July 01, 2018

Photo Essay: Riding a Ghost Train and Bunking Up In a Caboose (Or, This Is What A Traincation Is All About)

I don't remember how I first heard about the Nevada Northern Railway. How do I hear about any of the adventures I go on? Facebook, AAA, recommendations from strangers, Atlas Obscura -- pretty much anything but the TV these days.

Of course, I'd been interested in the Nevada Silver Trails for years. And every now and then, I get an itching for a traincation.

My hand was forced when I saw that the historic train museum in Ely, Nevada had a few special scenic excursions available on a limited basis -- and that if I were to make the trip all the way out there (at least four hours from the nearest airport pretty much in any direction), I could actually stay at the museum.

I had my choice of booking a room in the historic bunkhouse or the entire caboose.

To quote a fellow (though fictional) train enthusiast: The drawback with the caboose is that there's no bathroom, but the drawback with the bunkhouse is that it's not the caboose.

As time goes on, I've been more and more establishing a certain notoriety for unconventional overnight accommodations...

...but this one, going to bed with no electricity or running water in the shadow of the historic No. 40 steam locomotive as the wind whipped through the railyard and jostled me to sleep...

...might just take the cake.

Of course I didn't sleep in a caboose for any semblance of luxury -- I did it for the immersion. (And, I suppose, some convenience and some avoidance of smoky casinos.)

So, I spent most of my time in Ely riding the rails.

There's the typical steam excursion, which you can sign up for pretty much any month out of the year...

...and which takes you about eight miles northwest to Robinson Canyon...

...chugging along somewhat parallel to the US-50 a.k.a. "The Loneliest Road."

It's also known as the "Haunted Ghost Train of Old Ely"...

... and on its spooky journey, it slips past the old mining towns of Lane City and Ruth...

...passing through train tunnels both historic and new...

...and hitting the end of the line at Robinson Mine, an open pit copper mine that's still in operation today and owned by a Polish company called KGHM.

We were technically on the mining company's private property at that point (which makes sense, since Nevada Northern Railway was a former holding of the original mining company in the area, Kennecott).

But when we stopped at Keystone Gulch with no rail left to ride, we stayed a few minutes longer for the horses that greeted us there.

That's because the "special" train I'd bought a ticket for was a reenactment of the Pony Express -- the defunct mail carrier service that only lasted 18 months between 1860 and 1861 but that's kept alive today in the form of reenactments by a group of dedicated volunteers and horse enthusiasts.

We literally hand-wrote letters, sealed them, and gave them to one of the Pony Express horsemen to pack into the mochila and ride off -- presumably to Schellbourne Station, both a well-preserved former Pony Express station and an actual U.S. post office.

The Pony Express reenactors have put quite a bit of effort into Keystone Gulch, recreating an old ghost town like one you might find along a narrow gauge railroad in LA... well as a cemetery, where those interred include "Claire Voyant," who "never saw it coming."

We got to linger in Keystone Gulch a little longer than expected, thanks to some temperamental brakes and an engineer who was being particularly cautious about starting up the train on any sort of incline.

It was all part of the immersion, of course. And the black coal smoke we passengers were subjected to was nothing compared to the guys who were literally working on the railroad during our trip.

After the scenic excursion is over, however, the immersive experience doesn't end there (regardless of whether you've ridden just the "regular" Ghost Train or the Pony Express Wild West Limited).

The historic locomotive drops you off just past the museum headquarters and passenger loading platform... the engine room and machine shop for a tour.

Now, I'll take just about any factory tour anywhere of any thing.

But for me, the main draw to the Nevada Northern machine stop wasn't its collection of box cars, a train snow plow, or even the historic Engine No. 93.

It was Dirt, "King of the Shop," who eats tuna and loves rubbing against human legs, especially if they're cloaked in jeans. He lives up to his name, though he does groom himself like any other good cat does, and none of the dirt comes off on your hand when you scratch him behind the ear. (Of course, I put it to the test, because I was not going to come all that way and not pet Dirt.)

The other special train excursion I booked took me in the opposite direction of the Pony Express and departed much later in the day.

For the Star Train, we embarked at magic hour...

...and headed about 12 miles northeast to McGill...

...past the Duck Creek Range and the Schell Creek mountain range even farther in the distance.

We dawdled long enough for the sun to set and the moon to come out -- slightly waxing just after the new moon, bright despite the thinness of its crescent.

There were other objects in the sky to see that night with the help of a telescope, but the nighttime train ride turned out to be surprisingly popular with families with little kids, so I let them have at it while I tried to photograph the moon.

I'd have plenty of stars to look at back at the caboose that night.

I tried to make my trip to the Nevada Northern Railway a "one and done" sort of deal, but here's the thing: I wasn't able to take every train offered in that one weekend I stayed there. And as much as I'm an obsessive collector of new experiences, I'm also a completionist.

Not to mention the fact that I haven't gotten enough of Dirt, the magical train cat—and, at 10 years old, I don't know how much longer I'll have to snuggle up to him.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: On the Sleeper Car to San Diego
Photo Essay: An Engineer's-Eye View Along a Desert Rail Line
Photo Essay: Last Chance Weekend Scenic Excursion, Fillmore to Santa Paula
Photo Essay: Last Chance Weekend Scenic Excursion, Santa Paula to Fillmore

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