Located on the ‘Loneliest Road in America’ is the Nevada Northern Railway – an old relic still preserved in time that brings in visitors from all over who long to witness some “touchable history.” A sight to behold, however, make no mistake these 1906 train cars are not the only tourist attraction in the area. Wandering around the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum is Dirt the Railway Cat – one of the mascots of Nevada. Famous for his distinct markings, he gives the appearance he’s been working all day on a locomotive, covered in coal. “As tours walk through the building people are just amazed about hearing the history and the stories of the railroad. Then as if he knew it was his cue to appear Dirt just walks into the room where the tour is, or out from under one of the trains and sits in the middle of the group with a sense of pride that only he can have,” Eric Mencis, the manager of guest services and social media director of the railroad told Bored Panda.
Meet Dirt the Railway Cat and ‘King of the Shop’ at the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum
The engine house of the East Ely Railroad is the only home Dirt has ever known. He was born there 11-years ago to a stray that wandered in. “She [his mom] had her kittens under one of our trains, a 1907 built rotary snow plow to be exact. A Rotary Snow Plow is a huge steam-powered train snowblower. Mom and the other kittens left and this one stray was all alone but scared to come out. So our train crews would leave a can of tuna on a chair every night for this kitten, eventually, the kitten came out friendly up to the crews,” said Mencis.
The scrappy kitten loved rolling around on the dirt floors of the engine house and climb all over the coal pines on our steam-powered train, so the crews named him Dirt. The name stuck as did the coal: “Dirt is actually an orange and white cat, but because at a young age he started rolling in the dirt and climbing on the trains, his white fur gets stained gray,” explained Mencis, “At a young age, Dirt learned not to lick himself clean, like normal cats, being part stray he likes to stay oily and dirty because it helps keep him tough looking and also in a sense keeps him clean because things don’t stick to his fur and bugs don’t go near him.”
Appearance is not the only feature that makes Dirt the perfect fit for railway life, he also has the personality to match: “Back when our trains were built, railroading was the 2nd most dangers job in the world. Mining was the first most dangerous job and we were a copper mining railroad, doing the first and second most dangers jobs in the country at the same time in the same place. It took rough and tough men 100 years ago to move millions of tons of rock, by rail to get melted down and make copper to provided electricity to the world. You look at old pictures of those men, and you can just tell in their eyes they have stories to tell. When you look into Dirt’s eyes, he has that same look.”
“Dirt is pretty much one of those old-time railroaders living now as a cat. Dirt walks around the shop like his the boss making sure everything is working right. The type of boss that started at the bottom and worked his way up the latter, the type who knows how hard and tough the job is but has faith that his men can get it done. He walks with a sense of pride around his engine house like these are his trains and he and he is proud of the men to keep them going. He will climb on and walk around the trains, like he is inspecting them, checking to make sure not a bold is loose or that the bearings are properly oiled up,” described Mencis.
People are fascinated by the historical significance of the railway but make no mistake Dirt steals the show and has the attitude of a celebrity: “After posing for a few pictures, we start to walk around the group, rubbing against visitors legs and letting them pet him. That old tough railroader on the outside but still a sweetheart on the inside. Our Guided tours can last about an hour long it is common for Dirt the follow the entire group for the tour. We also offer self-guided tours of the building and most of those visitors get to meet Dirt as well as he comes and checks out who they are.”
Dirt rules the engine house on his own, but for a period of time some tiny companions: “Dirt had kittens years ago, and most were also orange and white and got just as dirty as Dirt. Most didn’t have the sense of how to live around the trains so we rehomed them, with many of our train crews and volunteers adopting them and taking them home. One of Dirt’s kittens lived in the engine house for about 7 years but just over a year ago frond a better home. Dirt has gotten fixed since then.”
Image credits: ghost_train_of_old_ely
Like with many animal social media sensations, Dirt gained popularity when the museum began their social media push: “Dirt has always been popular with museum guest, but to keep the museum alive, we have to keep getting the word out. We are in Ely, Nevada, a town that is 200 miles in all directions away from anything. Since I started my job here at the railroad 3 years ago, we have gotten our social media to just grow and grow.”
However, Mencis said Dirt’s popularity was an accidental success story: ” I first posted Dirt about 2 years ago and he got some attention from people who have already met him. Then one day I posted Dirt on a quiet day and said Dirt wants to travel the world, share him and tell us where you are from. It took off and his fans started building. Then one of our volunteers who is a professional photographer by the name of Steve Crise got an amazing picture of Dirt and it really took off. In the photos, you just got a sense of Dirt’s personality and we played off of that. When we share him for his fans, we make sure his personality comes with the post. Like a picture of Dirt in front of the steam train usually says ‘Dirt says come on boys, we got to get this thing fired up, we have trains running this weekend, let’s get to work’ and people love it.”
Now Dirt has become an undeniable star, “I do love when Dirt gets shared other places without the museum’s name attached that people to recognize him. We had a lady come to visit yesterday who saw his picture in the gift shop not realizing she was at the place where Dirt lives and recognized him was overjoyed with excitement.”
The social media manager said the cat’s growing fame still surprises him: “I am shocked that he has become famous as he has. I knew he would be popular but not this famous. We do offer Dirt Tshirts, magnets, key chains, coffee mugs, and even his own coffee, and I have mailed his items around the world for people who purchased them on our online store. The biggest thrill of Dirt’s fame is just knowing how much joy he brings to people around the world.”
Ely, Nevada has a population of only about 4,000 and the museum gets about 30,000 visitors a year. Among these visitors are some hardcore Dirt fans said Mencis, “Some people have even rerouted their trip 200 miles out of the way to visit our museum and meet him. Of course, they stay and ride the trains too but their number 1 goal was to meet Dirt in person.”
It is easy to see this dusty cat is incredibly photogenic, so as a fun addition to their ‘Winter Photo Shoots’ they began the ‘Dirt The Cat Photo Contest.’ “Every February we hold what we call the Winter Photo Shoots. A steam train in the snow is a photographers dream, our museum as 2 of them and soon to have a 3rd in operation. When you add in authentic freight cars, crews in period costumes and dramatic western North American scenery, we get some amazing pictures. Each weekend of the winter photo shoots 30 photographers get full access to the railroad, we let them roam the shops and we take them out with the trains let them off, back the train up and run by them again to get pictures. The trains are easy to photograph it is all set up for them. As some fun, I told the photographers that whoever gets the best photo of Dirt over the weekends can win some coffee mugs and Dirt Coffee. So they just had some fun with it, I got a lot of great pictures for his fans to enjoy and the top winners got some coffee. This year was the first time we did it, so it may become an annual contest during the slower times of the year to get us attention.”
For those interested in visiting Dirt his humans have prepared some ‘tips’ for when you meet him.
“Keep talking while you tour the engine house and see the trains! Dirt gets curious when he hears a lot of voices. One of the reasons he comes out during our guided tours.”
“Don’t approach him too fast, you have to wait and let Dirt come up to you. He will walk around you to feel you out first, if you bend down and just wait for him to come rub against you, you are more likely to be his friend.”
“If Dirt is taking his cat nap during the day, your museum passes are good all day long, you can come back and try again later. The King deserves his beauty sleep!”
“The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is a national historic landmark. A copper mining railroad built in the early 1900s that was just left as it was 100 years ago, with the original locomotives, passenger cars, freight cars. We are not a museum with displays and exhibits set up to look nice, we are a museum that is really like walking back in time. Everything here is set the way it was 100 years ago. When people see pictures of Dirt in his engine house home that is the way it was, nothing has been rearranged, no machinery replaced with more modern equipment. Dirt makes sure we are dedicated to the stories and the way of life of a railroad 100 years ago.”