ELY, NV—Thick black smoke spewed from Locomotive 40 as she chugged towards the crossing, a sign that the coal in her firebox wasn’t burning efficiently. My fault, as engineer for the afternoon. I cranked the air brakes, listening for a tss before releasing and repeating until we came to a complete stop. With the rope dangling on the right, I blew the whistle—whee-whee-oo-whee—a warning for any cows or cars that might traverse the tracks.
This wasn’t a dream, although the Nevada Northern Railway is something like a tear in the fabric of reality. Centered at the old depot in the remote town of Ely, Nevada, a few hundred miles southwest of the Golden Spike, the 114-year-old NNRY is the best-preserved short-line railroad in the United States. Along with its museum tours and excursion train trips, it offers a spendier “Be the Engineer” experience, wherein railfans—hardcore train enthusiasts—can drive a real steam locomotive along 14 miles of track in a cartoonishly perfect Wild West landscape.