Pumping the Great Basin on a Handcar


Jan 4, 2017
I am writing to share one of the more unique outdoor activities you will come across. My son Mason is 20 years old and has been building, selling, and operating railroad handcars since he was 13. I produced a fun and inspiring video of Mason navigating his handcar across the Great Basin on the Nevada Northern Railway outside Ely, Nevada. We typically pump about 40 miles a day. The Nevada Northern Railway has 160 miles of trackage, with less than half that is passable due to the sage brush that has taken over the unused sections. We made arrangements with the railroad to allow for passage of our handcar.

Navigating the handcar across the Great Basin has its challenges. The grades on this line are not too great, but the wind can be difficult. During high wind events the car will actually blow uphill. Rattlesnakes are frequently seen in the afternoon and evening. During dusk and early evening it is not uncommon to find a half dozen rattlesnakes over a mile of trackage so one has to be careful. The snakes are attracted to the warmth of the rails once the sun goes down.

I shot most of the 2.5 minute video with an aerial drone and my 14 year old daughter wrote and composed the sound track that accompanies the video.


Todd Clark
Loved it. How do you lift the cart onto the tracks?

It weighs about 500 pounds and we transport it by trailer. It rolls off the trailer and you pick up one end to put it on the tracks. Back in the day handcars were constantly taken on and off the track to avoid oncoming trains. We fortunately, don't have to do that. Here is another video showing the process of traveling over a track switch:


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That's really cool. I figured that handcars pretty much only existed in movies by now! Looks like backbreaking work. I bet your son is in fantastic shape.

So would you drive along on a parallel road as he pumped?
That's really cool. I figured that handcars pretty much only existed in movies by now! Looks like backbreaking work. I bet your son is in fantastic shape.

So would you drive along on a parallel road as he pumped?
No, we all go along. There are not a lot of paved roads along the Nevada Northern Railway. In the early years we spent a couple of family vacations up in Ely just running the handcar. We began our day by piling on jugs of water onto the car and the four of us went off for the day. My daughter who wrote the song in the video was about 7 or 8 when we started these. One year Mason spent the entire summer in Ely and put on about 1000 miles onto a car we call big red. I attached a photo of the car that he built about five years ago. That car is bigger and rides like a tank. It was intended for the roadmaster of the railroad.

My son had to actually slow down for the video because it was harder to pace with the drone. Cruising speed is about 10-12 miles per hour and you can top out at about 25 mph... though it is scary at that speed. He has built a number of cars now, and the car in the video is his best performer yet. Very easy to pump account of its wood centered wheels absorb the shock and track well.

Wind is brutal though and we had one trip in the Nevada Desert where we did not think we were going to make it back. We had sustained 30 mph head wind and at times we found it easier to get off and push... downhill.


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I don't know why but i thoroughly enjoy this! its like a combo of something that is very old fashioned but new at the same time, plus i'm just hearing the "rollin rollin rollin" song from Five O goes west :)
I never watch videos online, but I am very glad I watched this one, thanks. Nice camera work and great scenery. You must be very proud of both your kids :)

So, railroads still use handcars? I never would have guessed.
Really evocative video, and an extremely cool living history project, as well. I've spent a little time in Ely, and the NN is a remarkable property, indeed. If the weather cooperated, spending a day roaming the railroad on that handcart would be a great experience ... not to mention a heck of an upper-body workout!
I'd love to hear more details. How does "We made arrangements with the railroad to allow for passage of our handcar" work? Are there disused lines in remote areas where you could do "handcar camping"?
Welcome to BCP Todd. Very cool project and nice work on the video. Out of curiosity, are you from Nevada? If not, what drew you to this piece of track?
After my son built the handcar he discovered there wasn't a lot of places to run the car in the west coast. The land is too valuable in California and unused lines get torn up. We heard about Nevada Northern and their miles of trackage. We ventured there back in 2011 and did a family vacation. The following year we spent about two weeks there and left Mason there for the summer to volunteer around the railroad. Since then we have been to a few other railroads, but we always go back up to Ely because of the openness and freedom we have there. There are groups of guys known as rail bikers who do something similar with more modern vehicles. You can search them on Youtube.

Nevada Northern has a lot of track, but much of it is impassible due to sage brush growth. There is probably close to 75 miles on the northern end of the line we have always wanted to ride, but it is boring scenery and the snakes and no cell phone service cause us concern. If one gets bitten out here you are on your own and will die before reaching a hospital. Snakes are a significant hazard because they tend to hang out around the rails for warmth. Sometimes they are startled enough to jump up against the handcar as you pass over them. We use to take a velocipede (rail bicycle) out until we had a close call with a snake and stopped using it here. The railroad director told us he would let us go out there if we had a satellite phone.

Railroads don't use handcars anymore and haven't been manufactured since the 1950's. Pretty much railroads stopped buying them in the late 1920's when motorized vehicles became reliable. My son has a friend in Maine who has an original handcar he bought and takes it out a few times a week on an unused line in Maine. The line is owned by the state and he gets a permit. There are a number of lines in the midwest and east that allow for this, though some of them are being converted into trails with the rails being torn up.
This is super cool! Your daughter is very talented as well. Kinda makes me feel guilty for being a rails to trails member. I would love to see more of some other trips. I'm surprised you said there aren't many unused corridors to ride out west. I feel like there are tons out in Appalachia, although not as scenic.
I am on the fence on the rails to trails program. I would love to see many abandoned lines be banked as is for a long time, but reality is they need maintenance even for railbike operations... something that is expensive and doesn't serve that many people. I would like to see lines survive as both a trail and track. The tracks take up a footprint of 8 feet, but the right-of-way is typically 50 feet wide or wider. Put the trail next to the tracks and have them share bridges and tunnels together.