ELY, Nevada — Would you be willing to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for an hour or two of fun?
Well, if your idea of fun is to drive a train — yes, a full-size, real-life locomotive with you as the engineer out on the open rails — there's a deal waiting for you just across the Nevada state line. On a recent sunny morning in Ely a train nut took a joyride and it cost just under $1,000.
"I love it, hah, hah!" exclaimed Max Batzer as he sat in the engineer's seat and throttled up an enormous, century-old, steam locomotive. He's more accustomed to sitting in the back seat of a taxi or sitting behind a desk in Manhattan.
"Hey, I'm a whistle artist," he shouted as he fired a blast of steam through the whistle while driving past a bunch of gawkers standing next to the railroad tracks.
Max Batzer, New York finance and real estate guy, is now Max Batzer, locomotive engineer. Maybe it was his toy trains that did it, but somehow trains got into Batzer's head a long time ago.
"Well, I had a lot of trains when I was a kid," Batzer said, "and I never got over it."
On his brief excursion as a real-life engineer, he tackled the knobs and levers and dials and learned the ropes on a true piece of history. Locomotive 40 was first put in service in 1910 by the Nevada Northern Railway. It has a huge appetite for coal, a railroad fireman shovels fuel into the boiler almost constantly, especially when the train is chugging uphill.
"This is your speedometer," said Angela Stevens, a full-time engineer who points out the finer points of train-driving to newbies like Batzer. She rode alongside him for his entire 90-minute career as a Nevada Northern engineer, helping to make sure he brought the train and its crew back alive.
"He's always been in love with trains," Batzer's wife, Cheryl, said. She wasn't the least bit nervous about it. "Everywhere we go, we chase trains because this is Max's passion."
"As much fun as I'd imagined," Max said as he pulled the rope for another blast of the steam whistle. "I love it, hah, hah, hah. Yeah, baby! Harder than it looks, though. Don't kid yourself."
Mark Bassett, president of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, agrees.
"This is hands-on, in-your-face" driving, he said. "There's no pushbutton here. You gotta work it."
When he started his drive, Batzer didn't just yell "All aboard!" and climb on. He had to take a pop quiz and undergo a safety briefing. The museum in Ely is one of the few places where you can actually "Be the Engineer," as the promotional offer is called.
"And this is the only place where it's the original locomotive on the original track, going up the hill," Basset said.
The museum itself is a remarkable, gigantic, sprawling piece of history. Just a few blocks from downtown Ely, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum includes 70 buildings and structures, 100 rail cars and 16 locomotives.
For most of the 1900s, the Nevada Northern Railway hauled passengers and copper ore until Kennecott shut down its copper-mining operation there in the 1980s. Residents of nearby towns asked if they could keep Locomotive 40 for old times' sake.
"Kennecott went, 'OK,' " Bassett recalled, "and so they transferred to the community this main complex here, which is 56 acres."
To raise funds for various exhibits, activities and railroad operations, the museum offers "Be the Engineer" packages with different levels of involvement and widely varying price tags. Bassett said Batzer paid about $800 for his brief time at the controls, but one package costs $3,500. According to Bassett, it's not always the train nut who pays it; sometimes it's an understanding wife.
For railroad enthusiasts with cash, it's a chance to get out on the road — a 14-mile roundtrip from the town of Ely, out to the mine and back. Batzer even got to drive through two tunnels, twice. Old No. 40 tops out at 70 miles an hour, but newbie engineers are restricted to 15, which means the trip is about an hour or two of pure fun.
"The difference between riding in 'em and running 'em?" Batzer said, "Aw, jeez," a comment that suggested the difference is too great to describe.
"Yeah, it was worth the money," said Max Batzer.
"I don't know how much it cost," Cheryl Batzer added, "but it definitely was worth the money, hah, hah."
On the other hand, if you're the kind of enthusiast who doesn't have that much cash, you can just "be a passenger." The Nevada Northern Railway Museum has several options for train lovers who want to leave the driving to someone else.