Have you ever been to a place and been told some kind of crazy-insano story that there’s absolutely, posiTIVELY no way you’ll ever forget about, even if you try? Like as in, ohh let’s sayyyyy, an “Italian immigrant got crushed between two coupled train cars that held him together long enough for his wife to rush to the depot to say goodbye, so the railroad felt bad about this pre-OSHA accident and gave his minor-aged son a job, and the kid became a legacy at the railroad to this day” kind of a story? Yeah, man. This very thing happened at Ely’s East Ely Depot at the Nevada Northern Railway. The type of real-deal story that you’ll have to try to forget about, it’s that bewitching. The story itself sounds like it came right off the silver screen, but can I just add that this place falls nothing short of impressive, to boot. Honestly, where else can you go to experience still-running locomotives from the early 1900s, along with original payroll books and items that belonged to employees who worked there over 100 years ago? Normally you just show up to a train museum to admire preserved historic engines propped up on rails. Not here, baby. Not at the East Ely Depot Railroad Museum and Nevada Northern Railway.
If you’ve not yet been, go. Better yet, here are 9 really good reasons to instigate a road trip out there. And it all begins with one little word: ACQUAFONDATA.
A COPPER MINING MECCA
Here’s a TravelNevada PRO TIP right outta the gate that will have even the freshest newbs to this eastern Nevada getaway looking like a pro. If there’s one thing to remember when visiting this ridiculously charming community its this: it’s alllll connected, baby. You see, way back in the day when everyone was making their way West in hopes of snatching their slice of American Dream, a lil’ old discovery was made in the region. COPPER, and lots of it. I’m not talking about a discovery that mirrors most historical prospecting situations in rural Nevada… the type where they’d chase a gargantuan vein for a decade or so, it dries up, and everyone moves on. The copper discovery in the Ely area was made in the early 1870s, and despite shutting down for a couple of brief stints, has basically remained open, pumping out literal trainloads of copper for all this time.
WANT A GOOD VIEW OF THE THING, THAT'S STILL IN OPERATION BTW? HEAD FOR GARNET HILL
You may be able to catch a glimpse of the mine as you make your way into Ely on the Loneliest Road. BUT, you can drink in a totally unfiltered (and super impressive) view of this gargantuan copper mining operation whilst mining for your own garnets at Garnet Hill. Maybe what’s most impressive is that the mine—which is called the Robinson Mining District—is the largest copper pit mine in the entire state of Nevada, and has produced a face-melting BILLION dollars in copper, gold and silver. So, that’s how this whole thing starts connecting, lovies. You’ve got a humongous, psychotically profitable mine… what do you need next? A train to transport the ore in and out, of course! So the Nevada Northern Railway became a thing in the early 1900s—in 1905 to be exact.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: With prospectors running amock trying to grab on to their own versions of manifest destiny, they’d come up with all sorts of different minerals. One of which, was the mysteriously seductive dark-hued gemstone found at Garnet Hill. Today, this is a free public access area where anyone can explore and sling a pick axe to their heart's content, but this whole thing gets better… wayyy better. Initially, when miners were discovering these beautiful dark red gems, they thought they were discovering RUBIES. And it turns out, even though Garnet Hill is the biggest concentration (and probably your best shot at finding a garnet IRL) in Nevada, garnets are pretty commonly found throughout Nevada’s eastern mountain ranges. Ever heard of the Ruby Mountains? Yeah, turns out, they probably should’ve been called the Garnet Mountains. And who says I never taught you anything...
ELY BECOMES A TRUE CULTURAL MELTING POT
So by the early 1900s, all these crazy-amazing things are in play, right? The copper mine is booming in a serious way, we’ve got a train transporting it in and out, now a smelting operation is going down, and several charcoal kilns are set up throughout the region to keep everything movin’ and shakin’. Like it still is today, Ely was definitely on the remote side, but people from all over the globe were drawn here because of the opportunity that lay within. This sort of thing—attracting many different cultures—wasn’t exactly uncommon, but Ely was a different situation altogether. While some mining communities throughout Nevada were drawing a few different cultures, what was going down in Ely was a true textbook cultural melting pot. Germans, Italians, Chinese, Slavic, Irish, English, you name it. They were all coming to Ely, all in hopes of getting a snagging at the mine itself, or one of the businesses that was helping to prop it up. That alone—the fact that dozens of cultures were attracted to this chunk of undeveloped eastern Nevada is interesting in itself. But, it gets better. Many of these original miner cabins are intact today, and have been relocated to a community aptly named Renaissance Village, right in the core of downtown Ely today. Best yet, they are all culturally themed, decorated with mementos from various cultures who ended up in Ely. To get a taste of the reverberating cultural scene exploding in downtown Ely in the early 1900s, there’s no better way than Renaissance Village because there’s no disputing it: it’s just real.
AND ATTRACTS ALL WALKS OF LIFE, LIKE CARMINE AQUAFONDATA
Imagine loading all of your most prized items into a steamer trunk, saying goodbye to the majority of your family forever, traveling across the Atlantic to a new country, and then once getting there, foraging allllll the way across the continent it for months only to be confronted with hard work. Like, so seriously difficult (oh, and ridiculously dangerous), you might survive for a few years at best sorta situation. But the thing is, thousands upon thousands of people were doing this very thing without even blinking a dang eye. Like I was talking about directly above, Ely was a bit different because of the scale of wealth and productivity happening here. Immigrants from all over the globe made their way to this formerly quiet community exploding with life, immigrants like the endlessly interesting Italiano Carmine Acquafondata. I mean, a dude with a name like that needs little to no intro to begin with, ya feel?
Here’s where this thing goes zero to 100: I think we can all get on board (all the train puns, because why not) with pulling some kind of legitimately meaningful experience out of a museum. There always seems to be that one fact that sticks with ya that you can’t quite shake. But what’s happening at the East Ely Depot is a game changer because this is the only Nevada State Museum where an actual certified historian is the main person in charge. And that person is Sean Pitts, the guy responsible for making Acquafondatta's story come to life… a whopping 9 decades after his death. His story is an ordinary one… that is, until it isn’t.
You see, Sean started by telling me that Acquafondata originally migrated to the U.S. from San Pietro Avellana, Italy, entering Ellis Island at only 20 years of age. He was a shoemaker by trade and had his sights set on Ogden, Utah. That is, until he was listed in a 1900 Nevada census in another railroad town in northeastern Nevada by the name of Tecoma. Through an arranged marriage, Carmine married his Italian bride Francesca Carlini after she came to the U.S. 10 years later. Within the next decade or so, they were devoted to having a family, and if these Americanized nicknames aren’t great, I honestly don’t know what is. They had Amico “Mike” Sabatino, Antonio “Anthony” Paolo, Constanza “Constance” Maria, Carmela “Carmen” Lucia, Elena “Helen” Margherita and Violetta “Viola” Maria. In 1921 together as a fam, they headed south to burgeoning Ely in search of the good stuff… the American Dream. By 1923, Acquafondata was on the Nevada Northern Railway’s pay ledger.
BUT IN TRUE "I WORK IN A RAILYARD IN THE EARLY 1900s" FASHION, TRUE TRAGEDY STRIKES.
The whole hard work thing? Yeah, it seems like it was truly around every freaking turn back in these days… there was no such thing as an occupation without it. No sitting at desks answering phones in the early 1900s in rural Nevada, friends. Just when things started to go right, something always seemed to go sideways, and Acquafondata can’t even escape it. I’m sure it was more likely to not have something bad happen in your lifetime, but still. Acquafondata settled into his job at the Nevada Northern Railway while Francesca supported their young family at home. The Nevada Northern supported the copper mine of course, but also functioned like any other train by importing and exporting goods and supplies. Carmine had worked there for just shy of a year, and just before his shift ended on an August night in 1924, he was crushed between two train cars. As in, crushed between the couplers, between the boiler and deck of Clamshell Number 2.
Sean was telling me that, as story goes, Carmine broke the rules by walking in between cars generally, but once the cars locked together, was under the impression he was merely stuck between the cars, not realizing his body had basically already been split in two. (Honestly, imagine the type of denial you’d be in if this freaky situation happened to you. Yikes.) Seeing as the cars were the only thing holding Carmine together and he’d be an instant goner the second they uncoupled the cars, the railroad phoned Francesca to come say one last teary goodbye… there weren’t exactly a lot of other options on the line here. OSHA or any other type of serious safety regulations most certainly wasn’t a thing back in these days; it was a grim world where, if you broke a rule, you’d pay the ultimate price. Like getting your body chopped in half. Sad, but a harsh truth during this era. But this wasn’t an answer Carmine’s wife was going to stand for, who ultimately sued the railroad. Go, Francesca. The Nevada Northern agreed to pay for Acquafondatta's funeral expenses, and give her $65 per month for 7.5 years totaling in about $6,500, which was kind of a lotta moolah back in those days. That and, to make amends, they offered their eldest son—at the mature age of 14, mind you—a job at the railroad.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: It feels like there are endless rumored hauntings throughout the Silver State, especially so in old mining communities like Ely. But a haunted railroad? Apparently we have those too, as there are a handful of alleged hauntings that go along with the East Ely Depot and Nevada Northern Railway. Specifically, Acquafondatta's ghost supposedly haunts the rail yard at the Nevada Northern Railway. Whether it’s true or not, is up to you decide. Brush off that EMF detector and check into Ely’s annual Haunted Ghost Train of Old Ely rides (typically offered each fall) or even up the ante by booking a night in the Bunkhouse to see if you can spot Aquafondata himself.
"FONDI" KEEPS THE FAMILY AFLOAT AND PICKS UP A JOB THE VERY NEXT DAY
Being the eldest son of a family of immigrants in the early 1900s wouldn’t exactly be easy, let’s be honest here. I wouldn’t guesstimate that your graduation success rate during this era would be very high to begin with, but being the oldest son dropping out of school to take care of the family when something happens to Dad is a common tale. Just maybe not when you’re only 14.
Even Acquafondata's family couldn’t escape this very likely fate—after all, this job offering situation was basically a peace offering after what happened to Carmine… a way for the railroad to feel good about how things ended. So Carmine’s oldest child dropped out of school and went to work the very next day as a “call out boy,” or a person who loads and unloads cargo coming and going on the train into the goods depot, then calls out particulars of incoming and outgoing consignments. This was the very lowest job on the totem pole, but hey, he still did it in stride. In case you’ve forgotten who his eldest was, among that name of adorable Italian names gone Americanized, it was Amico Sabatino Acquafondata… or who we would soon come to know and love as Mike Fondi. Get it? Amico—Mike. Acquafondata—Fondi.
IT WAS MONEY IN THE BANK, BUT FAR FROM EASY WORK
Mike Fondi drops out of school to take care of his family, but works out a secret schedule with his teachers in order to actually graduate. He works all day for his mother and siblings, but also studies all night to put himself through a school in order to earn his diploma. Pretty admirable and unwavering work ethic, not to mention amazing perception for a 14-year-old, right? Definitely the sort of thing you only read about in books, because this sort of hustle just doesn’t exist in 2018.
Aside from working the most lowly job on the totem pole—and not complaining about it—Mike works a series of other teeth-grinding jobs in the rail yard, too. Aside from call out boy, he begins working as a telegraph runner, and as part of that job, is tasked with waking up the very grumpy engineers in the wee morning hours and serve them their daily tasks. You can imagine some verbal (and probably even physical abuse) going down during this vocational stint, but nevertheless, Fondi prevails. After bouncing around from one unsavory job to another, he slowly climbs the ranks at the Nevada Northern and eventually GRADUATES! Fondi is accepted to the University of Nevada, but another challenging pattern emerges in his life… He goes to Reno to take accounting courses until running out of funds, returns home for brief stints and backbreaking labor at the Nevada Northern only long enough to return back to school, take courses till the money runs out, and comes home again. As you might imagine, this would take longer than the normal designated timeframe to snag your two- or four-year degree. But he impressively continues supporting his family, working horrible jobs at the Nevada Northern, and finally earns his dang accounting degree.
FONDI BECOMES NOTHING SHORT OF A MATHEMATICAL GENIUS
So Fondi supports his family for years working these horrible jobs, fights to get a degree and makes it, and comes back to the East Ely Depot for work. But BONUS, it’s not the glamourous, post-graduate job you might think it’d be, or the type of job he’d certainly earned after all this time. He definitely comes back home for good, but is hired at the East Ely Depot as a lowly bookkeeper. Bummer. While this wasn’t particularly thill seeking work for Fondi, the guy not only accepted this sort of work in stride, but knocked it over the fences by keeping the most incredibly impressive ledgers and balance sheets you’ve ever seen. I’m talking, straight out of prop city, Hollywood film, hired penmanship sort of ledgers. Fondi never had any mistakes, no cross outs, no white out, ever. In fact, his work as a bookkeeper was such a mastered craft, resident historian Sean Pitts has proclaimed that examining Fondi’s beautifully written and astutely correct balance sheets is a "glimpse into the mind of a genius."
In the beginning, Fondi was on the other side of the tracks, so to speak, logging serious manual labor. But over time, Fondi again, climbs his way up the rankings on the business end of the operation at the East Ely Depot to become the Auditor… or by today’s standards, the Chief Financial Officer. Crazy, right? He had such tremendous talents, in fact, that the East Ely Depot once held a competition where they handed a list of the same 10 numbers to Mike Fondi and any challenger. The deal was, the opponent could use any sort of calculator and Fondi would use nothing except his brainpower. When the facilitator said “go!” both contestants would add their numbers… but Fondi never lost. Fondi had the numbers correctly totaled before any opponent could even key in the first four numbers. The best part is that he went on to work at the East Ely Depot as CFO for 47 years. FORTY SEVEN YEARS. Can you think of anyone you know who’s done anything that consecutively long in their lifetime? Yeah. Didn’t think so.
THE BEAUTY OF IT? YOU CAN SEE FONDI'S LEGACY, IRL
This Aquafondata story is so powerful and attention grabbing because it’s real. It’s grand because it’s a tale of immigration and, through hard work, perseverance, a little imagination and overcoming a series of wickedly difficult obstacles, made a better life for themselves in America. But that’s just it, it’s not just a story… some intangible thing from a different time period you’ll just continue hearing through the grapevine. In Ely, the magic is still very much alive because you can visit many of these locations that are still very much alive, ooooor cut straight to the chase and beeline it for the East Ely Depot, which houses a handful of the relics that personally belonged to Fondi himself during his 47 year stint as the CFO. His original desk, books, telegraph, and other items who belonged to this legacy are prominently on display, and in their original location. Plus, you can hear the story straight from the person’s mouth who understood its importance: Sean Pitts, local-curator-meets-historian on staff. You see, the East Ely Depot and Nevada Northern Railway are interesting because they deliver two completely different experiences. One has all the working, historical locomotives, but to understand their importance, don’t you need stories like Fondi’s? To me, that’s where the magic starts to happen, and I can tell you what. It’s very much alive in well in the heart of Ely, and all begins at that Depot.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Research that made this story possible (along with historical photos you see above) is attributed to Mark DiVecchio and Lorry Labate. Mark's ancestors are all from the town Carmine came from - San Pietro Avellana - which inspired him to create a website documenting his family lineage, while Lorry's mother was Carmine's wife Francesca. For more in-depth information their family lineage, check out DiVecchio's site here.