Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Queen of the rail --- Locomotive No. 844

Steam Locomotive No. 844, grande dame of the Union Pacific's vintage rail stock, came to town Monday morning --- and a lot of us were there: Railroadies, UP workers and retirees, and just plain folks lined up in a narrow column along the tracks. Maybe 150 altogether. The biggest crowd the old Rock Island Depot (now Union Pacific) had seen in some time.

First came the gathering --- it was hard to find a place to park down at the east end of Court Avenue, which surpised some people. But nobody seemed to be minding the walk or the wait. She was due to arrive at 9:30, but ran maybe 15-20 minutes late on the trip down from Des Moines where train and crew had been parked on a siding Thursday-Sunday for the Iowa State Fair.

Then we heard a rumble and the sound of her whistle in the distance and everyone started looking north. Then she rounded the bend and everyone got their cameras out.

Then that danged guy with the little camera stretching his neck to see the viewfinder jumped right out in front of me. Oh well --- photography was half the fun. Those of us who didn't have point-and-shoots or cell phones had video cameras --- some fairly elaborate. You don't see this kind of thing every day. There were lots and lots of kids, too.

The engineer brought the locomotive to a stop amid eruptions of steam and the ground crew came up to consult. Look at the size of that thing.

How about those wheels? And that bell. No. 844 was delivered new in 1944, the last steam locomotive built for the Union Pacific. Intended to be a high-speed passenger engine, some experts estimate that in her prime she could haul 26 passenger cars at 120 mph. on a good flat stretch. The usual maximum speed was 80 mph., however.

Doomed by diesel, No. 844 was assigned to freight service in Nebraska between 1957 and 1959, then retired. Saved from scrap in 1960, she was refurbished and reassigned to special duty and has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles since, representing the UP, as she is doing this summer in that company's 150th anniversary year. Home base is Cheyene, and her twin sits in a maintenance shop there, reserved for  parts.

All together, No. 844 spent half an hour in Chariton --- giving everyone time to look her over, visit with the crew, visit with each other, and take lots more pictures. But she had two more brief stops to make Monday, one in Trenton, Missouri, and the other in Polo, before pulling into Kansas City late in the afternoon for an over-nighter.

She's taking the long way around this week, headed home to Cheyenne. She'll be cutting across Kansas to Salina today, then parked on display all day Wednesday at the depot there (one car among the vintage rolling stock No. 844 is hauling is set up as a museum). On Thursday, she'll head on west across Kansas and Colorado, planning to arrive in Denver late Friday afternoon, then head on up to Cheyenne Saturday morning.

So pretty soon it was time for crew members to say their goodbyes, build up a head of steam and head on south down the tracks.

If you look at the sequence below, you'll see No. 844 in the lead with her fuel tender behind (she was designed for coal but converted to run on fuel oil), then UPP809 --- the water tender Jim Adams --- and then UP Locomotive 8742 --- a new-fangled diselel along to provide extra push when needed. No. 844's a grand lady, but not as young as she used to be.

You can find out more about No. 844's schedule and a lot of other stuff here. If you missed the show Monday, don't despair. She'll be back in the Midwest --- at the Nebraska State Fair in Lincoln Aug. 31-Sept 3, then will be headed to Boone and Ames Sept. 7-9 before heading out west again.

As far as Monday was concerned, I'm guessing a good many of us wouldn't have minded climbing aboard and riding along.

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