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.

UP 844 would be the last steam engine delivered to Union Pacific. Ordered from Schenectady, New York’s American Locomotive Company, it arrived in December, 1944: only two years before my own birth. After World War II, diesel locomotives quickly began replacing steam for passenger trains, but when older family and friends reminisced about riding the rails, it was steam that they recalled.

The poetry of steam lingered even in the classroom. Teachers told stories of strong, indestructible iron horses, and taught songs about winsome little creatures called “pufferbellies.”

In my childish confusion over the mechanics of rail travel, I became convinced that pufferbellies were roaming my neighborhood at will, and thought I ought to be able to catch one — like a firefly, or grasshopper. One Sunday afternoon, I headed off toward the schoolyard, thinking to do just that.

It didn’t take long for my dad to catch up with me. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked. “To find the pufferbellies.” Silence billowed between us like steam. “The what?” ”The pufferbellies. We learned a song about them in school. I want to see them.”

Reasonably enough, he said, ”Can you sing me the song?” Of course I could. I remembered every word, and sang the first verse twice.

By the time I finished, he was laughing. “Sweetie, I know where the pufferbellies live. Why don’t we go see them?”

Later that afternoon, we bundled into the car and drove to a place he called the Depot. At the Depot, people transformed into passengers: boarding trains for such exotic destinations as Des Moines, Omaha, and Iowa City.

While we sat on a bench, waiting for a train to arrive, I learned that Rock Island wasn’t only the city where my aunt and uncle lived. It also was a railroad, with its own symbol, its own song, and its own sort of excitement. Hearing the low moan of the whistle, feeling the vibration of the tracks with my hand and covering my ears against the sharp, steam-shrouded screech of the brakes convinced me. I wanted to be a passenger, too.

Some years later, after weeks of wheedling and whining, my parents decided I was old enough to accompany my dad to a football game in Iowa City. It was my first train trip, and my first experience of steam. In memory, the open windows, flying cinders, rough, prickly seats, and flocked burgundy wall coverings fairly scream “bordello,” but at the time, they seemed formal and romantic: a perfect setting for waistcoats, high-button shoes, and bustles.

Like everyone else, we carried our lunch in a box. We peeled hard-boiled eggs, gnawed on chicken legs, and consumed stacks of homemade cookies, all while giggling at men pulling flasks from their vest pockets and jackets. While they enjoyed their liquor, I fell into sleep, lulled by the rhythmic clacking of steel on steel.

Over time, I began reading the names on freight cars at crossings — Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Burlington; Great Northern; Illinois Central; Cottonbelt; Wabash. I began riding my bike to the depot to watch the trains come in, and read about the men who’d laid the tracks.

No longer content to sing about pufferbellies, I learned new songs, sung by men with names like Boxcar Willie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The Wabash Cannonball, The Wreck of Old 97, and Paddy Works on the Erie were grounded in railroading as a way of life: celebrating the engineers, boomers and brakemen, switchmen, conductors, and engineers who worked the yards.

The hobos, of course, rode for free, and sang their own songs.

In time, I began walking the trestles with friends, shivering with anticipation and fear as we tempted the afternoon freight. Once, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, where the engines and their turntable delighted me. On road trips, I begged my dad to race the Streamliners highballing along their glistening tracks, and in the rich, jasmine-scented nights of summer I lodged myself between crickets and stars to hear the mournful whistles dissolving away into the dark.

Decades later, photographer Tom Parker posted a remarkable image on his blog, Dispatches from Kansas. He’d captured UP 844 rolling through Frankfort, Kansas on her journey south from Cheyenne to Harlingen, Texas. The Valley Eagle Heritage Tour, named for a popular Missouri Pacific passenger train which operated between Houston and Brownsville from 1948 to 1962, was a railfan’s dream.

Like a giant pufferbelly escaped from bonds of inattention and neglect, UP 844 was riding the rails of imagination as surely as her rails of steel. From the moment I learned she’d roll through Houston before heading southwest, there was no question I’d be at the stations, whistlestops and country crossings to witness the historic journey and wave to the crew who made it possible.

At a crossing southwest of Houston, waiting for one more glimpse of the great locomotive while listening to Sara Carter Bayes’s “Railroadin’ On the Great Divide,” I found myself pondering the world of divides in which we live.

Beyond the divides of politics, race, gender and economics running through our social and cultural landscape, an even greater divide appears to exist: one separating the world in which I grew up from a quite different world emerging today.

In that older world, the metaphor of the well-oiled machine still had force. In most occupations, skill and perseverance were more important than connections. Deals were sealed with handshakes, and a man’s word was his bond, rather than a contemptuous and cynical attempt to manipulate others.

For many railroaders, the only divide that counted was the Continental Divide, a divide overcome by a Golden Spike of vision, foresight and ingenuity. Certainly there was manipulation in that spike as well, and not a little greed. Nevertheless, five days after the spike was driven in 1869, passenger train service was instituted. Pulled by the astounding ”iron horses”, people journeyed from places like Omaha to Sacramento in four days rather than four months, and they fell in love with their trains.

Today, we travel faster, but I’m not sure we travel better, and I suspect we know it. When those engines from an earlier time begin to move, people gather. They stand at crossings and linger at whistlestops, traveling miles beyond good sense to see a highballing steamer race across the prairie or idle at a switch.

Beyond the charms of retro technology, there’s a palpable sense of people wanting to move, to meet people, to hear the whistle and feel the vibration: to reach across the years that divide us from our past in order to touch the steam, steel, and grit that made this country work.

As long as UP 844 and her kind keep rolling; as long as the people who love and sustain her survive; as long as the whistle sounds and the firebox glows; there’s railroading to be done. There are prairies to cross, and foothills to climb. There are mountainsides where the great, vertiginous sky reaches off to infinity: high plateaus where the winds blow free, and a person can breathe in the air of acomplishment and history.

Children will love their pufferbellies, but railroading’s for grownups: for people willing to pick up and roam; to work beyond exhaustion; to trade security for freedom; and speak with integrity.

Of course there will be difficulties. No one wants to face the broken tie, the washed-out bridge, the screaming downgrade acceleration or the jumped tracks. But ask any old-timer from Old Cheyenne – or anywhere else for that matter – and he’ll tell you it’s worth the ride. After all, there’s always the chance we’ll get lucky, and land on the Great Divide.

Comments are welcome.
Special thanks to photographers Tom Parker,  Aaron B. Hockley, and Daniel Lipinski for photos used in my video. Thanks also to Hal Cannon, the Deseret String Band and Okehdokee Records for permission to use the group’s version of “Railroading on the Great Divide”.
Comments always are welcome.

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.
Continue reading

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