Take trip to bygone era on Nevada Northern Railway

The Nevada Northern Railway in Ely - touted as the best-preserved short line and most complete historical railroad in the country - is one of the Silver State's treasures.

Centered on a complex of railyards, train sheds, maintenance shops, offices and a handsome 1907 Mission-style depot, a state museum preserves the heart of the old railway.

Vintage steam and diesel locomotives haul restored cars on miles of original tracks for popular excursions. Trains run almost daily through the summer and on weekends and holidays most of the rest of the year. Except for "steam-ups," winter months provide time for further restoration and maintenance.

Born of a copper boom near Ely, the railway was constructed in 1905 and 1906 to haul ore from the mines at Ruth in mountains west of Ely to the smelter east of Ely at McGill in the pastoral Steptoe Valley. Tracks pushed north 140 miles to connect the remote White Pine County mines with the main line Southern Pacific.

The Nevada Northern served the mines, the copper company and the community from 1905 until 1983. Often dozens of trains a day hauled ore through Ely. Trains carried smelted copper to the main line and brought back freight. The Nevada Northern provided daily passenger service until 1941. For years, area youngsters rode special school trains to attend White Pine High School in Ely.

Declining copper prices forced Kennecott Copper to cease its Ely operations. First the mines closed in 1978, then the smelter in 1983. The company finally shut down its offices, leaving paperwork and furnishings as if employees had just stepped out for coffee.

The Nevada Northern's run seemed finished, too.

Kennecott could have demolished the railway. Instead, the company began donating 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.

Years of work lay ahead for volunteers and public employees, but the Nevada Northern would roll again. Named to the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 2006, the railroad complex continues to protect and interpret a bygone era for today's visitors. It offers experiences not duplicated anywhere else.

Steam and diesel locomotives power the regular Nevada Northern trains. Steam trains run Sundays and Mondays at 9:30 a.m., Fridays at 4:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 1 p.m. Diesel trains operate Sundays at 1 p.m. and Wednesdays and Thursdays at 9:30 a.m. Regular excursion fares are $24 for adults and $15 for children ages 4-12. Tickets include the $5 museum entrance fee as well as the $9 guided tour of the complex. Reserve your seat on an excursion train online at www.nnry.com or by phone at 775-289-2085 or 866-407-8326. You can ride in the cab with the engineer for $135. If you schedule more than one train ride, the second one will be half price.

The short line also schedules special holiday trains such as a Fireworks Express on July 4, several Haunted Ghost Trains in October and the popular Polar Express rides running Nov. 17 through the Christmas season. Fares on most of these special trains are $29 for adults and $16 for children. Reserve a seat early.

Themed dinner train rides continue through September at 6:30 p.m. On the Geology Train, join an expert on geology and mining history and dine on Cornish pasties, a favorite of miners, on July 7, Aug. 4 or Sept. 8. The Western BBQ Express rolls Saturday; July 21; Aug. 4; and Sept. 1 and 22. Ride the Wild West Train with cowboys and enjoy their style of grub on July 28, Aug. 25 and Sept. 15. On the Steptoe Valley Flyer, dine on emigrant fare on July 14, Aug. 18 and Sept. 23. Dinner train prices vary.

The Nevada Northern offers several other unique experiences - for a price. Be an engineer at the throttle of a steam or diesel locomotive for the ride of a lifetime, a favorite among railroad buffs. Learn how to work on the railroad during eight-day sessions in July or August. A limited number of guests will find lodgings this summer in a venerable caboose with Spartan comforts or in a restored bunkhouse with four rooms and communal areas.

A $30 museum membership fee saves substantially on many Nevada Northern adventures.

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