Still Rolling, After All These Years

Union Pacific Steam Engine 844 Passing Castle Rock  ~  Green River, Wyoming
Photo courtesy of Eric Nielsen

For three years, Union Pacific’s magnificent Engine No. 844 cooled its wheels in Cheyenne, Wyoming while undergoing a major overhaul in the company’s steam shop. Returned to service in 2016, it traveled first to Cheyenne Frontier Days, and then to the opening of the Big River Crossing in Memphis.

Today, UP 844 is traveling again. The Boise Turn Special, an eleven-day round trip run to Idaho to help celebrate the 92nd anniversary of Boise’s historic depot, will have taken the historic steam engine over 1,600 miles of Union Pacific track: through Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. Brief stops in communities along the way have allowed both dedicated railfans and the casually curious to see, touch, and hear an important part of American history.
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The Other Side of the Tracks

img_9607Arkansas Freight

Always, there were the trains. Whistles in the night; the sharp, insistent whining of brakes; the vibration at the country grade crossing as a highballing freight passed by: all hinted at goings and comings, arrivals and departures, denied to us as children.

Fascinated by the trains and intrigued by everything surrounding them, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, to see where locomotives lived. From the bridges leading into Kansas City, I admired the terminals and rail yards filled with long lines of cars and chubby cabooses. Always, I wondered at the mysterious letters painted on tankers and boxcars alike: ATSF, RI, C&NW.

Even the tracks provided entertainment.  Encouraging one another, my friends and I laid on the ground, pressing our ears to cold, hard rails in hopes of feeling the rumble of an approaching train.
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Railroading Across The Great Divide

“Pufferbellies” was my teacher’s name for the little trains. They were cute and winsome as the wooden ducks and chickens we pulled along behind us on strings.  Day by day they traveled through my imagination until one day, while the world’s back was turned, they broke free and chugged off into reality. No longer arrayed in neat little rows, no longer subject to station masters and drivers, no longer dependent on children to pull them along, the Pufferbellies began to roam the world.

I was certain they were roaming my neighborhood, and I knew I ought to be able to catch one, like a firefly or a grasshopper. One Sunday afternoon I headed off toward my school, thinking perhaps I could find one in the schoolyard.

It didn’t take long for my dad to catch up with me. “Just where do you think you’re going?”  “To find the Pufferbellies.”  Silence wafted between us like steam. “The what?” ”The Pufferbellies. We learned a song about them in school. I want to see them.”  Dad thought it over for a minute. ”Can you sing me the song?”  Of course I could. I remembered every word, and sang the first verse twice. Continue reading