RailCamp Article – By Anton J. L.
How does one become a Rail fan? I sure couldn't tell you. But every railfan feels something magic about a train. I sure do. I live in California, and nobody in my family has ever had any interest in trains prior to mine. My interest for trains all began in 2003 when I asked my mother to take a short trip with her on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles to San Juan Capistrano. This is about an hour and a half long trip, and it wouldn't be my last. Since then, I have taken several long distance Amtrak trips on the Coast Starlight, and the Southwest Chief. My liking for trains was extending further and further. I began acquiring more and more information about railroads in America, and especially Amtrak. One day while online, I stumbled across the RailCamp website. I had only seen the first page before I knew I would have to go!
RailCamp is a one-week program that gives high school boys and girls a hands-on look at railroading that most people never get to see. It is made possible by the National Railway Historic Society, in Philadelphia. The program began less then 10 years ago, yet it has had tremendous success. It is directed by Barry Smith and Gary Yanko. They do a phenomenal job in making the experience incredible. When RailCamp began, it was held at Steamtown in Scranton, PA. That is about three thousand miles away from my home, so I was very pleased that the NRHS recently developed the program at the Nevada Northern in Ely, NV. The Ely camp is directed by Gary Yanko, and is very similar to the past sessions at Steamtown. Although, we would be the first RailCampers to experience it.
RailCamp began on July 9, at the NNRY depot. Getting to the NNRY was an odyssey in itself, I flew from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, before I took a shuttle to North Las Vegas airport for the second leg of my trip. Scenic Airlines flies small 19 seat aircrafts from N. Las Vegas to Ely. Unfortunately, my particular flight was delayed (and they say only Amtrak is late). When I finally arrived at the small airport in Ely, I was greeted by our head camp counselor Gary Yanko, along with fellow RailCamper D.L. Burks. Upon arrival at the Depot, I enjoyed a very tasty assortment of babecue outside of the Depot.. During dinner, I got acquainted with everyone else. There were a total of 9 of us, and each one of interests in railroading was different. Everyone was primarily focused on a different area of railroading such as steam, freight, passenger, etc. We had a very interesting dinner conversation. After dinner, we had a meeting inside. We learned what we would be doing during RailCamp, rules, and received equipment including hard hats, and gloves. After the meeting we drove to the Ramada Inn where all of the campers, as well as our two counselors stayed. My roommate was Stephen Sery who was from Maryland. Our second counselor was Mr. David Burks. After the long day of traveling, I hit the hay at the Ramada.
Each day of RailCamp we got up at 6:00AM to get an early start. We ate breakfast at the Ramada Inn restaurant where a convenient continental breakfast was prepared each morning. Immediately following breakfast, we would go over to the depot. This day was our first look at the facilities at the NNRY. Dating back to 1907, the NNRY was established as a successful passenger railroad in Northern Nevada. After passenger and freight services halted, the railroad is now a popular tourist destination being known as a tourist railroad. Each day tourists from all over the state, country, and world head to the historic facilities to take part in was passengers did a hundred years ago. Throughout Monday morning, we were given more materials, and a tour of the museum property. My favorite part was the locomotive shops where most of the crew at the NNRY work each day. After the tour, we learned we would be split into groups on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to take part in group activities. At noon, we had lunch in the depot. Our lunches were freshly catered sandwiches, chips, fruit, cookies, and cold beverages. After lunch, we went to an enormous copper mine. It turns out copper is big business and is constantly being sent to China to develop phone capabilities since phone cables require copper to function properly. Each day, enormous dump trucks, priced in the millions go in and out of the mine. The mechanically privileged miners work in shifts twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. These dump trucks have replaced what trains did several years ago. After the tour, we went to the Steptoe Inn for dinner. The Steptoe Inn is a local bed and breakfast operated entirely by owners, Paul and Ronnie Branham. They prepared fresh pizza, and salad our first night. We enjoyed our dinner in an enclosed room with a beautiful view of their rose garden. After dinner, we headed to the depot for an activity where a few of us would share an important object(s) that has to do with railroads, Tonight, 3 RailCampers went. We watched a variety of objects such as photos, lanterns, keys, etc. Back at the hotel, we shared photos from the day, and relaxed in our hotel rooms. I was very excited for Tuesday, my group would be in the Machine Shop taking part in some very interesting activities.
Tuesday came fast, after breakfast we headed over to the depot as usual. At 8:30AM we split up into our groups of three. In my group was Zachary Harding, and Nicolas Marakovits. We all headed over to the Machine Shop, where we began by learning about safety. After all, the NNRY slogan is “Safety First”. After that, we assisted shop crew by cleaning Steam Locomotive #40, which would be back in service the following day. After we go to know the shops, we would now be learning how to weld. Marty works in the shops, and would be the one to show our how to weld. He was very informative and friendly to us. When I started welding, I realized that it's not as easy as it looks! But after awhile, I did get the hang of it! By mid-morning we headed back to the depot for our lunch. We had an interesting discussing during lunch, getting each other caught up on what we had all been doing throughout the morning. After lunch, we go got a tour of the EMD SD9. The SD9 locomotives began being built in 1954. Since the locomotive was in the shop, we also had the change to go under it, and get a close up look at the trucks, etc. When we came back up, we climbed aboard and looked in all of the compartments. The SD9 in particular is started from the outside. After we started it, we went inside of the cab to learn about all the controls. I was rather familiar with the inside from experience playing Microsoft Train Simulator. Although this cab was very old, it still seemed very similar. Towards the end of the day, we took part in my favorite activity of the day. Just outside of the shops is an old box car with operational air brakes. Using an air brake tester, we got to actually apply brakes to the box car and listen to the cars reaction. Although the car had the hand break applied the entire time, this was very exciting to see how a freight train would stop with over a hundred cars. After we finished up at the shops, we headed back to the depot. After we were all back together, we rode a velocipede for about a half hour each taking turns running it a few hundred feet. For dinner, we went over to the Steptoe Inn. At the inn, was freshly prepared roast beef, baked potatoes, and salad. The roast beef was delicious after a hard day in the shops, for desert we had strawberry cheesecake. Back at the Ramada, I went to bed late that night watching TV, and enjoying the cool air at the 6,427 feet elevation.
Wednesday would be the most laborious day. That is because today, our group would be building actual track the NNRY would be using. The prior group had built about 30 feet of track and it was now our turn. RailCampers were given the responsibility to build about 100 feet of track in 3 days for the railroad to use when transporting locomotives from the yard to the shops. After a demonstration by Dennis and Leonard, the three of us began manually drilling spikes into the ties, and laying the track. We also had to drill holes into the ties, and position everything perfectly to avoid costly mistakes. We soon realized that laying track was not necessarily a mentally difficult task, but definitely a physically difficult one. We nice talking took turns though which made things easier. We went to lunch at noon, and we were all very hungry. After lunch Dennie and Leonard told us the work would be getting quite a bit easier. That is because we would now be able to use a jackhammer recieving power from the SD9. This made the work go much faster and we finished over 30 feet in the day. This was a very rewarding activity, and Dennis and Leonard were nice enough to invite us all back to the railroad again if we are ever in Nevada to work more on the track. After we all met up at the depot, we traveled about an hour to a Hot Spring just outside of Ely. We had a picnic dinner of fried chicken, and rolls on the grass. The dinner was tender and delicous! After eating, we all got in the hot springs. At the hottest point, the hot springs are boiling, and can obviously not be touched. But further down, they are about 90 degrees, and prefect for relaxing in. They are very similar to a hot tub, just entirely natural. This was very interesting since most of us were accustomed to a swimming pool. We drove back into town, and soon we were back at the Ramada. My group was very tired, and we went to bed a bit earlier that evening.
I was looking forward to Thursday very much because today, was operations day. We would be riding the 9:30AM train from Ely to Ruth. After breakfast we met up with Conductor Gene, who is a volunteer at the railroad and is in charge of the operation of many of the NNRY train trips. After inspecting each of the passenger cars in the morning consist, we departed on-time to Ruth. Throughout the trip we each got to collect tickets, ride in the cab of the Steam Engine, and assist Conductor Gene while switching the train on our trip back to Ely. We had a relaxing lunch, and I was anticipating out afternoon activity very much since we would now be learning about railroad radio from Joan Bassett. Joan took the three of us to the dispatchers office which has a birds eye view of the platform area. I own a scanner, and enjoy listening to railroad operations on it very much. Hearing from someone who does this every day was interesting because she explained how careful a dispatcher must be since one small mistake can land in disaster on the railroad. After this exciting day, we headed to the Steptoe Inn for a very special authentic meal. We would actually be eating what the miners did years and years ago. This was very special food, and had a different taste to it. It was primarily meat and potatoes in a crescent type roll, although it was prepared to last throughout the entire day. After dinner, we headed back to the depot to share more about our interests in railroading, and watch videos about railroads across the country. Back at the Ramada, I went to bed and I was very excited for the next day. The next day, all 9 of us would be operating the Alco RS3 individually.
Friday finally arrived, and we were all eagerly waiting for our turn at the throttle of the locomotive. After our routine breakfast at the Ramada, and the trip to the Depot, we went out to the old Ore Yard where would each be taking turns as engineer, brakeman, and switchman. First I was the switchman, this itself can be a very dangerous task if not done properly. However, now in the 21st century, railroads can switch tracks from thousands of miles away by using electronic motors, etc. After that, I climbed aboard the RS3 and moved the train a few hundred feet, coupled it to a freight car, and waited for order from my switchman and brakeman. After that, I was the brakeman. This was the most challenging because we needed to know our hand signals very well to avoid a miscommunication. These 3 jobs were incredible! Most people never get to do any of these so I felt very fortunate to be able to. After we all finished up, we had lunch. In the evening, we had a dinner similar to the first night at RailCamp, barbecue outside of the depot. RailCamp had gone by so fast and I was sad that it was already over and I would be in Los Angeles by that time the next day. After the tasty dinner, we were awarded our certificates, and given NRHS memberships, NNRY commemorative coins, and bid farewell to some of the NNRY staff we would not be seeing again.
Saturday was the last day of RailCamp. We woke up a bit earlier, at 5:30AM to have an extended breakfast with Mark and Joan Bassett at the hotel. We discussed with them about future RailCamps and how they can make it even better. We had very few suggestions, since the experience was already so remarkable. After a final trip to the depot, and bidding farewell to all of my new friends, myself, our counselors, Gary Yanko, and David Burks, D.L. Burks, Nick Marakovits, and Stephen J. Sery headed to the small airport to catch our flight to Las Vegas. We enjoyed a final conversation on board the aircraft (of all places), and hoped to see each other again. At McCarran Int'l Airport we all split up and headed our own ways back to different parts of the country.
RailCamp was an amazing experience. I highly recommend going to RailCamp to anyone who an interest in trains. Even if you are an adult, RailCamp now even offers a program for Adults at the NNRY. If you have an interest in trains, go to RailCamp, you wont regret it. All Aboard!