A railroad steam engine! It sits there at the station grumbling and belching and there's not a man I know who can stand and look at one of these steaming, smoking monsters and not wish he was up there in the cab driving the thing. Well, here at the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, Nevada, you can. There's a couple of options and it costs between 200 and 550 dollars depending on what you do, but YOU, like John and Michael Monsma from Flagstaff, can sit IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT... and drive...take this beast right out on the mainline and now YOU'RE going where the train goes instead of standing on the side of the track WISHING you were going, and the throttle is in your hand. The day we were there, you would have been under the watchful and very patient eye of Engineer Harold Hockett, who makes sure you don't run off the end of the track...

"I show them how to use the independent brake valve," says Harold. "An how to use the throttle. What to look for. When you're driving a steam engine you have to more or less learn to drive it by feel. 'By the seat of your pants,' that's the way you drive a steam engine."

Harold laughs. "People buy these lessons and they get up here in the cab and they're amazed. They're scared. They don't realize it's so hot. And they come up here with shorts on and no gloves. We have to make a few changes before we can go."

Michael Monsma, of Flagstaff, bought the steam engine lessons for his father's, John, birthday. "I think after this he's gonna' want a part-time job here!"

Now John is TRYING to keep a serious face on his head but having a hand on the throttle and blowing the whistle and waving at the folks is too much...is this the cat that just ate the canary or what?

"Ever since I was a little kid," says John, "it's one of those things you get excited about! I had a model train setup in the house and a lot of railroad stuff around. This is a real lifetime experience."

Seven miles up the line they turn the engine around and head back for town and it's Michael's turn to drive. He's driving old engine #40 and it is the steam era at it's most realistic...the fireman still has to shovel coal into the boiler, the cab is hot and noisy, and it has it's own personality!

If you don't have the money to drive the train, you can ride the train for a lot less on weekends during the summer. This, too, is steam era at its best, and sometimes at its grimiest. Going through the one tunnel on the trip and you can literally SEE the smell of steam trains, smoke from the engine swirls into the open car windows an there's a lot of hacking and coughing going on.

It's not a very scenic trip, it runs 7 1/2 miles out of Ely then turns around and comes back. But if you are in the area, it's just one of the things you ought to do if you are a serious tourist at all.


Trains run, generally, on weekends between the first of May and the last of September. Call for times and reservations: (775) 289-2085 or write NNRY, P.O. Box 150040, East Ely, Nevada 89315.

Engine lessons: steam engine - $550 for 2 hours out on the mainline; $300 for 1 hour in the yard.
Engine lessons: diesel engine - $300 for 2 hours out on the mainline; $200 for 1 hour in the yard.

Excursion trains also run on pretty much on weekends during the same period.

The engineer was a genuinely nice guy, but the fireman on the engine was as about as ill-tempered a human as I've encountered in a long time. He snapped at me the whole trip for getting in his way, and as John Monsma drove the engine out of the station, the fireman opened an overflow valve that sent steam and water and soot shooting out on the platform, enveloping our goodbye-waving wives in a soggy mess.

Management told us later, well, they're volunteers. So stay away from the left side of the steam engine when you go, just in case that guy's still there.

They have a website: www.nevadanorthernrailway.net/.