Nevada Northern Railway a moving history lesson

Consistently winning notice as one of Nevada’s best rural attractions, the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely offers adventurous and instructive excursions into the state’s past. The Nevada Northern’s museum tours and train rides provide fun for visitors of all ages, including families, those seeking unique experiences and dedicated railroad buffs.

Ely is 240 miles from Las Vegas in White Pine County by way of the primary route, U.S. Highway 93. Follow Interstate 15 north from Las Vegas to the U.S. 93 turnoff toward Alamo. You can follow U.S. 93 all the way to Ely or take a popular short cut.

For the shorter Sunnyside Cutoff, turn off U.S. 93 a few miles north of Alamo toward Hiko onto state Route 318. Follow this route through Lund to U.S. Highway 6. Turn right to finish the drive into Ely. Either route offers expansive views of mountains and valleys that characterize Nevada’s Great Basin scenery.

After its winter lull for restoration and upkeep, the Nevada Northern Railway and Museum resumed its regular operating season in late May. During June, museum tours and train excursions are scheduled every day but Tuesdays. In July and August, trains run every day. The Tuesdays-off schedule resumes from September through Dec. 31. The Haunted Ghost Train runs at night on October weekends. The Polar Express runs evenings from late November through December. One weekend in February, vintage steam locomotives provide nostalgic photo opportunities.

The Nevada Northern garners praise as the most complete and original short-line railway in the country. The railway complex occupies 56 acres of rail yards, 49 buildings, several steam and diesel locomotives, specialized railroad equipment and a variety of railroad cars and other rolling stock. The handsome 1907 mission revival-style depot is a gem. Rails running through Ely take train excursions into the mountains through a major copper mining district or into the Steptoe Valley, where several company towns were established and smelters operated.

Rich copper discoveries in the Robinson District near Ely in 1900 changed the area’s future. Although copper had been found in the area as early as the 1870s, it failed to generate much interest because of depressed prices and transportation difficulties.

By 1902, early claims had been bought up and combined in the Nevada Consolidated Copper Co. Investors soon financed expansion and the Nevada Northern Railway became a reality in 1905-06.

Often a dozen or more trains rolled through Ely loaded with ore bound for connection with the mainline railroad. They returned loaded with freight and passengers. In 1933, mining giant Kennecott Copper Co. bought out the earlier interests. The Nevada Northern Railway provided passenger service until 1941, including special school trains for area youngsters from remote mining camps or ranches.

Declining copper prices eventually forced Kennecott to leave the area. The company operated the mines until 1978 and the smelter until 1983. When it closed its offices in 1986, it left papers and furnishings in place as if the employees had just stepped out for lunch. Kennecott donated the ore line, yards, remaining rolling stock and shops to the nonprofit White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation. The state of Nevada acquired the depot in 1990. The site was added to the list of National Historic Places in 1984 and listed as a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

Operated as a heritage railroad, the Nevada Northern offers 90-minute daylight excursions with fares starting at $37 for adults and $18 for ages 4 to 12. There is no charge for younger children. Passengers ride in closed cars or open flat cars.

Riding in the caboose or in the cab with the engineer costs more. Themed evening dinner trains on holidays or weekends are also more expensive. Fares include museum and rail yard tours. Special activities include learning how to run a locomotive. Visitors can stay overnight in a caboose or a bunkhouse. Groups can gather in one of the restored cabooses. Peruse the railway’s website at nnry.com or call 775-289-2085 for prices of special excursions and more information.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.