Cowboys might be long gone from the dusty plains of the US state of Nevada but there are plenty of reminders of the Old West. One of these is the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in East Ely, where locomotives and other pieces of railway equipment are preserved in working order. Among the machines in the museum is a coal fired steam crane dating back to 1907. This crane is called, simply, ‘A’ and it is thought to be the only operational steam crane in North America.

‘A’ was bought new for $16,015 in 1907 from Industrial Works in Michigan. The accompanying carriages were probably built from disused rolling stock at the railway company, it is thought. The idler car, or boom car, is half carriage and half box-car. The boom of the crane rests over the open box section while all the slings, ropes and other equipment is kept in the covered carriage.

Cranes like ‘A’ were known as wrecking cranes, their duty was to remove derailed or wrecked locomotives and rolling stock from the railways. The crane would travel by rail to the site of the incident and then swing the boom out to retrieve rolling stock and locomotives that were off the track.

‘A’ has a lifting capacity of 100t at at a radius of 7m and 80t at 5m. Its working history can be traced back to 1908 when it was used to clear an accident at the town of McGill. It has been involved in the clear up of other major railway accidents, including an incident in 1955 when 50 railway cars came off the track between Cherry Creek and Steptoe Hill. It also recovered an ore train that derailed near Ely Grade School in 1966. The last job it completed was in September 1982 when it was called out of retirement to a major derailment on the Western Pacific Railroad. After this job, ‘A’ had its original friction bearings replaced with more modern roller bearings and the air brake system was overhauled.

The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is planning to renovate ‘A’ further by removing asbestos from the boiler and steam lines, inspecting and certifying the boiler and cables, and completely re-painting the crane and tool car.

Industrial Works, the crane’s original constructor, was formed in 1873 and was a specialist designer of railway and industrial cranes. In 1886 it developed a steam railway crane that had the crane and locomotive at opposite ends of the car. This design is still used with modern day railway cranes. In 1893 an Industrial Works crane could lift 12t and lifting capacities were to increase rapidly over the next 20 years or so: 20t in 1894, 50t in 1899, 100t in 1904, 150t in 1911 and 200t in 1922.

The company merged in 1927 with Brown Hoisting Machinery of Cleveland to form Industrial Brownhoist Corporation and was then acquired in 1967 by American Hoist & Derrick. While everything around it, including the company that designed and manufactured it, has changed and evolved, ‘A’ is still more or less the same as it was at the beginning of the 20th century.