The Nevada Northern Railway: A Legend Keeps Rolling

June 14, 2022

“Among all historic railroad sites in North America, the Nevada Northern Railway complex at East Ely is—no question—the most complete, authentic, and best cared-for. It’s a living American treasure and a stand-out one. Historic tracks, original depot and office building, engine house, freight shed, three original steam locomotives, five historic and rare wooden passenger cars, Kennecott diesel engines, sixty early freight cars, working machine shop, foundry-even the coaling tower and water tower that are icons of the site-everything is still there.” – Wm. Withuhn, Curator Emeritus, Division of the History of Technology, Smithsonian Institution

Think you could drive a steam locomotive?

Mark Bassett is the executive director of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum while operating and maintaining the Nevada Northern Railway.

Listed by the Federal Government as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, the Nevada Northern Railway operated out of Ely, carrying freight and passengers after construction was completed in 1906. One of the main reasons the railway received its honor is its “completeness” and official status as one of the nation’s best-preserved early 20th century railyards.

Today, the museum and railway occupy a 56-acre campus with 60 buildings and structures. The East Ely Depot was built in 1907 and still stands today.

Working on the rails for a living museum and railway.

Living history on steel rail

The Nevada Northern Railway was built to serve the copper mines in the area. As the community and mining companies grew, the railway followed suit.

Today it’s known as a “heritage railway,” meaning it is a living, operating railway, just as it was 100 years ago. 

“We currently have 150 miles of rail with 30 miles of it in regular operation,” Bassett told me, “and we plan to grow the operational part.”

Bassett is a one-person encyclopedia of railroading information, and it’s clear he’s the right person for the job. “Did you know,” he told me, “we can ship one ton of freight 500 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel?” (I did not).The Nevada Northern Railway currently has four steam locomotives and 11 diesel.

When I started to ask Bassett about finances and how the railway operates, we talked about the many creative ways they fundraise. As an example, Bassett told me about a grant they received for $487,160 to restore the pride of the railway, Locomotive #40, back to full operation.

Hollywood has also taken note of Ely and the Nevada Northern Railway. Many movie productions filmed here, taking advantage of the working locomotives, including Willy Nelson’s Once upon a Texas Train.

The East Ely Depot, built 1907

Take a Historic Ride

The railway offers several different experiences for people visiting Ely to ride an authentic steam locomotive. There are open-air cars, night rides, and occasionally, the train is robbed by bandits in a scene straight out of the old west! Choose when you purchase tickets online.

The rides last for 90 minutes, overlooking incredible scenery. With several different types of trips to take, they offer four-day passes for those wanting to try it all.

Then, there are the fireworks.

The Fireworks Train

Fireworks Train

Bassett told me with a touch of pride, “The Nevada Northern Railway is the only place on the planet where you can see a fireworks show shot off the back of a moving train!” The fireworks show is a popular draw with the dark skies near Ely.

RailRoad Dude Ranch

“For people who love trains and want the unique experience of working on our heritage railroad, we offer our own, ‘Railroad Dude Ranch,’” Bassett said before laughing a little. “It’s a bit like the story about Tom Sawyer whitewashing fences—if you know that one. We have people paying us to come and work on the railway!”

The opportunity is called “Hands-On History,” with attractions that back up the tagline, “See It, Feel It, Run It!” Here, you can visit, work, and learn how to operate a working train. 

Bassett said he is excited about the railway’s future and its accomplishments. “No two days are exactly the same here,” he said, “but we are extremely proud of our work and what we contribute to the community. We have people visit Ely from around the world to see our railway, which is pretty great.”

This is the locomotive you can drive in ‘Be the Engineer!’