The good folks in the central Iowa city of Boone have long been accustomed to trains rumbling through their town. The city has a rich railroad history and straddles the main east-west line of the Union Pacific, which runs dozens of trains daily on those tracks. L-o-o-o-n-g trains, mostly. So one more locomotive pulling a line of cars into town is no big deal.
Unless the locomotive is the UP 844, that is.
The 844 was the last steam locomotive built for the Union Pacific. It was delivered to the railroad in 1944 and pulled some of its most glamorous passenger trains, such as the Overland Limited and Los Angeles Limited, before the UP shifted it to freight service in Nebraska in the 1950s. Known as the UP's "Living Legend," the 844 is said to be the only steam locomotive never retired by a North American Class I railroad.
The 844 was dispatched to Boone for the city's annual Pufferbilly Days celebration, and when it steamed in from the west on Thursday, I knew I had to see it. I would have done it by myself, but my friend Angela and her daughter Alexa agreed to go along. Alexa is only 2 -- she'll be 3 in November -- but she's already seen the light: She's a true train buff.
We decided to head out of town, then turn around and chase the locomotive on Highway 30 back toward Boone. To nonbelievers, this might sound like a pretty nerdy thing to do. But among railfans it's an entirely honorable pursuit, so to speak. Angela even enlisted the help of "spotters" to chart the 844's progress: her parents in Jefferson, 27 miles to the west, and her in-laws, who farm near Grand Junction, about 20 miles from Boone.
Angela's mother called as we drove west to report the train was in Jefferson and moving fast. We thought the Highway 169 bridge over the railroad would be good spot because you can see a long way down the tracks in both directions. We were right. When Angela's father-in-law called to say he heard the train in Grand Junction, we looked to the west and saw the locomotive's head lamp. It's amazing how far away you can be and still see those lamps glowing on the horizon.
I'll show my age here: I can remember catching sight of the occasional steam locomotive when I was growing up in Lima, Ohio -- a great town for train watching, by the way. So when the shiny black 844 churned into view, pulling baggage and passenger cars painted in UP yellow and crimson, it was, for a moment, like looking into the past. Well, except for that modern diesel locomotive coupled behind the tender. But the 844 was doing the work.
The moment passed quickly because if we were going to catch the train, we had to get moving. We thought we were gaining on it as we neared Ogden, where we turned on to Old Highway 30, hoping we could get to the Kate Shelley Bridge in time to see the locomotive at the most spectacular railroad site in Iowa -- the wide Des Moines River valley spanned by one of the tallest and longest double-track bridges in North America.
As we started down the dusty gravel road leading to the valley, we saw a News Channel 8 car coming up the hill.
We laughed, because that was a sure sign we were too late.
Back on old 30, we drove into Boone and ... what was that Angela noticed on our left?
Yellow train cars. Then we heard the whistle and saw the smoke. The 844 -- it burns fuel oil now instead of coal -- was crawling through town and we were right with it. We passed several people along the tracks taking photos. A woman was shooting video with her iPad. We drove to where we thought the engine would park, and when we saw all the people waiting with cameras, we knew we were in the right place.
I stood near the edge of the tracks as the massive engine inched past, its eight huge drive wheels turning slowly as Angela shot video with her iPhone. "They're taller than you are," she said later. Yes, they are. At 80 inches in diamater, they dwarf me by a good seven inches. Quite a sight and worth the effort.
And where was our littlest train buff?
Sound alseep in her car seat.
But you can bet she'll be awake on her next train venture later this month. That's when Thomas the Tank Engine is comes to town.