No one would expect a semi-feral cat from a small town to become famous on the internet.
But on the Nevada Northern Railroad in Ely, an orange and white cat, constantly covered in dirt and grease, did.
Dirt, short for Dirtbag for his notoriously dirty coat and hatred of toilets, was a museum mascot who gained internet popularity after a photo of him went viral on Facebook.
Dirt died at the age of 15 on Old Age Wednesday while surrounded by railway staff. Her legacy will be honored with two bronze statues at the museum.
Nevada North Railway president Mark Bassett said Dirt, who was born in the railroad engine room, was the runt of the litter. Ten years later, Dirt’s life was forever changed when former railroad guest services manager Eric Mencis posted a photo of him on Facebook, making him a worldwide sensation.
And when Bassett says worldwide, he means it.
“We had a family that flew from China to Los Angeles, to Las Vegas, rented a car, and drove to Ely to see Dirt,” he said. “And it’s like he’s a cat! He is not on display”.
Dirt even appeared in an episode of “Ghost Adventures” where he surprised host Zac Bagans.
Bassett was baffled by those who came to rural Ely only to see the museum’s furry filthy friend. The city of 4,000 people is a four-hour drive from Las Vegas.
But Dirt knew how to work with a crowd.
“He became famous and he knew he was famous,” he said.
Bassett said that after guests board the train at the museum, the museum takes a tour of the machine shop and roundhouse. When Dirt heard the words “This is the machine shop,” he knew it was time to put on the charm.
“Here came Dirt. And when Dirt came along, the tour stopped because everyone had to have their picture taken with Dirt,” he said.
Con Trumbell, a train master on the railroad, said that despite his charisma with people, Dirt was never tamed and lived as a semi-feral cat until his last day.
“Yeah, we took him to the vet, but he wasn’t ours,” Trumbull said. “He stayed on his own terms and left at any moment. The doors are always open, and you can leave and never come back. So everyone thinks that he is a pet. He wasn’t, and 15 years for semi-wild shop talk, that’s pretty cool.”
The dirt drew people to the museum who otherwise would never have passed through the rural town. Additional revenue from Dirt’s merchandise, including key chains, T-shirts, mugs, and even his own blend of coffee, helped increase the museum’s revenue.
Of all the museum’s merchandise, the Dirt merchandise is the best seller, Bassett said.
When other railroads heard about how Dirt helped the museum, they began promoting their own shop jacks, Trumbull said.
“One of our fellow museums in the East put in their posts that Dirt was the inspiration for them to adopt a cat and make it their shop mascot,” Trumbull said. “The dirt started a trend, not just here, but across the country, where museums found a new tool to draw people into their historical programs, which is a great legacy for him.”
The railroad’s Facebook obituary for Dirt has garnered thousands of reactions and comments, with many sharing their own photos of Dirt.
Trumbull said the entire area is sorry for his loss.
“He was an ambassador not only for the railroad, but for rural Nevada as well, bringing people to rural Nevada and exploring their public lands and going back to the small towns of America,” Trumbull said.
Bassett said he is planning a funeral for Dirt to be streamed online, Ely’s bandwidth permitting.
The railroad’s second rescue cat, an orange tabby named Dirt Jr., or DJ, will be on hand to greet new visitors, though Trumbell says no railroad cat could live up to Dirt’s legacy.
Trumbull said he is grateful that the railroad staff had a private moment with Dirt before the world found out from his obituary.
“Yes, the world loved him, but he was our cat. … He was part of the family, and we were able to (say goodbye) before the world fell apart.”
Contact Taylor Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow, continue @tmflane On twitter.