VALENCIA — Bill Eckman's been working on the railroad. And he paid for the privilege.
The Valencia retiree spent nine days in June at the Nevada Northern Railway, a historical operating railroad yard/museum in Ely, Nev., taking part in a “voluntourism” vacation.
He and his son, Rich Eckman, 43, of Churchill, flew from Pittsburgh to Las Vegas, where they rented a car and drove the 240 miles to Ely, on the northeast side of the state.
“We traveled specifically for the Nevada Northern,” said Eckman. “For a fee, of course, you get a week's instruction at Train Camp. You learn all the aspects of railroading, running the trains, coupling and uncoupling the cars.”
The Nevada Northern is an almost unchanged 19th century railroad on 56 acres with more than 70 original structures and 30 miles of track. It has two operational steam locomotives.
Limited funding is what caused the museum to adopt a policy of using volunteers to help maintain and operate the railroad.
According to the museum, the Nevada Board of Tourism coined the term “voluntourism” in 1998 for this melding of tourism and volunteer service.
“They teach you the rules and regulations of the railroad, teach you what the hand signals mean, the safety aspects of being around trains and locomotives. They teach you how to inspect an air brake. We worked on a steam locomotive in the train shop and replaced railroad ties,” said Eckman.
“We did track inspection. They taught you what to look for,” he said.
“We learned to do switching, just about everything that, if you worked on a railroad, you would be doing, especially on a turn-of-the-century railroad. Everything today is so modernized,” he said.
The weather wasn't too hot for the strenuous work, he said.
“The humidity didn't get to 15 percent,” Eckman said. “It was more comfortable than you would imagine.”
“The railroad is a working museum. It's a pretty unique experience,” Eckman said. “The museum equipment goes to the turn of the century. The employees dress in turn-of-the-century clothes. The conductors and the engineers wear bib overalls, engineer's hats and derbies.”
Bill and Rich Eckman both got to run a locomotive during their week in Ely.
Eckman said they both began by practicing coupling and uncoupling cars in the museum's train yard.
“The steam locomotive we actually took out on the line,” Eckman said. “It was a pretty good distance. It was a pretty good ride.
“You have a fireman; he watches the gauges. You have a regular engineer; he shows you what you have to do to run the throttle and the brake.
“You use the throttle to go forward and reverse,” he said.
“When you are driving the train you are pulling a tender where the coal and water are kept.”
He said he and his son are both train buffs which made the trip to Ely a perfect vacation.
“I grew up near the railroad in Indiana County,” said the older Eckman. “I am old enough to remember when they were all steam engines back then.
“They used to take steam excursions out of the Amtrak station in Pittsburgh.”
He said he's traveled extensively on train trips on Amtrak with his wife, Linda.
He said they've traveled by train from Pittsburgh to Seattle, from California to Pittsburgh via Chicago and from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
“It's a very relaxing way to travel,” said Eckman, although he added, “It's not the cheapest and you can't be in a hurry.”
He said his son was looking through the Internet when he found out about the Nevada Northern Railway, and they both decided a week at Train Camp was just the ticket.
The Eckmans stayed at the Hotel Nevada, a historic inn, in Ely rather than in the railroad bunkhouse accommodations on the museum site.
“It was built in 1929 and, at six stories, at one time it was the tallest building in Nevada,” Eckman said.
He said a plaque lists all the hotel's famous guests including Jimmy Stewart and Lyndon Johnson and the Depression gangster Pretty Boy Floyd who used the hotel as a hideout.
Ely was founded in 1870 and grew along with the regions copper mining, but today Ely is not quite the size of Butler, said Eckman.
“It's interesting, but it's kind of remote. The nearest Wal-Mart is 200 miles away,” he said.
Despite the remote location, Eckman said the experience was train buff's dream.
“Just being in the locomotives, that and the people. There are a lot of volunteers out there and they're all friendly,” he said.
He said he and his son met a train enthusiast from New Zealand who was attending the camp and a family of train enthusiasts from the Czech Republic.
Eckman said it cost him nearly a thousand dollars for the privilege of spending a week maintaining the rolling stock and the rails of the Nevada Northern Railway. And he said that's not counting airfare, car rental, hotel or food costs.
But he said it's an immersive experience learning everything from track inspection to hooking up airbrakes.
“You can see why the diesels put the steam locomotives out of business,” Eckman said. “It's a lot of work to get a steam engine ready to run.”
“We'll be definitely going back to just be volunteers and work the railroad,” said Eckman. “It's great if you like trains and want to see something different.”