Skip to content

Remember The Little Guys: Southern 630 Edition

September 28, 2013

One can be forgiven for forgetting the little guys… almost. The big boys of steam, literally in Union Pacific’s case with the pending return to steam of a 4-8-8-4, tend to grab the lion’s share of the headlines.

765 Tackles Horseshoe Curve!
261 Returns From Rebuild!
611 May Run Again!
844 And 4449 Take To The Mainline!

Yes the Big Boys, and the Northerns and the Berkshires, get most of the press. But let’s not forget the little guys.

It was with that thought in mind that I was standing alongside the former Southern Railway’s mainline from Chattanooga to Knoxville as the last gasp of the fading summer sent ripples of heat radiating from the white ballasted right of way.

In a world of big steam on the mainline and smaller power relegated to the rails of museums and tourist roads, a 1904 Consolidation almost seems an oddball on the high iron. I suppose perhaps she is, as Southern Railway #630 is likely a stopgap measure until Mikado #4501 rolls out of the Soule Shop in the near future. But it is nice to see an example of the locomotive builder’s art from the dawn of the Twentieth Century get a chance to kick up her heels.

Three cars and fifteen miles-per-hour need not be the lot of the little guys.

September seventh and eighth were the dates of Railfest at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, and on the schedule were a series of trips up the Knoxville line to Cleveland, Tennessee, hosted by Norfolk Southern under the banner of their 21st Century Steam program. The four trips would add up to 168 miles of mainline running. As for the diesel helpers…. what diesel helpers?

The line to Cleveland features a roller coaster profile with grades approaching one percent in both directions. No big deal for a well tuned 2-8-0 pulling 6 and 8 car trains.

This is railroading the old fashioned way; no sitting at the stoker controls or oil valve for the fireman. No, this old girl runs on muscle, sweat, and the clang of the scoop tossing black diamonds through the mouth of a Butterfly Firedoor from the dancing deck of an eight wheeled tender.

This is the sort of railroading that makes today’s diesel indoctrinated pilot engineer tell the dispatcher that he’s ready to turn the train on the day’s last run so they can put this “son of a bitchin’” engine away for the night.

At least one diesel man found out just how easy he has it!

The Black Fox Road crossing is just a few miles from Cleveland, and the sun was already beating down as the clock passed ten a.m. Cars filled the parking lot of a nearby country church on a Sunday morning, and the sounds of a lawnmower mixed with the voice of an elderly woman calling out to a neighbor: “That passenger train is coming!”

Well, not just yet; I got there early to get my cameras set up and the shots blocked out.

Ever notice how looks run the gamut when you’re sitting trackside? Everything from a smile and a friendly wave to a sour, disapproving glare that makes you sarcastically think “that must be that famous Southern hospitality we hear so much about.”

Then someone stops, takes note of the cameras and says “what you takin’ pictures of?”

“Oh, a train’s coming in a bit.”

I learned early not to mention the steam part of it, as neither Canon or Nikon have yet to introduce a serviceable people filter.

After a while, a car with a couple of guys toting cameras pulled up.

“Hey! We saw you from the train yesterday. You were everywhere!”

Interesting, is it not, how a steam locomotive brings forth folks with cameras regardless of previous indoctrination to the language of four exhausts per revolution of drivers or the song of a chime whistle and the lingering smoky breath of the stack?

Before long, the sound of a six chime whistle drifted in from the west as the 630 crossed the Old Chattanooga Pike a mile-and-a-half distant. Momentarily a puff of smoke appeared as the approaching special neared the crest of a hill down the long straightaway.


Slowly she appeared; the stack, the silently swinging bell, the shimmering headlight on the silvered smokebox door. A cloud of steam erupted as she topped the hill, the sound of the whistle following moments later. Starting down the hill, the exhaust a gray haze as the engineer eased off on the throttle. She drifted downgrade, silently from our vantage point, until the train reached the bottom and again started to climb.


Fully into the hill, the stack erupted with sound as the engineer gave the 630 her head. With 57 inch drivers pounding and rods flailing, she stormed past with a roar of exhaust and a whistle screaming as if to say to the big boys “I was out here on the front lines long before YOU were even born, you young whipper-snappers!”


In a moment she was gone, a haze of coal smoke lingering lazily in her wake as a handful of fans sped away to catch the train in Cleveland.


630 passes through McDonald, Tennessee, with the last of four Cleveland bound trips.


Returning to Chattanooga with Saturday’s second train, 630 passes through a cut near Collegedale, Tennessee.


630 near Collegedale.


Coming right at you! 630’s last train of the weekend crosses Old Chattanooga Pike near Cleveland, Tennessee.

Story and photography by Mary Rae McPherson

Copyright 2013


Something Akin To A Visitation

October 26, 2012

It occurs to me that there is something inherently sad about a steam locomotive going cold for the last time.  Such a machine is as close to a living, breathing, entity as humanity has managed to piece together.  And when one of these magnificent creatures falls by the wayside, it is almost (pardon me for using one of the most overused words in vogue today) tragic.  The fire that is the life’s blood of such a creature is extinguished, and she slowly grows cold; the spark of life going out and leaving so much dead steel behind.

I was not around for the last gasp of steam in the old days.  I wasn’t there when the last New York Central Hudson ran its last mile, or the last Union Pacific Big Boy thundered out of Cheyenne, or the last Norfolk & Western Y filled the hollers of West Virginia with coal smoke and the song of a hoot whistle.  I may have missed the great extinction, but I have seen my share.

There were the ones that I missed.  I never got to see Norfolk & Western 611 in her excursion days, though she came painfully close to my neck of the woods.  I missed steamers on the French Lick, West Baden & Southern and the Whitewater Valley Scenic.  They fell by the wayside, almost before I knew they existed.

Then there were the ones of my acquaintance; locomotives I did manage to see before the spark of life that was a fire on the grates was extinguished.  I rode behind and chased Norfolk & Western 1218.  I spent a day in an almost futile attempt to keep ahead of the Cotton Belt 819 on Union Pacific’s racetrack down the Mississippi Valley in southern Illinois.  And of course, there was the Frisco 1522; the loudest locomotive I ever had the pleasure of listening to.

They all still exist, though stuffed and mounted they are a shadow of what they were.

Such things were on my mind as I pulled into Boone, Iowa, on an afternoon in May.  Near the depot and museum on the property of the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad is the resting place of the first steam locomotive to make my acquaintance; Crab Orchard & Egyptian #17.


#17 slumbers in the engine house at Marion

I was a youngster of ten when we first met.  She was slumbering that day, parked in her berth in the engine house in Marion, Illinois.  Those drivers looked HUGE through the window, and an employee was kind enough to open the doors so I could get a photo of her looking out.

I saw her run for the first time on my tenth birthday, and again twice more before I turned thirteen.  Of course, at that age things will always continue as they are.  Or so it seems.  A year and a quarter after I last saw her run, #17 lost that spark of life; a victim of a mechanical failure that would cost more to fix than the railroad was willing to spend on her.  But I never saw her before she left Marion.  My last image of her was of her sitting in front of the engine house, trailing a light haze of smoke into the late afternoon air of a warm June day as she waited to be bedded down in her stall for the night.


One of my first shots of steam in action: #17 switching cars in Marion on July 22, 1983

It was nearly twenty-seven years later that I pulled into the parking lot of the B&SV, pulled a camera out of the truck and walked to her resting place.  It was something akin to a visitation; there she lay looking something like she did in life but missing that essential spark that transformed her from an inanimate object into something more.  It was sad, really.  I had seen pictures of her on display of course, but they were not reality.  Well, not mine anyway.  No longer.  That last view of her, hot with fire in her belly and a haze of smoke rolling lazily into the sky, was now that of the lifeless shell of her former self.


#17 as she sits today; a lifeless shell of the locomotive I knew

I visited her for a while; remembering the deep steamboat whistle and the ever clanging bell as she shuffled cars around the tiny yard at Marion.  Remembering the day my grandmother and I stood behind the house and listened to the distant moan of the whistle on a winter day.  Noting some of the quirky modifications the C.O.& E. had made to the locomotive; things I had missed as a child on the cusp of adolescence.  Noting a few pieces of coal that had fallen between the tender and the locomotive.  Perhaps they had fallen from Chuck Roehm’s shovel all those years ago; he is now gone too, missed by those who knew him.

I wallowed in the melancholy for a bit, thinking back on days gone by as I stood next to the body of a long lost friend.  Much has transpired in the ensuing years, but there is nothing like the first experience of youth when everything is new and unexplored.  Sometimes it is good to reflect on such things.

Eventually I left the museum and headed to the hotel for the night.  By the next evening I would be in the cab of another steam locomotive; this one very much alive and one I had wanted to see since the time that I first made #17’s acquaintance.

I’m glad I got to stop by to see an old friend, but I rather think I would prefer to remember that last look at her decades ago when she was still animated with that spark of life.


In better days: C.O.& E. 2-8-0 #17 whistles for a crossing near Crainville, Illinois, in June, 1980 – George Redmond photo


Photos by Mary McPherson unless noted

Copyright 2012 – Mary Rae McPherson

Railroad Days In Monticello

September 20, 2011

In 2010, I visited the Monticello Railway Museum for the first time.  The attraction was the return of an operating steam locomotive to the museum’s stable of operating vintage power.

During that first visit, I shot the footage that would comprise the DVD “Southern Railway 2-8-0 #401: Return To Steam.”  Since then, I made two more visits while shooting sequences for another DVD called “Southern Steam Returns.”  I was so busy taking care of business (i.e. setting up shots, filming, setting up recording gear, etc.) that I may as well have watched the action on television.  Pretty much all the action was seen through the monitor on the camera.

This year’s Railroad Days in Monticello took place the weekend of September 17 and 18, and I had planned to go months in advance.  I had also been determined to NOT see the action through the backside of a video camera.  I wouldn’t be going without ANY gear of course; the trusty Cannon SLR would be my companion for this event.

Saturday morning, #401 backs away from the Nelson Crossing depot on the museum grounds.  You could say I paid for this shot… the blast of steam from the cylinder cocks as the engine backed by got my left side sopping wet and nearly blew my hat over the fence!

Later in the morning, #401 is backing through the yard near the Nelson Crossing depot and past an appreciative audience.

Four trains were running throughout the weekend.  One of the trains was a freight train with a pair of cabooses (cabeese?) for riders.  On the head end was Illinois Central GP11 #8733.  Passing I.C. SD40 #6071, the pair of black diesels brought to mind the railroad I lived along throughout the 1990s.

Wabash F-7 #1189 has just backed by with a train of heavyweight passenger cars.  The switch has been lined for the mainline and #401 gets underway for downtown Monticello.

The former Illinois Central trackage curves around the Camp Creek Yard.  Rounding the curve is Wabash #1189.

The cool thing about events like this is that you can find a spot, sit back, and watch the trains pass.  Rounding the curve and headed for Monticello is #401.  The shot was achieved by shooting at 1/15th second while panning with the front of the locomotive and backing off on the zoom lens.

From a dirt pile across the track from the museum’s Camp Creek Yard, Wabash #1189 heads toward Monticello.

Not long after, the freight train headed by Illinois Central #8733 passes.

In another action shot from the dirt pile, Southern Railway #401 passes on the way to Monticello.  From the looks of it, the train could be moving considerably faster than the 20 miles per hour it was actually doing.

Even at a museum, safety is paramount.  A few crew members felt the frog on a switch rode a bit rough.  During a lull between trains, a few museum members work on the offending frog.

Frog adjusted, a pair of volunteers watch closely as the first train backs over the switch.  It’s all good.

As the afternoon’s shadows begin to lengthen, the last steam train of the day heads toward downtown Monticello.

Here’s one for the museum volunteers who put in so much of their time to pull off an event like this.  In addition to the crews who run the trains and keep the track and equipment up to par, there are also those who work the gift shop and sell concessions to hungry and thirsty visitors.  As the last trains of the day return to Nelson Crossing, volunteers stand by for stragglers who may stop by for one last bag of popcorn; one last hot dog or another soda.

Congratulations to the folks in Monticello for another well run event.


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson.

Copyright 2011 – Mary Rae McPherson

Knoxville Time Warp

May 31, 2011

Southern Railway 2-8-0 comes to life

Fascinating it is when you find yourself in a situation where you cannot be totally sure you haven’t stepped into some sort of time warp.  I found myself in just such a situation Mother’s Day weekend.

I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, shooting video for a DVD on the three restored Southern Railway 2-8-0’s that have been returned to service in the last year.  Knoxville is home to the Three Rivers Rambler, which restored 1890 built #154 last summer.  #154 was under steam for the Saturday runs, which kicked off the 2011 operating season.

#154 moving through Knoxville

I drove down from Dongola first thing Friday morning to give myself a chance to scout the line before Saturday’s shoot.  That plan proved fortuitous for after scouting the line east of town, my downtown explorations were interrupted by the surprise arrival of #154.  It turned out the crew had decided a shake down run was in order, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

#154 makes a shake down run with freight cars tied to the tender... the right place at the right time

By the next afternoon, I had shot the unscheduled run and two regular runs.  There was still one shot I wanted to get; in the woods near the top of a 2% grade.  The location I was concentrating on was between the Riverside Drive overpass and a gravel crossing outside a small business.

The view from the Riverside Drive overpass

Having already checked with the crew about my intentions, I set off up the track with a back pack full of audio gear, two tripods, a camera bag and the hi-def video camera.  Doing my best pack mule impression, I crunched the ballast around the curve until I was about half way between the overpass and the gravel crossing where I had parked.

Knowing I had plenty of time to set up, I set a secondary camera on a tripod on the outside of the curve.  The primary camera went on another tripod inside the curve, while a third camera was mounted between the rails for an old-fashioned “suicide shot.”  Finally, the sound recording equipment went about twenty-five yards further around the curve; just far enough to avoid both the ill-timed crunch of a footstep or an unwanted on camera appearance.

Setting up the "suicide" camera

It wasn’t long before the sounds of #154 began to drift through the woods from downtown Knoxville.  Let it be said that #154 has one of the prettiest three chime whistles you would ever want to hear.  Let it also be said that the engineer this particular day knew just what to do with that whistle.  The sound of that distant whistle echoing through the hills was one that would bring a tear to your eye… assuming you are one to be moved by such things.

It was after hearing the whistling from downtown Knoxville that I realized that I was hearing nothing but the birds in the trees and the wind rustling through the leaves.  In today’s world, the sounds of modernity are so pervasive that they only seem to become notable in their absence.

Standing there in the woods along the jointed rail, there was nothing to stamp the moment as being 2011: no automobiles; no loud music; no buzzing electric lines or transformers; no jet planes; nothing but the sounds of nature and the occasional wail of the whistle.

At such times it is easy to think that this is exactly what I would have experienced had I stood in this same spot seventy, eighty, ninety years ago.  The realization is one that is very special for someone with a keen sense of history.  Even the intrusion of a single propeller airplane on approach to the nearby university runway doesn’t quite kill the mood: it could have happened.

But then before long the sound of #154 attacking the hill interrupts the daydream and it is time to get back to work; after all there is a video to shoot.  It’s back to the 21st century as I fire up the camera to nail one more scene for “Southern Steam Returns.”

#154 working upgrade in the woods near the top of the hill

And We’re Back

May 31, 2011

I went through a period of becoming somewhat prolific as a writer; the fruits of that often ending up on this site.  That mostly came to a screeching halt last July, when I decided to revive Diverging Clear Productions.

Diverging Clear had been dormant for several years due to a number of factors, and I had been considering the re-launch for some time before taking the plunge.

Suddenly the time I previously would have used for writing for “Along The Rails” was occupied by planning, shooting, writing and editing video and audio productions.  I set “Along The Rails” on the back burner, not wanting to use the blog as some form of shameless self-promotion.

Upon further review however, it seems to me that some of the projects I have been working on could prove to be fertile ground for “Along The Rails” without becoming little more than an overblown advertisement.

Recent trips have found me shooting steam in central Illinois and Tennessee, and more steam is in the immediate future.

Yes, I do believe that the two can not only co-exist, but can compliment.

Of course, if it drums up a little interest in a DVD or CD or two, I won’t complain.

Mary Rae McPherson

Special Edition: Video Of Southern Railway #401

October 31, 2010

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the return to steam of Southern Railway 2-8-0 #401. In addition to still photography, I spent the majority of the weekend shooting video for a project slated for release next year.

Here is a bit of a preview.

Mary Rae McPherson

Union Pacific In North Platte

October 23, 2010

Western Nebraska is sparsely populated. The Sand Hills in the north and the plains to the south are full of small, dusty towns; many of them not far removed from the image of the frontier cow town. Most of them serve as place to buy goods for those who live and work on the surrounding ranches and farms.

Many of these towns feature little more than a gas station / convenience store, a small grocery and general goods store, a post office, and a population somewhere in the low to mid hundreds.

Most of these towns grew up along the railroad; some along a mainline but many along a lightly trafficked branch. Most of those branches are long gone, a dusty trail choked with weeds in the center of town the only reminder of what was.

And then there is North Platte.

Chance has been good to North Platte. Its central location along the first transcontinental railroad made it the choice location when the Union Pacific Railroad needed to build a division town. Unlike many such towns throughout the years, North Platte only grew in importance as traffic boomed on lines to Chicago and Kansas City, the junction of which is located not far to the east.

The proximity to lines fanning out in multiple directions to the east, as well as the mainline and the coal line to the Powder River Basin diverging to the west, has kept traffic increasing over the years to the point that North Platte is now home to both the largest and busiest freight yard in the world as well as the busiest freight mainline on the planet.

Not bad for a hastily built tent city thrown up as “hell on wheels” passed through in the 1860s.

With good reason, Union Pacific is proud of North Platte. The railroad has long been aware of its unique place in American history, and has long been the most active Class I when it comes to preserving its own place in history. A pair of city parks make that case in fine fashion. Cody park is home to one of the railroad’s massive Challenger type steam locomotives.

4-6-6-4 #3977 is well cared for, dressed in the Greyhound passenger colors a number of oil burning Challengers wore when they worked in passenger service on the line to Portland, Oregon. Inspecting the locomotive up close, it appears an oil fire in her belly and water in the boiler would be all she needs to join sister #3985 out on the mainline; an illusion maybe, but it is a nice thought.

Next to #3977 is another Union Pacific icon, DD40AX “Centennial” diesel #6922. Named and numbered for the 100th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, these eight axle, 6600 horsepower locomotives were only found on the Union Pacific. The unique design of these locomotives was also their undoing; being the equivalent of two locomotives on one frame resulted in the loss of two locomotives every time one was in the shop.

South of the railroad and in another city park, a second preserved locomotive rests behind a chain link fence. 2-8-0 #480 last ran in branch line service in Nebraska in the late fifties. Union Pacific saw fit to preserve this locomotive; giving a nod to the smaller power of an earlier era as well as the giants the railroad became known for in later years.

West of town lies Bailey Yard. Alongside is the Golden Spike Tower & Visitor Center. As you reach the edge of town, this tower looms in the distance above the cornfields that line the railroad. Even without directions it is easy to find; there it is, just drive that-a-way.

The center is owned and operated by a non-profit with the support of the Union Pacific. Admission is quite reasonable, giving access to the museum on the ground floor. Also on the ground floor is a gift shop chock full of Union Pacific related knick knacks, books and DVD’s (I left considerably poorer than when I entered).

The highlight of the center is found up in the tower. On the top floor is a glassed in viewing area overlooking the yard. The floor below that features an open air deck offering the best seat in the house to watch the goings on in the world’s largest freight yard.

The huge engine shop is located just west of the tower.

Northwest of the engine facility is the hump for eastbound traffic.

North of the tower is the westbound hump. In this photo, a loaded eastbound coal train passes nearest the camera. Behind that is a westbound empty coal train, a cut of yard power waiting to shove a cut of cars over the hump. In the background are runaround tracks for westbound coal and intermodal trains.

After visiting the tower, I headed to the west end of the yard. A public road crosses the tracks here, and as the sun set a westbound manifest passes below the signal bridge spanning the main tracks.

As the manifest begins its westbound trek into the sunset, another eastbound coal train approaches North Platte.


Author’s Note: This photo essay is another entry from my August trip through Nebraska and South Dakota.


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson except as noted.

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

The Airplane Train

October 16, 2010

I had seen the occasional photo of trains carrying airplane bodies, but I didn’t really pay a whole lot of attention. Why would I? After all, those loads headed for the Pacific Northwest were not going to be passing through my area. Out of sight, out of mind, you could say.

So as I left the Motel 6 in North Platte, Nebraska, bound for Rapid City, South Dakota, loads for Boeing were among the furthest things from my mind. As I hit the road I wasn’t even thinking of doing any railfanning, even though I would be in the neighborhood of BNSF’s Sand Hills Subdivision. This was a travel day, after all. I had places to be and people to see along the way.

Being fairly technically savvy, I have a few extra gadgets installed in the car… okay, one of my friends says the dashboard looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. An exaggeration, perhaps? Anyway, the GPS navigator wanted me to go north until nearly the South Dakota state line and then head west. As my grandmother used to say, hogwash. It was more direct to cut across Nebraska Highway 2 to Lakeview and turn north from there. Fringe benefit? Highway 2 parallels the Sand Hills Sub.

Oh darn.

I crossed over the railroad and turned west on Highway 2, turning on the radio as I did. It would be silly to be driving along a busy mainline and NOT be listening in, after all. Within minutes of turning west, a hotbox detector went off. Within minutes of that, I was looking at the rear of an empty coal train I was catching up with. I was overtaking the train when the tracks passed below the highway and disappeared to the north. Continuing on a few miles I kept an eye to the north, looking for a shot of the empty coal train I was sure I was ahead of by now.

I blew by just what I was looking for; stopped the car and backed up. The hills along the highway opened up into a valley with the railroad along the far side. I grabbed my camera from the trunk, waved at a passing car, and settled in for a bit of a wait. The wait was a bit shorter than I expected, as within minutes I could hear the sound of General Electric diesels working upgrade.

“Those coal trains really move out here,” I thought to myself.

After a few moments a pair of diesels popped into view, but the odd looking loads immediately behind them indicated quite plainly that this was no empty coal train.

I got my shot and headed back to the car. Of all things, I expect a coal train and this oddball shows up!

I fired up the engine and headed off down the road, fully intending to keep going until I either saw a train coming the other way or made my turn north. A few miles later, however, the tracks came back alongside the highway.

“Oh, why not?” I thought to myself.

The next thing I knew, I was playing leapfrog with “The Airplane Train.”

The westbound train passes through the semi-desert hills that give the Sand Hills their name.

The Sand Hills live up to the moniker, with mile after mile of rolling hills and few trees in many locations.

The train splits the signals at milepost 228.74.

Small bodies of water and small creeks are scattered throughout the region, offering an oasis of green surrounded by brown.

The “Airplane Train” passes by some of the region’s four legged residents. Between the equine and bovine varieties, the four legged critters out number the two legged by a considerable margin.

As the “Airplane Train” recedes into the distance, an eastbound loaded coal train passes.

Much like U.S. 30 and the Union Pacific mainline to the south, Nebraska Highway 2 parallels the BNSF mile after mile across much of the state of Nebraska.

The train passes yet another oasis.

The “Airplane Train” splits another pair of signals. I paced the train another fifteen miles after this shot before turning north. By noon I was in Rushville on the now abandoned Chicago & Northwestern “Cowboy Line.”

Friends commented on how I had made good time.


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson.

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

The Challenger Returns

October 9, 2010

I used to take great pride in managing to see at least one steam locomotive in operation every year. That streak held from 1983 until 2002.

The streak ended in 2003, in no small part because of Frisco 1522’s re-retirement. 2004 and 2005 saw me trackside with Union Pacific 3985 and Louisville & Nashville 152, respectively. That was it for me and steam until the last two months; August saw me visiting the Black Hills Central in South Dakota and September brought a visit to Monticello, Illinois, for the return of Southern 2-8-0 #401. This week brought the cream of the crop, as Union Pacific #3985 made a run from St. Louis to Gorham, Illinois, down the Chester Subdivision.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not speaking ill of the operating museum or the tourist line. Both of these are delightful in their own distinct ways. They also offer a much more personable experience; a chance to kick the tires, if you will. It’s rather like the hometown minor league baseball team in a small town; much more intimate than the big leagues.

Of course if the tourist lines and museums are the minor league ball clubs, then chasing the mainline excursions would have to be the extreme sport of railfanning. Trying to get ahead of a fast moving steam special with higher speed driving; looking out for smoke and the highway patrol while trying to cause as little traffic havoc as possible… it’s the adrenaline junkie edition of railfanning. It’s also something I hadn’t done since the last time #3985 came calling.

I first saw Union Pacific Challenger #3985 in 1992, when the locomotive was eastbound from Kansas City to St. Louis en route to her starring role on the Santa Claus train on CSX’s former Clinchfield mainline.

3985 accelerates away from the siding at Strasburg, Missouri, after meeting a westbound Amtrak.

The next time I saw #3985 was in 2001, when the locomotive was one of the stars of the National Railway Historical Society convention in St. Louis. The locomotive hauled a round trip to Gorham. I shot no photos that day, concentrating instead on sound recordings and video.

The Challenger returned to the Chester Subdivision again in January, 2004, as she passed through on her way to Texas. After having some mechanical issues in St. Louis, the locomotive took it easy that day. It made for an easy chase as we followed it from Chester to the Mississippi River town of Thebes.

“Grab my camera and get a shot of that! I don’t want to wreck us.” 3985 picks up the pace a bit as we overtake the train near Ware, Illinois. Kurt Jensen photo (I was driving)

The Challenger’s return in 2010 was a last minute thing for me. There had been the railfan buzz of course (“hey, did you hear?”), but it was almost a last minute decision to do anything with it. The main reason? The Thursday schedule for the train. My job on the City of New Orleans works Thursdays to Chicago, and after taking a trip off for Monticello I wasn’t too keen on missing another day.


A few days beforehand I decided to bite the bullet; after all, how long might it be before Union Pacific steam ventures back to my neck of the woods again? So despite the fact that the Railfan Flu leads to the Payday Blues, my friend and I checked into the Best Western in Chester, Illinois, Wednesday evening.

This trip I had decided to leave all the video gear at home, a decision that turned out to be fortunate. Before heading to Chester, I got word that the state was closing Illinois Route 3 at the crossing of the Union Pacific’s Pickneyville Subdivsion at Chester; the very road at the heart of the chase. The alternate route around the closure was lengthy, winding and slow, but we chose to drive it on the way to Chester to see exactly what we were getting into. With a little luck, I figured we could pull it off.

The next morning found us waiting alongside the railroad at Menard Junction in Chester. Several other fans were there with the usual mix of still and video cameras; some from nearby towns and others from Ohio and Maryland. A few freight trains passed before we finally heard radio traffic about the “steam special.” The mention of those words on the radio may have been music to our ears at the time, but paled in comparison to the sound of 3985’s whistle echoing down the valley a short time later.

3985 running alongside the Mississippi River at Chester.

Despite the approaching stop in downtown Chester, 3985 was still running at track speed at Menard Junction.

The rear of the train had yet to reach me before I was running back to the car. The engine was already running when I slid into the driver’s seat.

“Hang on!”

Off we went, navigating a few side streets through Chester to cut off a mile of driving the main route that loops around downtown. Then it was the ultimate test of railfan patience; following a car through town with out of state plates that was running well below the speed limit.

“As long as this guy goes straight, we have a chance.”

He did, staying on Illinois 150 as we headed up Murphysboro Road and out of town. Clearing the edge of town it was off to the races; riding the brakes hard into the curves and punching the gas into the straightaways. Fortunately, we were the only eastbound traffic.

Luck was with us. As we approached the junction with the county road that would take us back to highway 3 at Rockwood, we heard the dispatcher tell the special that they would be meeting a northbound freight at Ford. A quick trip down 5 and we were back in the game. As we passed through the floodgates at Cora we could hear 3985 talking to a track gang working in sight of us. We passed by Cora and headed for Jones Ridge, crossing the track for a long pan shot with the hills in the background.

3985 southbound at Jones Ridge.

Gorham was a nice and easy drive down the backroads; no point hurrying as there was no possible way to overtake the train. We pulled into town just as the train was finishing turning on the wye.

An officer handles crowd control as 3985 is serviced on the north leg of the wye.

I managed to fire off a few uncluttered photos before the crowd moved in. A crowd of what looked like several hundred people were on hand to see the train.

3985 sitting on the wye.

While the crowd surrounded the world’s largest active steam locomotive, we headed just north of town to a crossing by an old Missouri Pacific signal bridge. Before long, we were joined by several other carloads of fans.

My initial thought was to get a tight shot of the locomotive passing through the signal bridge, but with the noon light being almost straight overhead the lighting for that shot would have been terrible. Looking off to the right, however, was an angle that seemed more promising. Shooting from a driveway and over a soybean field would work much better with the light.

The train had beaten its scheduled 11:30 arrival into Gorham by a good twenty minutes, so it was a forty-five minute wait for the train to get the highball. A couple of minutes after noon, 3985 whistled off and began moving through the switches off the wye and onto the mainline. Once the rear of the train cleared the last switch, the engineer opened the throttle wide, and the largest operating steam locomotive in the world took off like a scared rabbit.

3985 accelerates away from Gorham.

For once I was standing by the track as a mainline steam locomotive bore down with nothing more than a still camera; no video gear and no audio gear. For a moment there was a bit of regret on the latter; she was talking with a rapidly quickening bark as she quickly gained speed. No real regrets, though. I think the shot of #3985 accelerating past the old MoPac signal bridge will suffice.

Highball northbound!


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson except as noted.

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

Return To Hill City

October 2, 2010

I recently wrote about visits to the Black Hills Central Railroad I made back in the 1990’s as a preface to returning there in August. That trip has come and gone, though recent events have delayed writing about it.

One of the requirements of a good photo essay is, obviously, photography. Nothing makes for a more iconic image than an articulated steam locomotive blasting up a steep grade, smoke billowing forth in a volcanic plume as the exhaust shouts toward the heavens.

This is the exact sort of image I didn’t take.

My purpose for this trip was video, and working with up to three video cameras at most locations left no time to bother with the still camera. Sure a few stills would have been nice, but the wealth of great video scenes that resulted leaves me with no complaints. But while my trusty Cannon stayed safely packed away while the train was on the road, I did take the camera out for a tour around the locomotive servicing area before the first run of the day.

I pulled into the parking lot around 8 o’clock. A bit of haze drifted skyward from behind some parked equipment as I got out of the car. The hostler was already at work bringing the day’s locomotive up to operating pressure. I walked past a string of parked passenger cars with a caboose tacked neatly to the end and found an old friend parked nearby.

#7 was the first Black Hills Central locomotive I had seen under steam back in 1994. She was cold and lifeless this day; silent but only slumbering. Somehow she seemed a little smaller than I remembered. Perhaps it was her larger stable mate a few tracks over.

Still sitting quietly but with fire in her belly was the locomotive I had come to see; former Washington logger #110. This 1928 Baldwin 2-6-6-2T had been purchased by the railroad the last time I had been there, but had yet to begin her journey to her new home.

#110 seemed a bit of a contradiction to me. She is at the same time a beautiful piece of engineering and an ungainly machine. She is deceptively small, much larger at first glance than she is upon further examination; those tiny pilot and trailing trucks combined with the 44” drivers look in proportion to the rest of the machine and only give away her true size as you stand next to them.

Now don’t get me wrong when I say she is an ungainly machine. She has a stark beauty in her own way, as does any locomotive under steam. It is just that by their very nature, articulated tank engines seem to be missing something that smaller tank engines do not. A small 0-4-0T, 2-4-2T, or even a 2-6-2T, seems well balanced, especially one with the slight protrusion of a fuel bunker behind the cab. An articulated tanker on the other hand just seems as though something has been lopped off. It is rather like a freight train with a FRED replacing the caboose, you get used to it but it never looks completely right without that missing element.

Parked between #7 and #110 was another old friend, a much more well proportioned tank engine. 2-6-2T #104 was the locomotive I had found under steam on all but my first visit to the railroad.

Unlike #7, which had lost its box headlight and gained an old style wooded pilot since the last time I saw her, #104 was just as I left her. She was cold this morning, but otherwise ready to go.

After visiting the slumbering steamers I had spent time with years ago, I refocused my attention to the locomotive that was coming to life. #110 was in need of a bath, her running gear caked with grease and grime. While this may have made inspection more difficult, there was a certain beauty in a few days’ worth of heavy use sticking to the steel of her rods and drivers. Here was a locomotive being worked just as hard as she ever was in her service life hauling lumber in the Pacific Northwest.

As the oil fire slowly brought her up to working pressure, the hostler and another shop employee were busy working on the trailing truck. They were less than enthusiastic about the assembly; not without reason as the locomotive had dropped its trailing axle while hauling a full train in the not so distant past.

Not exactly Baldwin’s best designed part seemed to be the popular assessment.

By the time the locomotive was ready to go on my second day of shooting, the shop crew had given her a self-supplied steam bath. Even with the road grime removed, the running gear of the front engine showed plenty of evidence of hard running.

Once she was hot and ready for the road, the engine crew climbed aboard and she snaked her way through the yard. Before tying onto the train, she pulled to a stop at the water tower to fill up before the first run to Keystone. The fireman clambered atop the boiler, and with a wave to the crowd lowered the spout into the tank. It took several minutes to fill the tank.

As I said earlier, the primary goal of the two days in Hill City was video. Looking up into the cab from the ground, one of my cameras was ready for the run to Keystone. Thanks to the crew for their cooperation, as I set up to allow the viewer to be a back seat driver aboard a 2-6-6-2T.

Following work on a video on Louisville & Nashville #152, I’ll be editing the two days worth of footage into a video titled “Mallet In The Mountains.”


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson.

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson