a photo of a steam locomotive
Locomotive breath: Con Trumbull walks through a gust of steam during Number 40's afternoon blow-out. Alex Kniess/CityLab

To understand a true transportation revolution, I wanted to drive a coal-fired locomotive. On the Nevada Northern Railway, I found one.

ELY, NV—Thick black smoke spewed from Locomotive 40 as she chugged towards the crossing, a sign that the coal in her firebox wasn’t burning efficiently. My fault, as engineer for the afternoon. I cranked the air brakes, listening for a tss before releasing and repeating until we came to a complete stop. With the rope dangling on the right, I blew the whistle—whee-whee-oo-whee—a warning for any cows or cars that might traverse the tracks.

This wasn’t a dream, although the Nevada Northern Railway is something like a tear in the fabric of reality. Centered at the old depot in the remote town of Ely, Nevada, a few hundred miles southwest of the Golden Spike, the 114-year-old NNRY is the best-preserved short-line railroad in the United States. Along with its museum tours and excursion train trips, it offers a spendier “Be the Engineer” experience, wherein railfans—hardcore train enthusiasts—can drive a real steam locomotive along 14 miles of track in a cartoonishly perfect Wild West landscape.

Earlier this summer, with two trained operators over my shoulder, I had the chance to take the helm of the 85-ton, ten-wheeled Locomotive 40—known variously as the “Queen” and the “Ghost Train of Old Ely.” Purpose-built for the Nevada Northern in 1910, Number 40 once pulled passengers on the Steptoe Valley Flyer from Cobre to Ely, with her black paint, red numerals, and Safety First smoke box emblem as jaunty as they are today. In 1941, passenger service was discontinued when the railway was sold to Kennecott Copper, which hauled copper ore along these rails until its nearby mine shut down in the mid-1980s. Kennecott donated the entire property to become a museum, along with all the glorious rolling stock.

Nevada Northern Railway workers ready Locomotive 105 on a July morning. (Alex Kniess/CityLab)
Old railroad cars sit rusted in time on the tracks in Ely, Nevada. (Alex Kniess/CityLab)

Today, Number 40’s distinctive 3-chime Luukenheimer brass whistle still resonates across the valley. Having survived many close encounters with the scrapper, she was fully restored and crowned Nevada’s official state steam locomotive in 2009. One part retains its original patina, though: Her brake handle is worn to a third of its original size due to generations of oily gloves—now, including mine. I pushed the throttle, released the brake, and felt her quickening revolutions: click, huff, click, huff.

What exactly was I doing here, driving a steam train? I was looking for new perspective on the transportation news cycle, which these days is driven by an engine of techno-speculation. Covering the vanguards of human mobility involves a liberal use of the future conditional tense: Uber and Lyft claim that they will one day help eliminate personal car ownership; dockless scooter companies predict a future where no one uses cars; autonomous vehicles promise roads kept safe from driver-induced crashes and deaths. It seems we’re always right around the corner from transformation.

But railroads actually changed everything. They drove the expansion and development of cities to the West, blazed the path for telegraphs and phone lines, and gave rise to the invention of standardized time zones. They carried fresh produce, ice, and medicines across the continent, and helped transport the injured and ill at unprecedented speed. The colossal national project that was the building and running of America’s 19th-century rail network was a concerted effort in many senses of the phrase—a public-private partnership that joined together advances in engineering, the force of manual labor, deep private capital and federal grants of right of way—to lay the foundation for the post-Civil War United States.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad; it seemed like an appropriate time to investigate the look, smell, and feel of a genuine revolution in the way we get around.

Con Trumbull shovels coal into the firebox of Locomotive 40. (Alex Kniess/CityLab)
Angela Stevens, the trainmaster of the Nevada Northern Railway, monitors the author’s whistleblowing technique. (Alex Kniess/CityLab)

The NNRY also offered a chance to experience, for a moment, what it was like when technology required more intention. To run a railroad is to be intimate with machines in a different way from the 21st-century condition of human-computer-fusion. “We’re sort of losing control of our lives,” the railroad’s executive director, Mark Bassett, told me. “You don’t own your phone. You don’t own your computer. They update overnight. They kick you out of the box.”

But there’s nothing automatic about steam. “When you come out here and do this, you’re controlling it,” he said, “rather than it controlling you.”

***

Every day of operation, the staff members and volunteers who devote themselves to the NNRY’s seven-engine steam and diesel fleet throw on their overalls and hit the shed near dawn. Hours before Number 40 would hit the tracks on the day I played engineer, a chorus of overall-clad, soot-smeared workers (mostly men, and one woman) were building her fire, checking her grease packs, lubing her pins, and polishing her flanks.

Controlling a train is an exercise in vigilance. A century-old steam locomotive may run on tracks, but there is no cruise control (or automatic train control): Calibrating speed requires constant attention to her water levels, water injectors, and the fire-belly of the beast. “It’s a seat-of-the-pants experience,” said Con Trumbull, a former federal geologist who started his NNRY career as a volunteer, driving down from Wyoming on the weekends. Now a seasonal staffer living in the NRRY bunkhouse, he worked as fireman during my ride. “I go by feel.”

Trumbull shoveled a heap of coal—the 90-minute trip consumed 2,000 pounds of rocks—into Number 40’s firebox. Its pneumatic doors snapped shut with a huff.  

The very best firemen develop a sixth sense about the locomotive’s power, and its needs. To know how much fuel and water to add, they listen to her chuffs, watch the shade of the smoke rising from the stack, feel the quality of the steam when the cylinder cocks open. No two trips are ever the same.

Trumbull and train-master Angela Stevens, the woman in charge of all of NNRY’s operations and maintenance, made an effective pair as engineer and fireman. Stevens told me that parenting makes her better at controlling the train: Multitasking comes naturally when you having kids at home; so does risk management.“The old-timers can be hard on the brakes, hard on the throttle,” she said over the rumbling clatter. “They don’t have to be as careful.”  

From left: NNRY executive director Mark Bassett, staff member Con Trumbull, and trainmaster Angela Stevens share a laugh during Locomotive 40’s blow-out. (Alex Kniess/CityLab)
The Nevada Northern Railway’s fleet includes seven steam and diesel locomotives. (Alex Kniess/CityLab)

On that day, I shared the engineer’s seat with another railfan, Tom Randel, a retired IT professional and model railroad enthusiast who’d traveled from South Florida for this experience of a lifetime. His wife, daughter, and son-in-law had flown in for the occasion. At the end of his run, he descended from the cab in his stripe-y cap and red neckerchief and practically collapsed into the waiting arms of his family. “Astounding,” he said, his face broadened with joy.

What makes old trains so stirring? Historic fascination plays a role. So does nostalgia, for anyone who grew up watching Thomas the Tank Engine or playing conductor with a Lionel layout. Steam in particular is undeniably romantic: The chug of a locomotive can transport a listener to a long-gone era when the world seemed smaller yet more full of possibility.

In reality, though, late-19th century railroading was not so pleasant. The construction of the transcontinental railroad cost the lives of as many as 1,200 Chinese immigrant workers, who were instrumental to its completion in the West; in the southeast U.S., thousands of enslaved black people graded lines, built bridges, blasted tunnels and performed all manner of slave labor on the rails, up until and throughout the Civil War. The iron horse was part of a larger project of human extinction—the colonization of North America by white settlers and the ensuing genocide of its pre-Columbian indigenous population. Early railroads were also agents of environmental devastation—likely the single largest contributor to the disappearance of American bison—and they brought death to their operators, too: In 1889, one in every 35 railway workers was injured, and one out of every 117 expired on the job. “They suffer as if they were fighting a war,” Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge said of the long-suffering workforce a few years later.

This lethal heritage is not exactly on vivid display in the NNRY’s faded museum exhibits. But you can grasp a tiny glimmer of it by experiencing the trains in operation. A steam engine is like a bomb; if overheated, or if the water levels aren’t balanced, it can explode, literally lifting the boiler off into the air from the pent-up pressure. (Too little water and lax training caused such a detonation in 1995 on Pennsylvania’s historic Gettysburg Railroad, leaving the engineer covered in third-degree burns; back in 1912, a locomotive boiler explosion in San Antonio killed at least 26 people and leveled several homes.) Locomotive 40’s cab is open to the winds and sun of the Great Basin Desert, and it lacks both creature comforts and safety equipment. Sudden movements can send bodies tumbling into each other, or onto the tracks. Should the train lurch and you instinctively put your hands out to balance, you might regret it: The surface of the firebox is about 325 degrees F.

Steam is also labor intensive, in a way that helps explain why this industry once employed nearly three percent of the nation’s entire workforce. Beyond the daily routine that keeps the engines running, the NNRY’s fleet requires a maintenance regimen that includes a monthly power-washing of the inside of the locomotives’ boilers. Every 15 years, federal regulations require a total teardown. “For every hour a steam locomotive is hot, you pick up three hours of maintenance,” Bassett told me.

A worker applies grease to a locomotive inside the NNRY engine house. (Alex Kniess/CityLab)
A view of rolling stock from a waiting area at the Ely depot. (Alex Kniess/CityLab)

But that maintenance seems to create a certain attachment. Locomotives are strangely organic machines. In the early mornings, the engine house is desert-silent when a worker lights the first diesel-soaked rag to start the firebox. “It’s like waking up a dragon,” Bassett said. The air pumps start to breathe, the boiler physically expands with the heat, and the dynamo—the steam-powered electrical generator—whips on. For the next four hours, the machine goes from cold to warm.

“As long as a locomotive is hot, there is a certain kind of bonding,” Bassett said. John McDowell, a volunteer crew member who’d flown in from Florida for the summer, said that sitting in the engineer’s seat was like becoming part of the machine’s insides.

The diesels that supplanted steam locomotives required a lot less work, and fuel. In the 1930s, railroads literally cut up brand-new steam locomotives because the newer technology was so much more efficient to operate. Just 130 diesel engines could do the work of 200 steam. But even as their inefficiencies and risks were cast to history, these machines were grieved. “It’s sad to think that the superb locomotives of the king and coronation class must be super-ceded,” observed the announcer of a 1958 documentary chronicling the end of steam by British Pathé. “Drivers who know their ways as if the engines lived are loathe to bid them goodbye.”

***

Of course, a job is also a job. Stevens, an Ely native whose family members cashed NNRY paychecks in its heyday, told me that even working on a tiny tourist railroad can be grueling labor. “Some days suck,” she said. It’s dirty, body-breaking work, just as it was 100 years ago. But other days are amazing. To show her kids, Stevens keeps an atlas tucked in her overalls for guests to sign, who come from all over the world—South Africa, Japan, Argentina, the U.K.—to ride the rails with her, and emerge in a childlike stupor.

This summer, CBS Morning News, the Los Angeles Times, and People all trooped to Ely to see the town’s steam-powered anachronism, which led to a huge surge in inquiries from visitors and prospective volunteers. Attendance has risen from 7,000 annual visitors in the early 2000s to more than 35,000 last year, and the nighttime stargazing train tours are selling out. The cat that prowls around the railyard, Dirt, now has an impressive Instagram following. Bassett believes all this interest may be propelled by society’s broader technological ennui: a yearning for something lasting, something real, something people can get their hands dirty in.

It’s also possible that the age of steam takes visitors on a different kind of nostalgia trip. Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864, in the middle of the Civil War. Despite that existential threat, the president recognized the nation-saving potential of this technology. A century and a half later, it’s easy to forget the enormous effort and investment that creating the railroads required, and all the transformation—both intended and indirect, beneficial and bloody—that it brought.

Today, in the face of another existential threat, federal transportation authorities seem fixated on petty and short-sighted issues—threatening California’s high-speed rail funding as punishment for the state’s politics, for example, or squabbling with car makers that actually want to reduce vehicle pollution. With gas-fueled cars and planes having proved ruinous for a traffic-clogged and polluted Earth, the need for a bold vision for the future of mobility is once again great.

Yet such a plan remains unarticulated by the powers that be, even as transportation emissions climb. Instead, the big mobility ideas of our age seem united by their disposability and impracticality—e.g., dockless scooters that may not last a month, autonomous vehicles that may never truly work. Memories of the steam era don’t deserve a rosy tint, but it’s understandable why people feel nostalgic about the locomotives themselves. These machines promised and delivered something ambitious, something lasting.

Since my ride was the last trip of the afternoon, Locomotive 40 stopped short of the depot for her 4 p.m. blow-out. Like most things in railroading, this ritual has a practical purpose: It helps clear away rust and dirt kicked into the boiler over the course of a workday. I turned over the controls to Stevens, who stopped the engine at a far end of yard and flipped a valve at the bottom of boiler, which let out a massive gust of condensation.

Soon I’d be heading home via safer, quieter, and far more convenient marvels of transcontinental mobility—driving a rental car with lane-detecting cruise control, bound for a flight from Reno-Tahoe International on a plane that would largely pilot itself. But for a moment, as I watched and felt and tasted and listened to the steam blast and wisp into the sky, transportation seemed to be more than something that simply moves you.

Railfan Tom Randel captures a shot of Locomotive 40. (Alex Kniess/CityLab)

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