Steam train memories made new by UP 844
Later today, Saturday June 4, the UP 844 will leave St. Louis for Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluff and Little Rock, Arkansas, and when it does, a little magic and a bit of my soul will go south along with it.
By Jo Schaper
Forget flowers, or moonlight, candlit dinners or rippling water. I can look dispassionately on puppies, kittens, and baby rabbits. Even the most angelic infants barely elicit a “how nice” from me.
But if you want to turn Jo into babbling mess overcome by emotion, just put me beside a railroad track, with almost a million pounds of hot steaming steel rolling towards me, its Cyclops eye bobbing above twin steel rails, flames licking from the firebox below, the clang and clash of pistons in rhythm driving it forward.
Then lay on the steam whistle. Not a whistle, exactly, but the damp, hot prehistoric wail of a dinosaur long gone, but still longing for its gloried and storied past. Make that whistle slide long and low, in a wavering, trembling noise somewhere between a keening cry and a moan, that splits the air as the rumble of the snorting, staccato beast shakes the ground as it passes.
You can scrape what’s left of me from the smoke and cinders it leaves, and stick me back together with glue after it’s left. I neglected to tell you that one favorite weekend joke of my dad, when I was a young girl at home and asleep, was he would put on a live steam locomotive record, and turn the sound up ever so slowly. When the whistle screamed, my sister and I would shoot straight up out of bed.
We never did learn to sleep through that sound.
I had a plan to take a series of still shots as the train pulled into Pacific on Thursday, June 2. That plan evaporated like steamed cotton candy when the headlight of the UP 844 came into view around the curve near the lumberyard, at least 10 blocks away. On to Plan B. My hands turned the camera to movie mode. I’m pretty sure my brain was not in charge at that moment.
As weird as it may sound, I’ve been around steam locomotives much of my life. Born in the mid-50s, I didn’t grow up in a railroading family. My dad was train-crazy, though, and so, as very small child, I stood on the platform in my Sunday best, with a pinstriped cap over my ruffled blouse and blue courduroy jumper, and took off for places like Hannibal, and Mexico, Missouri, train coach windows open, grit pinging on my cheeks, watching the black smoke billow out ahead.
I don’t know many people left who had to sleep on curlers the night before so they’d look good for a train ride. Half a century and several light-years of behavioral mindset have passed since then.
That engine, the CB&Q 4960, is still hauling tourists from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon and back. I know. I rode it 44 years later.
Just imagine if they made cars that lasted for 50 years. The UP 844 is the same way. Never taken out of live service, it’s been going for some 60 years or so now. Amazing.
I probably should apologize for the shakiness in the middle of the video. Although I had a straight shot view, when the train approached, people ran forward, and partly blocked the view. What other dangerous creature do people run toward? Most likely, they simply don’t know how trains operate. The can’t stop on a dime, even if they wanted to.
During its brief stop in Pacific, the train crew were silent. They had their duties to attend to. Various forms of police, some railroad, some local, tried to keep people off the tracks with varying success.
Mostly, people just stared. The midday, mid-week audience were an odd mix of obvious railfans, ex-railroaders, and local farmers who had taken the time away from cutting hay to come to down to see the elephant. It actually is, you know. The smoke deflectors, those huge pieces of metal on either side of the engine are called “elephant ears.”
Like a live animal, the engine dripped hot water. You could see the fire in the firebox, beneath the boiler. It snorted and creaked and every so often, one of the crew would blow the whistle, or simply release the steam pressure to make plumes of white smoke. The sky was overcast white, so photos weren’t impressive.
Finally, the bell began to toll, and the two short blasts signaled the train’s imminent departure. Or so I thought.
The familiar squeal of the wheels, and the staccato, hesitancy as steam which had been bleeding off was redirected to the drivers, and built pressure with each passing second.
The train moved east of the Hwy. F intersection. Then came the screech of steel wheels as for some reason, the train stopped again. I stopped filming.
It was only a matter of five minutes until it lurched forward. We never found out why it stopped. Something at the grade crossing ahead, perhaps. But it was shortly on its way again, this time headed east for Allenton, Eureka, Valley Park, Kirkwood, Webster, and on into downtown St. Louis for the night.
It doesn’t matter that I’m past 50. I still have to wave as it gains speed, moving out of sight, with shivers of sheer awe making it hard to keep the camera from shaking.
Au revoir, train. Until we meet again…