The Nevada Northern Railway

The Nevada Northern was built between mid-1905 and late 1906 to serve the emerging copper mining industry around Ely, Nevada. The line stretches from the mines, located about twelve miles west of Ely, and the interchange with the Southern Pacific at Cobre, NV – a total distance of approximately 151 miles. In addition, there was a short branch from McGill Junction to McGill, and a nine mile branch – known as the Mill Branch, Adverse Branch, or Hiline – running from just east of East Ely to the smelter and mill on the hillside above McGill.

With the cessation of copper mining in the early 1980s, the railroad wrapped up operations on 21-Jun-1983. From 1985-1987, Kennecott slowly donated the line from Keystone to McGill Junction, as well as the East Ely facilities, to the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation. Abandonment was approved for the remainder of the line to the north, but before dismantling, it was sold to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. LADWP was interested in the route due to its proximity to a proposed coal-fired generating facility, and they wanted to assure the route would remain available for possible future construction and coal train use.

The route briefly returned to its mining roots in 1995, when Magma Copper started up production on the mines again. The railroad was reactivated as the Nevada Northern Railroad, which soon became the BHP Nevada Railroad once BHP bought out Magma Copper. The line was operated as far as the Union Pacific (formerly Western Pacific) interchange at Shafter, and soon purchased several old SP SD9s to haul concentrate. This operation was short-lived, though, and BHP ran their final train to the interchange on 9-Jul-1999.

Having no further use for the route after the original generating station was cancelled, LADWP sold the remainder of the line to the City of Ely for $1.5 million in 2006. The sale had been in a state of flux for several years due to a lawsuit by the V&S Railway – associated with railroad scrapper A&K Railroad Materials – and their attempt to seize the route. (Yes, these are the same folks who just bought the Towner Line from the State of Colorado.) However, judgments have been universally in favor of Ely, and the suit was finally dismissed in March of 2007.

Today, there are no freight operations (yet), and the Nevada Northern exists as an operating museum – an ore railway preserved with a large selection of its original equipment. It’s really an excellent time capsule, and one of the best-preserved combinations of standard gauge railway and native equipment anywhere. They normally have two steamers up and running – NNRY 40, a 1910 Baldwin 4-6-0, and NNRY 93, a large 1909 Alco 2-8-0. In addition, they also have NNRY 81 – a Baldwin 2-8-0 – in the enginehouse awaiting future restoration. Their collection is not purely steam, however. Their collection also includes one of the very few Alco RS-2s still operating (KCC #105), a couple of RS-3s (one operational, the 109 – and one not so, the 13), some MRS1s, a few SD9s, and a whole assortment of other goodies – a steam rotary, a steam crane, electric locomotives, a Baldwin VO1000, and much more.

The route may still have a future in freight. There are new proposals for a coal-fired generating station along the route (though not involving the City of LA), and my understanding is that the copper mines are once again operating. Newspaper articles in 2006 and early 2007 indicate that the City of Ely is considering investing enough in the route to bring it back up to Class 1 or 2 track as a tool of economic development in the region. The story of the Nevada Northern as more than an operating museum may not be quite finished.

The railroad operates year-round, offering trips for both the casual tourist as well as for the railfan (such as the legendary winter photo freights). Both steam and diesel locomotives are used regularly, and their specific daily assignments are indicated on the railroad’s website. For those interested in learning more, please see the official Nevada Northern Railway website. In addition, for those interested in the more historical railfan details of the route, there’s Keith Albrandt’s interesting Nevada Northern & Railroads of White Pine County website. (As a note, the depot is actually no longer owned by the Nevada Northern, but is actually the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum, a division of the Nevada State Railroad Museum. Still, it’s where the NNRY operates their ticket offices and gift shop, and it’s a key element to the East Ely yard.)

On my way back from California this last summer, I decided to make my first visit to the Nevada Northern. What follows is basically a very hot summer day (102+ degrees) in the operations of the NNRy, including steam (though the famous 93 was out of service with bearing problems) and a ride behind a rare Alco RS-2. Enjoy! Hopefully if I can get the time and cash together, I’ll be back for one of the famous photo freights in February 2008.

Chasing Steam on the Keystone Line

Riding the Adverse Line behind an RS2

Touring the East Ely Yard & Shops


All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 20D using either a Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS/USM or a Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS/USM.

Creative Commons License

This work is copyright 2020 by Nathan D. Holmes, but all text and images are licensed and reusable under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Basically you’re welcome to use any of this as long as it’s not for commercial purposes, you credit me as the source, and you share any derivative works under the same license. I’d encourage others to consider similar licenses for their works.