History Cruises the Southwest on Steel Wheels

Posted By Mike Padgett

Dec. 10, 2011

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The giant steel powerhouse is history on wheels. This massive black locomotive, parked on a siding near downtown Phoenix, has eight steel driver wheels eye level to a basketball player. The engine represents enormous pulling power and historical importance.

A growing crowd of railroad fans surrounds the Union Pacific locomotive, No. 844. They crowd around the steps up to the engine cab, giving them a look into the engineer’s work space. Personally, in today’s race of rats, studying a working connection to U.S. history is a welcome relief.

No. 844 also reminds me of wandering as a kid into a hobo camp next to the railroad tracks more than half a century ago.

When the engineer on the locomotive parked in Phoenix blows the whistle, after warnings to the crowd, small children jump. One youngster covers his ears. His eyes are saucer big. His open mouth is silent. He is sitting on a man’s shoulders. The man turns and hustles the boy away. The little boy leans forward to encourage the man’s legs to move faster. This close, the whistle on this muscle-bound train is painfully loud.

No. 844 was the last steam locomotive built for Union Pacific. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

This aging locomotive, courtesy of Union Pacific Railroad, recently toured the Southwest as part of the upcoming centennial celebrations of New Mexico and Arizona. No. 844 is a giant, but a gentle one. The iron workhorse represents the last of its design, which played a major role in U.S. transportation history. Starting in the mid-1800s, trains blazed trails and built towns. They shaped the opening of the American West.

No. 844’s stops on its centennial run in October and November included towns and cities in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. It stopped in Phoenix on a weekend in mid-November.

Union Pacific No. 844 is known as the UP’s “Living Legend” because it is the last steam locomotive built for UP. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The engine was delivered in 1944 as a high-speed passenger train engine. It pulled the Overland Limited, Los Angeles Limited, Portland Rose and Challenger passenger trains, according to information available at www.up.com. Until the arrival of interstate highways in the 1950s, passenger trains were popular among vacationing moms and dads and their children as well as business travelers. Today’s older railroad fans probably were among those vacationing children.

In the late 1950s, when diesels began pulling passenger trains, No. 844 was shifted into freight service. In 1960, it was rescued from being scrapped and placed into special service as the railroad’s goodwill ambassador, according to www.up.com.

Originally designed to burn coal, No. 844 later was converted to burn oil. Its tender carries 6,200 gallons of No. 5 oil. Together, the engine and its tender weigh about 454 tons, or 907,890 pounds.

In 2000, workers began a lengthy overhaul of No. 844’s  “running gear, pumps, piping, valves and springs, along with replacement of its firebox and extensive boiler work,” according to www.uprr.com. It was returned to service in 2005.

Union Pacific Railroad’s No. 844 engine was on public display Nov. 13 and 14 in downtown Phoenix. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Machines this large, like ships and airplanes, take on their own personalities. Their engineers and pilots mentally catalog their iron steeds’ squeaks, rattles, smells and vibrations.

Rare locomotives – UP844 and SP4449

Standing before No. 844 revived memories of my encounter with another of its kind. It was June 1997. I was standing in the three-story railroad roundhouse near downtown Portland, Ore. I was interviewing volunteers caring for Southern Pacific Railroad’s No. 4449, another rare locomotive. At the time, I was writing for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash.

SP4449 was built in 1941, retired in 1957 and eventually donated to the city of Portland. When I approached the locomotive, I felt like I was looking at it through a wide-angle camera lens. A volunteer looked diminutive next to one of the engine’s 80-inch driver wheels. At that interview, the engineer described SP4449 in the female gender, like a ship.

Even sitting still, UP844 and SP4449 look like they are in motion. The long steel arms linking the driver wheels are like muscular arms that flex each time the wheels rotate.

Videos of both locomotives in action are available on the Internet. Go to Google and use UP844 or SP4449 in key word searches. One link shows both locomotives in tandem in Washington State. Another link shows UP844 highballing at more than 70 mph.

Boyhood fascination

Trains, by offering faster and year-round transportation, accelerated the opening of the American West in the 1800s. They crossed broad plains and roaring rivers and deep canyons, offering families and hustlers and other pioneers safer tickets to a new life in a new land.

During my boyhood in the rural West, trains fascinated me. They ran along the Columbia River, across the Cascade Mountains and through fertile farmland. In the long days of summer, the black locomotives – replaced later by brightly colored diesels – pulled freight trains filled mostly with crops.

In the short and cold days of winter, many train cars were filled with coal and other fuel. In hobo lingo, a train of loaded coal cars is a black snake.

As a young boy, trains fueled my interest in what was over the horizon. I wondered about the cities the trains visited and the railroad switching mechanisms and the sidings and the engineers and the workers who rode in the cabooses, or crew cars. Remember the red cabooses? The last one I saw was years ago, parked near the Arizona Capitol and converted into a restaurant.

American nomads

When I was 8 years old and struggling with fascination about everything and everybody, the limits of my world in central Oregon were wherever I could pedal on my bicycle. The hobo camp by the railroad tracks was off limits, according to my parents. I ignored them. One day, approaching the camp but keeping my distance, and hidden by sagebrush and tall weeds, I stopped when I could smell the campfire. It was sunset. A second time, when I heard no activity, I crept closer, wishing the dry grass under my feet would stop crunching.

The camp was empty, except for a cold ring of rocks marking the pile of campfire ashes. And the rickety steel rack that, I imagined, held a makeshift stewpot over the fire.

I remember the silence of the makeshift rest stop for American nomads. I wondered, as an 8-year-old, why they were without jobs and wringer washing machines and places to hide their Christmas presents. And how do they survive the local winters?

A few empty rail cars sat on the siding next to the potato warehouse. I remember thinking, who are these drifters squatting around a campfire for a hot meal? Why are they living like this, with no roof or refrigerator or a home where they could listen to radio programs?

Where are their families? Where do these men get their food? You probably remember how an 8-year-old boy filled with questions discovers the world.

Only later, did this curious third-grader grow up to realize that American society includes those who struggle on life’s edge with economic setbacks, family troubles, mental challenges or drug usage. They are in their own rat race.

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Dec 10th, 2011

One Comment to 'History Cruises the Southwest on Steel Wheels'

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  1. Carol Romley said,

    Great story Mike, thanks.

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