee, the Sumpter Valley is also a modern-day reconstruction; re-laid over the original rail route. The modern Sumpter Valley runs between two stations in McEwan and Sumpter. The entire surrounding valley is covered in loose rock and pebbles due to gold dredging activity many years ago. This loose talus surrounds the entire railroad, with lots of ponds along the route. Once outside of the rocky dredging piles, the scenery turns to a brilliant pine forest.

Sumpter Valley #19 and and W.H. Eccles #3 great the morning sunrise in McEwan, Oregon.

For the photo charter the railroad had both its operational steam locomotive under steam. In the crisp fall air, we could feel a chill when we arrived at the depot in the morning prior to sunrise. We huddled around inside the McEwan station, eating breakfast and trying to stay warm in the chilly air. Outside, the gradual hisses of steam could be heard. Right as the sun crested the horizon the two steam engines had arrived side by side in front of the depot; Sumpter Valley 19 a logging Mikado, and W.H. Eccles 3 a geared Heisler. With the air slowly warming up, we hoped onboard the passenger cars part of 19’s mixed train and began riding along for the photo charter.

#19's apperance is captured in the reflection from one of the many ponds alongside the Sumpter Valley Railway.

The three-foot gauge railroad has a rough-hewn appearance, and our trains gently rocked back and forth as we rode. For Josh, Jacob and I we this was our first paid photo charter experience; and we were curious how things would operate. The Sumpter Valley operated the charter with an employee who had a handheld radio, we could talk to him and he would radio the train crews telling them we wanted a run by and direct how to stage the locomotives. It was surprising how responsive the railroad crew was and welcoming of the photo requests, it sure made the experience very easy going and fun.

One of the most interesting tidbits of dialogue I overheard from another passenger though was them commenting on the crowds at the charter, and how other participants had accidentally wandered into their shot once or twice. It gave me a chuckle having seen the Big Boy a week prior back home in Utah; for me the crowds at Sumpter Valley seemed light and a breeze to navigate compared to the posse the 4014 draws! 

#3 taking on fuel back at the wood rack in McEwan.

#19 leads its mixed train near Sumpter, Oregon.

After a few runs up and down the railroad, we stopped at the Sumpter Depot for a grilled hamburger lunch. The classic American potluck food was highly appreciated after a long day on the train! As the day stretched on, we returned back down the line, eventually stopping at the Hawley siding again. The crew was very welcoming to our requests, we asked if we could ride in one of the cabooses and we got the chance a few times to ride from the cupola seats. At that final stop at Hawley, Jacob mentioned he wanted to ask if he could ride in the cab of 19. The crew welcomed him on board, and for the final leg between Hawley and McEwan, Jacob got the cab ride of a lifetime inside the vintage narrow-gauge steam locomotive. Once at McEwan, we got a few parting shots of the Sumpter Valley’s crew posing in front of their locomotives.

The crew of the Sumpter Valley pose with their locomotives back at McEwan.

Again, I can’t stress enough how impressed I was by the Sumpter Valley and their crew. Truth be told all the heritage railroads and museums I had the chance to visit this year had excellent crews and hospitality. From Randy Hees giving us a tour at the Nevada Southern back in March, helping operate the turntable for the McKeen car back in Carson City, and finally the chance to explore inside the cabooses and cabs of narrow-gauge steam trains on the Sumpter; it was a series of spectacular experiences all around. A tip of the hat to all these operations and the great experiences they gave us on our trips!

A collection of diesel locomotives sitting outside of MPI in Boise, Idaho on October 13.

A UP freight train heads north along the former OSL mainline in Bliss, Idaho with three Canadian Pacific locomotives in tow.

October 13th marked the end of our trip; with the long drive from Baker City, Oregon back home to Tooele, Utah left ahead. Of course, we had a few final stops to see in the Gem State. In Boise we took time to admire the preserved Boise Depot downtown. We then payed a visit to the outside gates of Motive Power Industries. With the merger between MPI’s parent company Wabtec and GE Transportation, the MPI plant in Boise is scheduled to shutter locomotive production and move its series to the former GE plant in Erie, Pennsylvania. Even with shutdown looming, looking in from the fence surrounding MPI we could see countless locomotives scattered about the shops, in various states of repair and disassembly. Finally, as the Gem State came to an end, we happily crossed the northern Utah border on our final leg home, arriving back in Tooele shortly after evening fall.

What can I summarize from my three multi state trips this year? The west is truly still wild country in its open expanse, and the long drives and Mt. Dew fueled journeys are a testament to the sheer scope of the country. Our Nevada-Oregon trip in October was proof of that, with nearly each day taking up eight hours in the car to travel from location to location. Go off road, and in poor weather the journey can become threatening as our March escapades near Lund, Utah proved.

However, in the wide-open expanses of the west is stunning scenery, and spectacular railroading. From the round the clock action in Kingman, Arizona; to the restored vintage steam railroads in Nevada and Oregon there is plenty of reward for the railfan willing to make the trip. Bring a few friends, pack a few good tunes and grab a few tickets for some of America’s most stunning historic railroads and museums; and the wild west spirit that fueled the original Transcontinental Railroad is not hard to still find.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A Look Back, Three Railfan Trips 2019: Part 2: Solo adventure to Ely, Nevada.

On June 21st I had a simple theory to prove… would it be possible to make a round trip from my home in Tooele, Utah out to Ely, Nevada and back in a single day? Obviously, there was some hesitation from my parent’s in me traveling a long trek again, this time alone; but I assured them there would be no muddy roads and I would inform them off my progress. Fellow Desert Empire Project editor Matt Liverani lives out in Ely, and I’d be meeting up with him to railfan the Nevada Northern Railway before I went home.

Besides, I needed Ely and its steam locomotives. UP 4014 had been a blast, but the crowds were certainly still stuck in my mental image of the day. I needed a trip that was more quiet, intimate; one where I could get close to a living breathing steam train without the massive wall of crowds that follow the Big Boy wherever it steps foot. The Nevada Northern Railway offered just the right remedy for that kind of malaise.

My first stop on June 21st lead me to catch this Ferromex locomotive shoving on the end of a westbound grain train on the former Western Pacific route.

Welcome to Earth

My first stop was at the former Marblehead branch on the ex-Western Pacific, I shot a passing grain train on the mainline; then inspected a bit of the now abandoned branchline which had been disconnected from the mainline since my last visit. A brief stop at the Salt Flats where I pretended to be Luke Skywalker on Crait facing Kylo Ren also happened… for nerdy reasons. Although seeing Star Wars’ scene on Crait was filmed in Bolivia, maybe the real movie I should have been quoting was Independence Day which had many scenes filmed in the Wendover area and on the Salt Flats. “Welcome to Earth” like Will Smith said.

Although many of the original buildings are gone, the remaining machine shops and offices fenced off at McGill are a significant reminder of the smelter that once operated here.

Similarly fenced off is the Nevada Northern depot in McGill. Owned by the railroad, this could perhaps someday be restored with the track repaired allowing excursion service to this town. The distant mountains still have a snowcap in June, showcasing the extremely wet water year the Great Basin had.

The long drive through the Steptoe Valley was beautiful. Nevada had a generous springtime rain season, and the mountains were green and verdant. It was the most stunning I had ever seen the desert regions of Nevada, and I enjoyed every minute of it. My interest in smelters and railroading led me to McGill, the copper smelting hub once served by the Nevada Northern Railway. The smelter site is closed off, but the few buildings still standing visible from outside the gate were spectacular and made for a great reference for how similar smelters might have looked in their heydays.

A lot of historic railroad's have steam locomotives. Very few of them can say though they have steam locomotives original to the line based in the original yard full of original structures... yet in Ely #40 lives on the same railroad it has been on since its was delivered from Baldwin in 1910. The original fabric preserved here is astounding.

I don't tend to share my backlit pictures that often, but I love how this curve looks and how well it showcases the abundant green this year had.

Finally, in Ely I met up with Matt and grabbed my ticket to explore the grounds of the Nevada Northern. #40 the line’s famous “Ghost Train” the official State Locomotive of Nevada was doing the rounds that day, booked to haul a string of hopper cars up to Ruth as part of a locomotive rental. A second departure from Ely had #40 running light to Ruth as another locomotive rental, before returning to prepare for the late afternoon tourist train run. Matt and I chased the first two runs. Here out in the Nevada desert, #40 put on a show hauling its short freight train. I was enjoying the lack of crowds with Matt and I often alone; although by the time #40 had reached Ruth a few other wandering railfans had come out to photograph it.

#40 was nearing the end of its current certification, being due for a 15-year inspection in 2020. The engine showed it, in all the best ways; specks of rust, faded paint, clanking valve gear… #40 was indeed showing her wear and tear. Worn out and tired? Yes. But not un-cared for, as the Nevada Northern prides itself in maintaining and up keeping its locomotives in an authentic manner. #40 perhaps looked her best like this, slightly worn out and rough around the edges but every bit as authentic to the East Ely yard in 2019 as it would have been back in say 1949. The extensive preserved structures in the yard make it easy to lose sense of time… the Nevada Northern is a modern-day oddity, but only 60 or 70 years ago these types of shortlines in small distant towns were lifeblood of American life. East Ely Yard could have been “Anywhere USA” only a hundred years ago, yet now it stands alone and unique. Like a place lost in time. I can’t help but think of my hometown Tooele Valley Railway which ceased to exist long before I was born, but its much easier to picture the sights, smells and sounds that once would have happened in my hometown when I have the Nevada Northern Railway as a point of reference.

#40 just simply puts on a good show each time it runs. Thanks to the several rentals running that day, I got to chase 40 with both a train and running light up and down the canyon.

Matt offered to buy me lunch at the Economy Drug and Old-Fashioned Fountain pharmacy in Ely after our chasing. I swear, that is still the best Italian Sandwich I think I have ever had… Jimmy Johns and Subway have both failed to capture the awesomeness of that one sub in Ely. Matt left for home, and I was on my own… first I made a stop to Garnet Hill… taking an hour to hunt for garnets in the public rockhounding area. 

I've heard it said that the Nevada Northern is like a place where the people working there just left one day and never came back, leaving everything behind... I feel that is not entirely accurate; its a place where once those people left, others came back to keep working there. The machine shop there is amazing and always a must see when I am visiting.  This is true living breathing history.

In progress restoration on NN #81 was happening while I was in Ely visiting the shop. I can't wait to see this one in steam someday!

I finally returned to the Nevada Northern, using the ticket I bought earlier in the day to tour the shops. Rather than take a guided tour, I wandered in and walked the shops alone taking it in at my own pace. I watched crew working on the NN 81 restoration, while a man hosed the floors in #40’s vacant stall next to NN 93. I also got to meet the famous cat Dirt finally, after the cat managed to avoid me on my two prior visits to Ely in years prior! As #40 was preparing for its tourist train in the afternoon, I shot a few parting photographs and bought a fridge magnet on my way out of the gift shop.

One more stop in McGill to admire the still standing smelter buildings. I couldn’t resist it myself, had to admire the few standing remains still at the smelter there.

A few cans of Mountain Dew and some patience with the long road, and a few hours later I was pulling into my home in Tooele… my car running a lot more smoothly than the last trip! I’d say Ely was a successful venture… time to start thinking big again!

The ambiance of this place... its just amazing. A mid-20th century railyard just stuck in time.

The Nevada Northern Railway is one of the most talked about and celebrated standard gauge lines in America, but its isolation often means it’s quite a journey for almost anyone to get out there. Is the journey worth it? Of course. The wide-open Steptoe Valley provides a dramatic backdrop for the drive there; and the Nevada Northern Railway is steeped in the area’s history of copper mining and smelting. I was glad I got the chance to pay my dues to #40 on that trip, as the engine is scheduled to be sidelined pending an overhaul for its 15-year inspection in 2020. But with #93 and soon #81 joining the roster; the Nevada Northern will continue to be the leading experience for standard gauge steam in an authentic western setting for many years to come.

- Jacob Lyman