Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the White Pine Historical Foundation, operator of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. He can be reached at the museum (775) 289-2085 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This past week has been a week of memorials. Naturally, the biggest memorial was September 11th. But down at the railroad we had our own special memorial service.
Volunteers run our trains. One of our volunteers is John Tyson, the rural reporter for KOLO-TV. This past weekend, John was the engineer on Locomotive 93. It started as a normal weekend. The big surprise came Sunday morning during a rental of Locomotive 93. I was the conductor for this trip; Norma was head brakeman, Nathan fireman, and John engineer. Now the cab of 93 is not that large. Add the student engineer and it's getting nice and cozy, bring on board another ride-along, and we're moving toward sardine packing. But when Elsie asked to ride, we couldn't say no. But since it's John story, I'll let him tell it in his own words.
It was to be a typical weekend on the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely. I first had to renew my license by taking two Federal Railroad Administration tests, and then make three runs on Engine 93 Saturday and Sunday. Two of the runs were the regularly scheduled passenger trains to Keystone and back. The other was an engine rental.
Engine rentals are a special feature of the Nevada Northern. The customer pays a fee, and in exchange, he gets to run the locomotive to Keystone and back under the watchful eye of the qualified engineer. For many rail fans, it's a dream come true. It's also kind of fun for the regular crew watching the customer having a good time.
The engine rental was scheduled Sunday morning before our regular run, which meant an early crew call for my fireman and me, as well as the rest of the crew. And there was no time to lollygag either. We had to make the run to Keystone, turn the engine on the wye, and make it back in time to couple on to our train for the scheduled passenger run at 10 a.m.
Our engine renter was a young man who obviously had been looking forward to this trip for a long time. He wasn't alone either. He brought his mother, a regal looking woman named Elsie Harrison.
I was skeptical at first. She was elderly, and I was afraid she might not be up to the rocking and rolling of the engine, not to mention the outright dirt and grime that's typical of a coal-fired steam locomotive. But when she climbed up the gangway and smiled at us, my fears just sort of melted away.
Nathan, my fireman, put her in his seat, and after a few words about safety, we were off with a young man who was about to have an adventure of a lifetime. But we were about to learn something too. This was to be no routine trip. This one was to be special.
As we ran up the track, we learned that the rental was originally supposed to be for Elsie's husband, Joe. Elsie told me he had been a railroad buff all his life, and had dreamed about being able to run a steam locomotive. But Joe passed away in December at the age of 93. He and his wife had been married for 62 years. So today his son was taking his father's place to honor his memory. It was obvious that he had passed that love on to his son who was glued to his seat and fully connected to the heartbeat of the engine.
I didn't really notice the plastic container Elsie carried close to her chest when she came aboard the engine. She held it tightly in her arms, and it wasn't until we cleared the tunnel that Joel made a special request. He asked that when we reached a spot where the engine would be working hard, could he please put his father's ashes though the firebox of the engine. It would a promise kept, and a fitting farewell to a father and husband who was sorely missed on this once in a lifetime special occasion that was rightfully his.
When we reached the cut, I put the Johnson Bar in the corner, notched out the throttle, and when I gave the nod, Elsie handed the plastic container to her son, and together, they ran the ashes through the firebox and out the stack. I blew the whistle in a loud and mournful salute, and when it ended, reconfigured the engine, and gave her back to Joel. I then went over to Elsie and gave her a hug. I knew in my heart that this was their way of finally saying good-bye to someone whom she dearly loved.
Throughout my 57 years, I have seen many instances that reflect the poignancy of the human spirit. It is not often though we become of the instrument that allows others like Elsie and Joel to savor special moments that can be remembered and cherished for years to come. Such was the moment last Sunday, when all of us on the engine became part of Joel and Elsie's family, to share in their grief, as well the joy and fulfillment of a promise kept, if only for a few short moments in the cab of an steam engine during a rainstorm.
It is something all of us will remember for a long time to come.
Here's to you Elsie!
When John blew that whistle, I don't think I ever heard Locomotive 93 give a louder more mournful wail. She echoed off the canyon walls. Last week I was talking about how steam sells. There is a personal connection between the steam trains and their passengers. Locomotive 93 turns into a steaming, breathing being after you light off the firebox, you can hear it and feel it.
John Tyson is the rural reporter for News Channel 8 in Reno. His program, "John Tyson's Journal," features stories from around the state that reflect the best of Nevada and her people. John and his wife Carol own Tyson's Canyon Ranch in Virginia City, where they raise Texas Longhorn cattle and foster children.
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