On the rails

The Nevada State Railroad Museum gets back on track after a damaging flood

The museum will kick off its summer steam locomotive operating season during Memorial Day Weekend. Learn more by visiting http://bit.ly/2qyvrq2.

Story and photos by Jeri Chadwell-Singley

On a Monday afternoon in mid-April, a handcar rolled down the track at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City. Working the lever at the center of the muscle-powered car was a family of four. The sound of their laughter carried to where Adam Michalski stood in semi-darkness, peering up with a flashlight into the 45 tons of steel and iron above his head.

The Virginia & Truckee No. 25 steam locomotive was scheduled to run during a special reception for state legislators the following day, but, before that could happen, Michalski and a few of his coworkers needed to service and inspect it to make sure it was up to the job.

Standing beneath the train in a service pit cut deep into the cement floor of the museum’s shop, Michalski held a heavy metal plug in his hand—one of four that had been removed from the massive locomotive earlier that day. He had carefully cleaned the plugs and wrapped them in elastic tape before coating their threads in a mixture of oil and graphite, taken from a coffee can labeled “duck butter.” The greasy concoction had long since spread to his hands, and from there to the crisp blue denim of his new overalls. He had only to place the last plug in its hole. After that, the train could be pulled outside, where his teammates waited with a forklift to boost its heavy steam dome into place.

By the end of the day, the train’s tender would be filled with water. If that water came pouring back out of any of the plugs, Michalski would know he’d made a mistake somewhere along the way.

It’s worth noting that this work wasn’t out of the ordinary. The museum staff performs maintenance of this sort every year before firing up the trains for the tourist season. It was, however, a first for Michalski. And, as the museum’s curator of education, it was a job that normally wouldn’t fall to him. Lately, however, things at the museum haven’t been entirely normal.

“You just never know what you’re going to get each day,” Michalski said. “Like today, I’m working on putting plugs into a steam locomotive. … I have a meeting about websites on Thursday. Friday, I’ve got an events committee meeting. Sunday is the Easter egg hunt. But, the good thing is, I enjoy it all.”

Some of these duties are new for Michalski. With a museum attendant position vacant since August, he’s had to pick up some slack. And he’s not the only one. On the day the No. 25 was serviced, the restoration crew—to whom engine maintenance generally falls—was technically short two people. Restoration specialist Rick Stiver was there but assigned to temporary light duty. Mort Dolan, another veteran of the department, was there, too. But he—like Michalski—represented an extra set of hands, called in to temporarily fill a vacancy he himself created upon accepting a position as the museum’s facilities manager.

An hour later, with the steam dome in place, the crew stood chatting as the locomotive’s tender filled with water. Like Michalski, they were all happy to take time out of their schedules for the task. The mood was light as the group joked about what might happen if Michalski’s replacement plugs didn’t hold back water.

Curator of History Wendell Huffman looks over one of the museum’s unrestored pieces. According to Huffman, sound arguments can be made against restoring them.

In truth, a leaky plug—which there was not—might have posed an annoying setback to the day’s project. But even if the locomotive’s entire 2,500-gallon tender had emptied on the spot, it couldn’t have compared to the deluge that had inundated the same space just a few months before.

Taking stock

In early January, while the rest of the region kept its eye on the rising Carson and Truckee rivers, a major catastrophe quietly unfolded at the railroad museum. For Michalski, who was there when it happened, it was another first.

“I was in my office all day,” he said. “It was just raining.”

Heavy rains continued through the morning as Michalski worked on, unaware. By the time Wendell Huffman, the museum’s curator of history, stopped by in the early afternoon, the situation had become serious.

“Wendell came into my office—and he said, ’There’s a lot of water out there,’” Michalski recalled. “I didn’t think it was that bad. I’m just looking outside my window, and it’s a heavy rain, but it doesn’t seem that bad. We walk out to Wendell’s office, to the annex, and there’s just this huge area of water. We have picnic tables out there, and the water was probably up to the bench. There was water going down towards the interpretive center. … It was going underneath the [shop] doors.”

After a weekend of flooding, the museum announced on Jan. 10 that it had sustained at least $500,000 worth of damage. Flood waters had rushed down two canyons to the museum’s west before cutting across the property, leaving channels several feet deep along a section of the railroad tracks. The floors in the shop were caked in mud. And 5,000 gallons of water had filled the pit in the shop floor.

Cleanup took nearly two months, during which time the museum stayed closed. But behind its doors, the precious collections remained unscathed.

Kept a-rollin

The museum reopened on Saturday, March 4, with a day of free admission. By then, much of the damage had been repaired, except for a section of the track that encircles the property. Despite being less visible to the untrained eye, this damage was the most serious the property sustained.

By April, the deep ravines surrounding the track had hardened in the sun—the last visible traces of the deluge that had swept over the property four months earlier. But a larger problem remained hidden in the surrounding ground.

Passengers disembark after a ride on the McKeen Car, a gasoline-powered railcar owned by the museum.

Standing near the tracks on a dry afternoon, history curator Huffman tried to explain.

“The problem is these ties—the cross ties—should be in gravel, so if any water falls on the track, it’ll run through the gravel and away,” he said.

But when the flood waters receded, tons of sediment were left packed into the gravel, and the threat of future flooding was only one problem this presented—because gravel alongside and beneath railroad tracks isn’t only there for drainage. It also acts as ballast, distributing the weight of the railroad ties and holding the track in place as trains pass along it.

With the annual Memorial Day celebration only weeks away, and everyone hoping for a regular operating season for the locomotives, this was the final problem to address.

Back in January, the prospects for summer train rides had looked truly dismal. In February, things didn’t sound much better when Nevada Division of Museums Administrator Peter Barton told legislators, it would take “a tremendous amount of effort” for the tracks to be ready in time.

March had come and gone with a more optimistic outlook, but still nothing promised. April had likewise passed quietly, without a definite yes or no. By the time the official announcement came, it was May.

With the track repairs on schedule, it was time to hold the annual safety refresher for the museum’s cadre of volunteers, who, in a few short weeks would be giving tours—and operating the trains.

The completion of track repairs represents the closing of a tense chapter for the train museum.

Warm weather will bring more visitors and more revenue. A new member is set to join the restoration crew next month, and the museum attendant position should be filled soon, too. While the staff is still stretched a bit thin, things are returning to normal.

During a tour, Huffman talks with a woman about the Glenbrook. This wood-burning steam locomotive was built in 1875. The museum completed restoration on it in 2014.

In part, this means having the time to look beyond the coming days and weeks to the future, where new challenges and aging dilemmas surrounding both people and trains await consideration.

Operating procedures

For Chris DeWitt, the head of the restoration department, thoughts of the museum’s future are, oddly enough, often focused less on the engines than the people who run them. A 36-year veteran of the museum, one of his jobs is overseeing the volunteers’ operation of the locomotives. He speaks bluntly about the challenges this brings.

“One of our problems is that we have a cadre of people that have been here since we started operating the steam, and it’s kind of their way or the byway, and they’re sort of very cliquish,” DeWitt said. “I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. They’re great people. They show up. They work. They’re kind to the equipment, but they’re not bringing people into their group to continue operating. When Barry Simcoe falls over dead, somebody’s got to replace him. But he hasn’t trained a replacement.”

In DeWitt’s view, allowing the longtime volunteers to run the steam program has limited opportunities for new people to get involved. It’s a problem for which his solution is as straightforward as his explanation. He’s simply given over operation of the museum’s two wood burning locomotives to the younger volunteers.

“Barry doesn’t run the wood burners—the No. 22 and the Glenbrook,” he said. “That one’s my call. And, accordingly, I have pretty much given that over to all of the kids.”

It seems like a good strategy for getting fresh blood in the mix. And by all indications, it seems to work.

Before leaving to work on the V&T, and then the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, Kevin Owens was a young volunteer at the museum. Now, when he arrives back in Carson, it’ll be as the newest member of the restoration team.

“He’s sensitive to the collection,” DeWitt said. “He likes the museum. He has a history with it. He’s going to be great, and I anticipate—although I would not tell him this to his face—that he will, in a few years, be it five or 10 or 15—work himself into the position of the head of the restoration department here.”

For DeWitt, it’s a thought that’s comforting—at least somewhat, anyway.

Education Curator Adam Michalski stands atop the No. 25 locomotive as its steam dome is lifted into place.

“I don’t want to walk away from this and have somebody walk in and decide that they’re going to—I don’t know what they’re going to do,” he said. “It actually concerns me.”

It probably should, considering staff positions at the museum are few, and leadership roles, fewer. Basically, a person who holds one is in a position to influence not only the management of volunteers, but also the museum’s collections, which include many unrestored pieces.

The current leaders—including DeWitt, Huffman, and the museum’s director, Dan Thielen— spent a long time developing a formula for success in restoration. It involves moving slowly, and sometimes not at all.

Pushing past

Tucked away in the shop where the majority of visitors never go rests an important piece from the museum’s collection. It’s a passenger railcar, and it’s not much to look at. In fact, it’s literally falling apart.

The staff members are doing what they can to stop the decay, but when it comes to this particular piece, that’s where they’ve all agreed to draw the line. They want it preserved, not restored.

The Virginia & Truckee coach No. 17 is the oldest car in the museum’s collection. It’s also arguably the most historic. Built in 1868, the car had a long history of service before coming to the museum almost 30 years ago. It had served on the V&T and been used in movies by two different studios. It had even made a stop at Promontory Summit in the territory of Utah, on May 10, 1869—the day the final spike was driven on the First Transcontinental Railroad.

“This particular car was there when they drove the gold spike,” Huffman said. “And it’s made me think—and other people—that, you know, tearing that car up and throwing it away and building a new car that looks just like it and saying, ’This is the car that was there,’ is sort of a shame when you’ve got something that was really there. Let’s try to make it interesting so that people can appreciate it even though it’s old and ugly.”

But not everyone agrees with this approach.

“We’ve had some very powerful people—even our own board—tell us, ’You’ve got to restore it. It’s so significant to the nation, and we’ve got to tell the story,’” said museum director Thielen. “And I have been just, ’No, we don’t. We can tell a lot of stories with this, but if we restore it, we’ve just got another coach that we think looked like this.’”

DeWitt pointed out that while new-looking, restored cars and engines are what most of the visitors come to see, that’s not the case for everyone. And in his opinion, the days of restoration—at least at the Carson City museum—may be numbered.

“I mean, we’re not going to restore everything on the property—nor should we,” he said. “When you restore a piece of equipment, you throw away original fabric. None of the researchers, none of the historians and scholars of railroad history, come to this museum to look at a restored piece and research it. It doesn’t happen. They look at the unrestored things, because the footprint is still there.”

For now, it seems the three men aren’t facing too much opposition to their plans. Huffman likes to think the slow pace of bureaucracy will work in their favor. And in the meantime, he’s scheming up ways to capture people’s interests with unrestored pieces.

“I want to get a steam locomotive and cut it in half so that people can see a cross section, all the stuff inside,” he said. “Look at that—you light up at that. But you know what a steam locomotive is worth? You think you could get a steam locomotive and actually do that? I found one. I found one, and the owner is willing to do it, but his son doesn’t want to give it to us. But I’m hoping, in time.”