Steam Trains in Winter

Ely Nevada is about as far from anywhere in the United States as you can go. It is the most remote town in the lower 48 states. The nearest Starbucks or Walmart is over 240 miles away. Even the road to Ely is called “America’s Loneliest Highway,” so I drafted my photographer friend Gary to come along. In that it’s over nine hours drive from Los Angeles, we decided to break up the drive with a night in Las Vegas both coming and going. I am glad we did as much of the scenery can be mind-numbing. Also, the workshops starts at 1:00 PM on Friday and ends at 5:00 PM on Sunday. We would be driving most of the night without the stopover.

Ely, Nevada

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Loneliest road in America

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View from the East Ely Depot

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So what’s the attraction? Ely Nevada is home to the Nevada Northern Railway (NNRY), the only national historic monument dedicated to preserving steam locomotives and other early railroad history and technology. As Mark Bassett, President of the NNRY told me, “A National Historic Landmark is the highest level that the federal government can give to a historic site. Other national monuments you might have heard of include the White House, the Capitol Building and the Statue of Liberty. We have 56 acres of property with 60 buildings or structures. We have the original locomotives and cars, the original buildings and the original written records” In short, it is the best place to not just learn about the history of railroads in this country but to also ride the trains and immerse in the experience of that part of our shared history.

Mark Bassett writes articles in the NNRY newsletter. His photo also appears there. When asking for donations, he strikes a pose like the “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster from the 1940’s. Otherwise, he looks like Santa Claus in a conductor’s outfit. I am delighted to hear him laugh as he talks because he laughs like Santa too. As we participants gather in the courtyard of the Ely East Train Station, Mark welcomes us and introduces Con Trumbull. “In addition to being an engineer, Con is the official archivist. He organizes and publishes the records of the railroad. We are constantly finding more boxes of records stuffed into the attics and even the walls of buildings. Con is working to get the records online and searchable for historians.”

Con introduces himself saying, “My name is Con as in “Con Man” or “Con Artist”. It’s not short for anything. I will be your host for the weekend. I will be assisted by a couple who are professional photographers. They are volunteering their time to the Foundation. You will meet them later as they are setting up strobe lights for our night shot. Please find the badge with your name on it. This is your pass to our whole facility while you are here for the workshop. You can enter the museum, the engine house and walk freely around the grounds.”

Mark adds, “You may cross the tracks but not step on them. It’s easy to slip and fall when you stand on the rails. If you worked for the Union Pacific, the second time you step on a rail you are fired. Also, do not stand within 5 feet of the tracks if there is a train approaching on that track. Safety first.”

Con Trumbull

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After checking in, our first photo event is to shoot a crane lifting a train off and on the tracks. This rail-mounted, steam powered hoist was used to get a train car back on the tracks in the event of a derailment. While a fascinating bit of history, it doesn’t make much of a photograph as far as I can see. I try video and I try a close up of the wheels off the track but in less than a half hour, I am out of ideas.

Lifting train back onto the tracks

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Close up of wheels off track

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The other photographers seemed to be real train aficionados. They kept shooting the same scene over and over. After a while, Gary wander in to the nearby shop where the locomotives are serviced. I follow and am delighted by what I see.

Light streams in the engine house

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Great lighting

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More streamers

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“These shots make the drive worthwhile,” I say. Gary smiles and nods in agreement.

Leaving the shop, we see the group is gathering by the tracks just outside, looking down the line towards the station. We line up with the group and get shots of the train coming down the yard.

Engine 81 coming down the line

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Engine 81 from another angle

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Pretty soon we are looking for reflections in the ice or anything else we can think of to make an interesting composition.

Reflections in the ice

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They also posed the brakeman switching the tracks. That was nice. He didn't have to do it multiple times.

Brakeman switching tracks

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After the fourth or fifth time, the train backs up and we walk to the passenger loading platform to photograph the train passing, framed by the platform. This happens four times.

From the passenger loading platform

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I see a pattern emerging. Apparently, the NNRY will stage the same shot until everyone has their fill. That is very generous of them and allows us photographers to correct our mistakes or try out new angle. Still, it is much more than I expected ted.  Even though I generally do landscapes and as a rule landscapes don’t get up and leave in the middle of a photoshoot, I am accustomed to getting my shot quickly. Light and weather change constantly. The sun breaks the horizon for about a minute. If I want to get that starburst effect on the horizon, I have to get my shot in that minute or come back the next day. That means I have to frame my shot, set up the tripod, get focus, adjust the polarizing filter, dial the aperture down to f16 or tighter and adjust the time to maintain the exposure. I may also set the camera to do multiple rapid shots at different exposures to get the highlights and shadows, then repeat that series of exposures with my thumb obscuring the sun to block out he colored blobs of light that form in the image from the light bouncing off elements within the camera. That allows me to blend the images later in Photoshop. All of this happens within the minute. The colors of sunset run their gamut in 20-30 minutes (unless you are in the arctic). A rainbow or streamers of light coming through the clouds may last as long as few minutes but wildlife can be gone in seconds. Landscape and nature photography requires pre-planning but also quick reactions to make a composition, adjust camera settings and get the shot, then possibly recompose and get it another way before the light changes or the animal leaves. You can’t ask the fox to get back in the frame or the rainbow to appear again from another angle.

Maybe it’s just me. I remember in Iceland with Colby Brown we were shooting a waterfall for an hour and a half. The light wasn’t changing. It was a flat grey, overcast sky and being mid summer, was going to remain so for about the next 15-20 hours. I told Colby I had taken enough shots of the waterfall and was ready to head back to a museum and collection of turf houses back near the parking lot. Colby said, “Sure, go ahead. Photographers are like turtles. They carry a large lump on their backs and move really slowly.” I ended up having another hour and a half exploring a turf version of Bodie ghost town. It was great seeing how people lived, having full access and the whole property to myself.

Con says, “Next we going to walk past the station along the tracks until you get to a service road crossing the tracks. We’ll shoot the wig wags and then break for dinner.” “Wig wags?” okay. When we gathered, I realized that wig wags are the railroad crossing warning signs.

Engine 81 approaching wig wags

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Passing the wig wags

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We had an opportunity to wander around the yard so I got a few shots.

By the water hose

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Snowplow

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East Ely Depot from tracks

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Depot at dusk

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As instructed, we gather after a quick meal in town at the coal tower. Both engines 93 and 84 are lining up there for a special night shoot. The couple who are pro photographers and friends of the NNRY are providing photography instruction for this workshop and have brought massive strobe lights for the night shots. Very cool.

“Okay everybody,” says the male instructor, “set your exposure time to 8 seconds. I will count you down so you know when to open your shutter, then partway through the exposure, I will trigger the flash. Use your widest aperture and lowest f stop or close to it. You will need to adjust your ISO as it gets darker. Got it? Okay, three, two, one, OPEN!” Forty shutters click in rapid succession.

Since I am shooting at ISO 100 for the greatest clarity and least noise, my exposure time is longer than 8 seconds. My shutter is still open when I hear, “Ready?, three, two, one, OPEN!” clickity, click, click. I realize that with long exposure noise reduction doubling my exposure time and with a two second trigger release, it’s taking me about 20 seconds to complete a shot. Again, I still have my shutter open when I hear, “Three, two, one, OPEN!”

Trains in evening, natural light

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Night trains with flash

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I start pressing my trigger release as soon as the flash goes off, hoping to only get one flash per exposure. With two flashes per shot, many of my shots are overexposed. Not that it matters as we keep taking the same shot over and over. Penned in by a forest of tripods on a dark rail yard covered with tracks and other obstacles, I can’t exactly go to the instructor to ask him to slow down.

After about an hour of taking the same shot, we hear, “Okay, everybody turn on your headlamps and move closer. You may want to change lenses.”

At this point, I go to the instructor and ask for longer time intervals so I can gather more light at a lower ISO. He says he will give some time for that at the end. I guess I am probably the only one here who has done a lot of night photography by starlight. Everyone else will likely not get any stars or other background unless their images are speckled with noise from a high ISO. I change lenses, move in closer and click my shutter. The instructor says, “Okay, we are going to have a couple crew members pose for us, so just wait until they are in position.”

Of course, I am still in the middle of an exposure as a crew member with a lit lantern walks past me in the dark. I figure this shot is wasted but don’t take the time to review it. I can always delete it later.

Light trails

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Turns out, it is my favorite shot of the weekend. Because of my low ISO and long exposure, the stars are sharp and clear, the distant snowy mountains are clearly visible and the image is noise free. Because of the flash, the trains, their smoke and the instructor walking are all clearly frozen in time but the two crew members swinging their lanterns are invisible except for the jagged trails of light their moving lanterns make. I love it. I later tell Con Trumbull that he can use this photo to document the night the steam trains were electrified.

I finally get a chance to shoot the trains at night without the flash after most of the other participants are gone. The smoke makes it a little soft. Oh well, I got enough. I figure all I need of any scene is one good image, not 50 of the same shot done poorly.

Though I didn't like the flash coming so fast, it was really great at freezing the action, particularly when we had people in the scene.

Workers up close - flash is great!

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Slower exposure - softer

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The next morning at 6:00, Gary and I enter the machine shop adjacent to the locomotive house. This is cool! The size of some of these tools is amazing. I wish my son Michael (who does blacksmithing on the side) could see this. It’s loud, smells of machine oil and the air is smoky, even though the door to the locomotives is closed. Looking around the shop for interesting shots, I see one of the resident cats.

There are two cats, one named Dirt and the other DJ (for Dirt Junior). Dirt is somewhat famous. Known as the King of the Shop (Dirt was thought to be a male before birthing Dirt Junior), Dirt has her own Facebook page. Her smudged face adorns mugs and T-shirts. She catches mice and sleeps on the coal pile. Apparently, she is not bothered by the noise, smoke and oil on everything. A steady supply of mice can make up for a lot. Also, it was about 26 degrees outside. The shop is much warmer.

Machine Shop

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Cats by the big grinding wheel

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Dirt Junior

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Dirt

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Moving into the locomotive house, the noise and smoke assault our senses. I don’t know why the crew doesn’t have the big doors open for fresh air. I guess they didn’t have OHSA 100 years ago and they are being true to their history. Nowadays the government would require ventilation and noise protection. Two locomotives puffing out coal smoke and steam make for some cool atmospheric images though, so I start shooting. It’s pretty dark in here and I am trying to keep my ISO low so I slow the shutter speed to as low as a 30th of a second. The Sony A7r4 has really good stabilization but it is still tough to get a clean shot hand-held at that speed, especially as the crew is moving around lubricating the engines.

Preparing the trains

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Smoky

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Lights on

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Engine 40

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Waiting to be restored

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The crew was there before 6:00 AM

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They seemed to be oiling and testing

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Eventually, the doors open and the steam whistle sounds. The trains start coming out of the engine house.

Engines 93 and 81 coming out

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Of course, each one does it several times.

Number 93 blows it's whistle

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Engine 81 takes a turn

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Both come out at once

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Engine 81 blows a lot of steam

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I also do video while standing near the tracks. Mark Bassett says to stand at least 5 feet from the tracks. That close to a passing steam engine means being completely enveloped in steam. I am really beginning to like these steam engines.

Five feet from the track - exciting!

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We gather in a dining car for continental breakfast at 8:00 and prepare to head out for our first ride on the train. In that the pandemic restrictions were just lifted in Nevada yesterday, masks are optional. I like the mask dispenser on the train.

Mask dispenser

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Our first stop is near a frozen lake. Everyone else stands beside the tracks while I go downslope to get the lake in the foreground.

By the frozen lake

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From below

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After the requisite 4-5 passes, the next shot is the brakeman signaling beside the track.

Switchman

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We next go to another wig wag, this one at a paved road. Adjacent to the tracks are some old wooden structures. Con says they were coal loading platforms. After the train passes the wig wags 4 times, Con asks, “Does anyone need another shot?” One person says, “Yes” so they run the train again.

Gary and I conclude that the rest of our group is obsessed with trains. Why else would they want the same shot over and over again? Also, we can overhear them talking about having done this same workshop for years. They must have thousands of the same shots. I could go back to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon year after year but I would get different shots because of the weather, the season or the wildlife. The trains don’t change that much.

Coal chutes by wig wags

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Coal chute and wig wag

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After heading back to the station and getting lunch from our ice chests in the car, we board the train again for the afternoon ride up to a tunnel just out of town. We take shots of the train emerging from the tunnel, entering the tunnel from above and behind and also shots from inside the tunnel. I like that this stop has more variety.

Approaching the tunnel

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Heading in

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Entering the tunnel

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View from inside

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Our last stop of the day is on the far side of a snowy pass. We disembark, hike up the hill and set our tripods in the mud and snow while the train backs up around the corner. I use my Sony 200 to 600 mm as the train will come through the pass about a quarter mile away. I zoom in, get focus and wait. Soon I hear the chuff..., chuff.., chuff, chuffchuffchuff coming up the canyon. The train comes around the bend. I track the train with my lens, panning out and then panning left as the train approaches below. I am delighted how well that lens, camera and tripod work together. The tripod is a Gitzo, fluid ball head. The video it allows is as smooth as a National Geographic special.

Coming through the pass

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On our way back, Con tells us about the history of the passenger car we are riding. Apparently, we are in the ladies and children’s car. Our seats are more plush than the mens car and are covered in velvet. No smoking is allowed in this car. The men’s car behind us has ashtrays built into every seat.

After riding back into town, we eat dinner at a Carl’s Junior. There aren’t a lot of choices in this town.

Ladies and children's car

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Back in the engine house at 6:00 AM

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Leaving the rail yard early

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The next morning, we visit the engine house again and then ride the train out of town in the opposite direction as yesterday. I decide to stand on the back platform of our passenger car as the engine is pushing the train from behind. This means our car and platform are in the front. The conductor and his apprentice are standing on the platform as well. I am fascinated to hear them talk about the signals they give to the engineer. They say things like “Left curve 25 in 10 cars” meaning “slow to 25 miles per hour in ten car lengths for a left curve”. They frequently said “100 cars, clear” meaning “no obstructions for a hundred car lengths”. I asked if the engineer could only count to 100 but they don’t think that is funny. The conductor has been doing this since he retired almost 20 years ago. He appears to be in his 80’s and is not tall but he climbs down off the train and places the steps so the other passengers can get off. Though they are giving the instructions to the engineer via walkie talkie, the conductor explains to his assistant how to lean off the side of the platform and make hand signals.

View from the dining car

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Conductor. Notice how far to the ground

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We see a herd of antelope run across the tracks about thirty cars ahead (Now they have me judging distance by car lengths). I can’t get to my long lens fast enough to get a good shot.

We eventually get to a road cut. The shot is to see the train come through the cut. First we do it with the train not moving.

Coming through the cut

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Low angle

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I tell the instructor I would like to get video from the side of the train from a distance as it moves across the landscape. He says, “You can go up on that hill. After getting some shots here, I will move everyone out of your shot.” He is good to his word. I use my Sony 200-600mm (at 600) on my Gitzo fluid ball head tripod to get a smooth pan of the train coming though the notch and proceeding across the landscape. I am really pleased to get smooth video at 600 mm, where the slightest vibration can make the image shake. That Gitzo tripod is amazing. I am about 200 yards away and able to track the motion nearly flawlessly.

Of course, when everyone moves for the next shot, I have to hike over rough country in a hurry to keep up.

Riding across the landscape

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More landscape

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At our next stop, I try another video technique – zooming out as the train approaches. Since the tracks curve here, I am able to make it appear the train is coming right towards me as if I am on the tracks. The train appears to be a constant distance as I zoom out, until I reach the limits of my zoom. That also works amazingly well.

Since we always run the same shot multiple times, I change lenses and get video of the train approaching and then passing by. Again, I am surprised how well this turns out as I am doing it hand held. The Sony A7s3 has remarkable stabilization.

I also find time to switch to my A7r4 to get still shots.

Between videos

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Beautiful day to ride a steam train

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We stop in the yard for a while for more shots, including a demonstration of blowing off steam.

Blowing off steam

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Engine 38 by the coal tower

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On the ride back I say to Con, “I am amazed you run the trains as many times as the photographers want. It must cost a lot to run the trains and there are less than forty photographers.”

“Yeah, we lose money on this,” Con says. “It costs us $20,000 to light up the trains for this weekend”.

"Why does the Foundation do it?” I ask.

“It’s really for PR. When the photographers post images and videos online, it helps bring in more visitors and inspires more donations.”

I ask Con, “Can I interview you and put that with some video I shot this weekend.”

“Sure, but I have a lot of responsibilities during lunch getting ready for the afternoon shoot. I will try to work you in to my schedule but I can’t promise anything.”

Soon after getting back to the station for lunch, Gary and I decide we have had enough train photography and that we are better off driving the long road to Las Vegas while it is still light. Con wasn’t able to make time for an interview. So as the rest of the group boards the train, I run into Mark Bassett outside the gift shop and ask if I can interview him.

He says, “Yes, but give me a few minutes. I’ll meet you down by the Engine House.”

As I make my way down that way, I stop to get video of the conductor guiding a locomotive to the water hose and another video of the snowplow coming down the tracks. This is actually better than what was on the agenda for the afternoon. Mark joins me at the snowplow and at my request, gives a little promotional speech about the Nevada Northern Railway Foundation.

Rotary snowplow

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I hope that publishing this video might bring more visitors and support to this remote gem. In the days to come, I find myself thinking about the trains, feeling the vibration and hearing the sounds of whistles, bells and the chuff, chuffing of steam engines. It get the appeal. I will probably come back next year though I think I’d like to spend more time getting behind the scenes video. I’d like to interview Con Trumbull, the conductor and some of the other workers. I’d like to see more of the shops and learn more about the world of old trains. They were after all, the cutting edge technology of their day. I’m also intrigued by the people who are fascinated by trains. Why do those photographers keep coming back year after year? Con commutes 11 hours from his home in Wyoming to work each summer on the railroad. This is clearly a labor of love. He said one of the engineers is a search and rescue helicopter pilot in Alaska when he is not driving a steam train. I understand now that the people are the real story, so yes, I will be back. I guess I’ve become one of those train buffs myself. Check it out for yourself.

Best,

David


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