The St. Louis Steam Gathering – The 1990 N.R.H.S. Convention
I graduated from Carbondale Community High School in Carbondale, Illinois, in 1990. I was bribed to go to my high school graduation. I had no intention of being there. After four years, my time was done as far as I was concerned and the last thing I wanted was to listen to some blow hard make a speech before handing out folders that wouldn’t even contain a diploma. My parents managed to come up with an offer I couldn’t refuse.
June of 1990 was going to be notable for the railfan community in the Midwest, as the St. Louis Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society was hosting the organization’s national convention. I had yet to see a steam locomotive in operation on the mainline, and now I was looking at four in operation less than a hundred miles from Carbondale in the space of one week!
The offer was clear.
“We’ll pay your way, but you have to walk across that stage.”
As I said, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Three of us from the Southern Illinois Train Club were going to make it a week; me, Patrick from Marion and Rob from Mt. Vernon, who was the adult of group. The plan was to go up to Rob’s place in Mt. Vernon on the 11th where we would spend the night. The next day Patrick and I would ride the Independence Limited from Mt. Vernon to Centralia, and the three of us would spend the night at my parents place. The 13th would find us chasing the Cotton Belt Star from Thebes to St. Louis, and then we would be at St. Louis until the 17th when we would return home.
Rob got stuck at work later than he expected on the 11th, and Patrick and I sat around watching TV at his house waiting for him to show up. We had hoped to get an early start and travel to the Indiana border to catch the steam train coming into Illinois. Then we planned to chase the train into Mt. Vernon, where the train would tie up in a side track overnight. So much for that plan.
The Independence Limited was pulled by Norfolk and Western Class A locomotive #1218 in 1990. The train was an annual affair, running on different routes every year but always sponsored by the same N.R.H.S. chapter. This locomotive was one of the two largest operating steam engines in the world, having been returned to service in 1987. I had seen a video on this engine, and was looking forward to seeing it in person.
It was late afternoon before Rob showed up. It was too late to try to get the locomotive in action out on the road, so we headed downtown to where the Norfolk Southern’s St. Louis line crossed over the Union Pacific’s north-south line to and from Chicago to wait for the train to arrive.
We were among the first to arrive, though not long after we arrived other railfans began to filter in. A bunch of us congregated next to the crossing of the two lines, talking trains while a Union Pacific locomotive idled nearby. Nobody wanted to talk too loud, lest we miss the first distant sound of a steam whistle.
For me this was doubly exciting. I had never seen a big mainline steam locomotive in operation before. Now, not only was I about to see my first big engine run, I was about to see one of the two largest operating locomotives in the world. Cool shit for a kid enamored with steam engines born twelve years after the last steamers were retired off the mainline railroads.
Suddenly, there it was. The unmistakable sound of a Norfolk & Western “hoot” whistle in the distance, the single note of the whistle softened by distance and a hundred echoes rolled into a mellow, mournful sound. Conversations ended. The railfans in the crowd got their cameras ready. There was the whistle again. A bit louder this time. Then silence for a few moments. There it is again. A bit louder still.
Finally over a building in the distance came the grey haze of coal smoke. Then the distant chuffing exhaust of a locomotive taking it easy, slowing from track speed to cross the Union Pacific diamond and stop to discharge its passengers for the night. The whistle, which had sounded so mellow off in the distance, became a harsh blast as the engineer whistled for the crossing I was standing by. Then the train slowly banged over the crossing and around the curve out of sight.
Rob, Patrick and I converged on Rob’s Escort station wagon and headed a few blocks to where the train was sitting. We took a good look at the engine before heading back over to Rob’s place to spend the night.
The next morning we were back as #1218 was putting its train together. Several still photos, sound recordings and videos were made as the engine moved back and forth and then finally pulled ahead to board passengers. Patrick and I both had tickets to ride to Centralia, and we headed up toward the front to board the train. Rob announced that he had to go in to work for “a bit.” He would see us in Centralia when he got there. So much for chasing the train to St. Louis.
The run from Mt. Vernon to Centralia is only 22 miles, and it seemed shorter than that. I spent most of the short ride in an open vestibule, getting pelted by cinders from the locomotive and loving every minute of it.
Even though #1218 was one of the largest engines in the world, the train in excess of 20 cars was enough to make it talk. Accelerating out of Mt. Vernon and through the small town of Dix, the engine’s exhaust was a roar. Throngs of people lined the track, some with cameras in hand, some holding small children who covered their ears with their hands, others just waving as the train passed with the whistle hooting its warning: “Get out of the way, I’m coming through!” All too soon the train was slowing as it entered the city limits of Centralia.
I just about hit the ground running getting off the train at Centralia. I figured the train wouldn’t be sitting still long, and I wanted to get a good shot of it leaving town. Turns out the train was there a little longer than I expected.
Before too long though, there were two long blasts from the whistle and clouds of steam erupted from the drain cocks on the bottom of the locomotive’s cylinders. The engineer closed the cylinder cocks after a moment, and the engine slipped slightly as the train began to accelerate from a stop. The engine was still working, but not too hard, as it passed me. On its way out of town the train had to pass through a small railroad yard, and it eased out of town at about ten miles per hour.
Soon the end of the train vanished around the curve to the north. Now, it was time to play the waiting game. We were finding out that “a bit” with Rob could be an all day event. It was no later than 10:30 when the Independence Limited left town, and it was getting on late afternoon when Rob finally showed up. In the meantime we had filmed a handful of diesel powered freight movements passing by, though for whatever reason the traffic was pretty sparse.
Eventually a familiar white station wagon pulled up.
“ ’Bout time!”
We headed across the tracks to find a fast food joint to get some dinner and then stopped by a park on the west side of town where a retired Illinois Central steam engine stood on display. From there we headed back to Rob’s place so he could pick up some items for the coming week.
Then we headed south, following the Union Pacific along Illinois 37. We stopped near Ina on sighting a headlight coming our way, Rob and Patrick grabbing their cameras and me grabbing Rob’s video camera. Just a northbound freight, but something for a carload of railfans to photograph.
“Hear the rail sing?” Rob said as the rear of the train passed.
Patrick broke into a goofy parody of someone singing in response.
South we headed, turning onto 149 through towns like Zeigler, Bush, Hearst, DeSoto and Murphysboro before ending up at Mustang Park in Gorham. We sat around shooting the breeze as the sun went down. Then in the last light of day, we filmed a southbound piggyback train moving fast enough that it seem the wind kicked up in its wake was determined to blow the small town off the map.
From there we headed back to Carbondale, pausing to shoot video of an Illinois Central freight and the arrival of the evening Amtrak train from Chicago. Then it was off to my parents house, where we stayed the night.
The next morning we were ready to go before sunrise. We loaded the last of my supplies for the coming week into the back of Rob’s wagon, and then headed south toward the Mississippi River town of Thebes. Thebes is where the Union Pacific line from Texas crosses the river into Illinois. Once upon a time there was a ferry boat to float railroad cars across the river, but that operation gave way to a huge double track bridge that opened for traffic in 1904.
Eighty-six years after it opened, the Thebes bridge is still an impressive piece of engineering. The three of us had been to shoot trains on it once before, and we decided that we would start our chase of the Cotton Belt Star there. The train was en route to the convention, having left Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the day before with restored steam engine #819 pulling the train.
A fair sized crowd was gathering about the time we pulled up. I took note of one of the faces in the crowd; Jim Boyd, then the editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine. More and more people arrived as the train’s scheduled departure from Scott City, Missouri, neared, until the area seemed littered with bodies, cameras, tripods and parked cars.
Departure time came and went, and loud conversations quieted as people listened for the first sign of #819’s distant whistle. Nothing. A barge passed on the river, sounding for the world like an approaching freight train.
Then suddenly, there it was. A faint, melodic sound of a baritone chime whistle. Conversations ceased. Louder, the distant whistle was heard again; followed by the appearance of a light haze of smoke over the trees on the Missouri side of the river. Momentarily the black front of the locomotive rounded the curve on the approach to the bridge, the shimmering glow of the headlight the Cyclops’s eye.
Now on the bridge #819’s engineer blew several times on the whistle, more for the benefit of members of a track gang working on the other track than for the crowd of fans waiting at the end of the bridge. Another series of blasts on the whistle and the engine emerged from the steel truss work of the bridge, taking it easy in compliance with the speed limit over the bridge.
As the rear of the train passed, the mad dash began. The crowd of railfans dashed for their cars. Camera gear was thrown into trunks and back seats. Cars that weren’t facing out to begin with jockeyed for position to get out. The three of us crossed back over the track to Rob’s waiting car and joined the pack.
Now the idea on a chase like this is to leap frog the train as many times as you can to get as many shots in as many locations as possible. The speed limit for a passenger train up the Chester Subdivision of the Union Pacific is seventy miles per hour. We were well behind the train, which by the time we got back to route 3 and turned north was rapidly accelerating to its maximum speed. It was off to the races.
And a race it was. Suddenly Illinois Route 3 became the track for a true stock car race. No fancy cars, pit crews or crew bosses radioing from a center stand. No, rather this race consisted of around thirty off the shelf cars, trucks and vans racing north at eighty miles per hour. Might as well have been a NASCAR race as cars jockeyed for position and passed one another. A few at the front trying to get alongside the locomotive to get the coveted pacing footage on their video cameras while the rest of us tried passing them to get ahead of the train.
Northbound we went. At McClure, the train was just a cloud of smoke in the distance. To this day I kind of pity the little old lady south of Reynoldsville, driving along at 45 miles an hour only to find herself being overtaken by the Indy 500. By Reynoldsville we could see the rear of the train. The pace slowed as the lead cars caught the locomotive and slowed to match its speed. By Ware we had caught the rear of the train, and we were just behind the locomotive by Wolf Lake.
For the last fifteen miles or so the road had paralleled the track, and we only made headway a few cars at a time as cars at the front of the pack passed the pace vehicles blocking the way. Just north of Wolf Lake the track and highway diverge. It was back to the races. 80 miles an hour we ran, headed for Gorham. I kept an eye for smoke behind us as we turned off of route 3 and onto the road into downtown Gorham. We skidded to a stop near the old railroad office and grabbed our gear, setting up for our shot as quickly as we could. And then nothing happened.
Five minutes. No sign of it. Then ten. Finally we heard a couple of fans talking nearby.
“The detector at milepost 92 got ‘im.”
That explained it. Every twenty miles or so is a device alongside the track which checks for overheated axle bearings. Long ago this task was performed by local station agents who would watch trains pass their stations all hours of the day and night. Those little local operations are but a memory now, with the automated trackside detectors doing the job.
Only problem is that with a steam engine a detector can’t tell the difference between a overheated bearing, the cylinders which are heated by superheated steam and the locomotive’s firebox. When the detector misread the cylinders or firebox (or both) as a hot bearing, the train crew was mandated by rule to stop and inspect the non-existent problem.
“Well, that explains what hole he fell into,” I said.
Before long a flock of fans pulled up, and moments later we could hear the sound of the locomotive’s exhaust in the distance. A billowing cloud of thick, black smoke appeared in the distance as the train rounded the curve south of town. Moving at a pace of better than a mile a minute, the train bore down on us with its baritone chime whistle sounding its warning for the one crossing in town. In a flash it was gone, a dancing red taillight in a haze of smoke receding into the distance.
Back to the car we ran, but back on the highway the pace was less frantic. There was no way in hell we were going to catch up with him before Chester, and the train was scheduled to stop there anyway.
The Chester fire department was watering the locomotive when we got there. We drove slowly by and found a position just north of the highway bridge into Missouri, not far from the entrance to the Menard State Correctional Center. Before long the train was back on the move and we shot it passing under the bridge as it accelerated out of town.
After the train passed, we knew we could pretty well kiss it goodbye for the day if we headed back to route 3. So we decided to take a chance on the unfamiliar road we were parked on. It turned out to be a good choice, since we were soon running neck in neck with the rear of the train. After a few miles, the train began to slow and finally came to a halt.
It seemed the Cotton Belt and Union Pacific train dispatchers were taking turns screwing with each other. This particular line was owned by one railroad on one side of the river, and the other railroad on the other side. Both railroads ran over the line in both states giving the line its nickname: the Joint Line.
In Missouri, the Cotton Belt dispatcher had held two high priority Union Pacific freight trains for the passenger train. Now in Union Pacific territory, the U.P. dispatcher was returning the favor. He held the northbound special and a southbound Cotton Belt freight to let the two trains delayed in Missouri go around the special. There was no way the passenger train would have delayed the northbound freights any further so this was simple retaliation, something both sides were known for in the days before the Cotton Belt was merged into the Union Pacific.
The two freights passed, and then we shot the steam train meeting the southbound freight. We gave up the chase at that point, and enjoyed a leisurely paced drive to the Metro-East area, the greater St. Louis area on the Illinois side. We took in some of the railroad sites on both sides of the Mississippi before checking into our room at the Days Inn a few blocks from the river.
The next day was another steam train chase Union Pacific #844 pulling the first official convention train. If the previous day was a difficult chase, this one was a nightmare. The traffic was unbelievable, and the drivers bordered on certifiably nuts. We heard of one carload of railfans running a car coming the other way into the ditch, though we never actually saw anything.
We set up for our first shot of the day near the tiny town of Worden, Illinois. As it turned out, just before reaching our location the train stopped for a photo runby. We should have set up a little closer to St. Louis, and we could have gotten ahead of it while the photo run was made. However, the Union Pacific had decided to keep secret the runby locations. So it goes on a steam chase.
After the runby, we shot #844 accelerating the train back up to track speed. And then the chase was on. This was no ordinary chase, however. This wasn’t the Norfolk Southern with a 40 mile per hour limit. This was Union Pacific running track speed with a high drivered 4-8-4 alongside a two lane highway. As is always the case on a steam chase, a few cars catch up with the locomotive and drive alongside it, no matter how fast or slow it may go. It results in great video for them, however it ruins the day of anyone stuck in the pack behind them. We were in the pack.
Deciding to leave the two lane where we could, we jumped onto the interstate and decided to make time. It almost worked. At Carpenter, we exited the interstate and made for trackside as fast as we could. Just a hundred feet shy of the crossing, #844 and train shot by in front of us. So close, but…
It was back to the two lane roads as the interstate headed off in another direction. The best we did was to catch up with the tail end of the train as is crept through a siding and met a St. Louis bound freight train. The pacers parked on the highway next to the locomotive, and oncoming traffic doomed the rest of us. It was highly frustrating, and a stream of colorful explatives emerged from all involved.
Finally after driving for nearly 50 miles and getting no closer than the last car of the train, we just said the hell with it and stopped at a Pizza Hut to await the train’s return after it turned around at Findlay, Illinois. After a nice leisurely lunch, we headed back to trackside to wait. After getting screwed by other drivers pacing alongside the engine, we decided to get some pacing of our own. We parked alongside the highway and waited for the train to come into view. Seeing the headlight in the distance behind us, we pulled onto the road and let the train and the pack of chasers catch up to us.
“Eat OUR dust, assholes!”
We repeated the strategy after the train made an unplanned fuel stop, but both times we were quickly knocked out of the lead and further back into the pack. We jumped on the interstate for a while and managed to get one more shot not far from the first place we shot at in the morning. The day’s work? Caught it coming by twice and a few minutes of pacing. Not a whole hell of a lot considering we drove around 250 miles and spent most of the day. Well, at least we got something.
That evening, we went out and about on the Illinois side of the river. While we were in the Collinsville area, we ran into a railfan from the local area who invited the three of us over to his house the next day for an operating session on his model railroad layout.
This fellow had built a two story garage. The bottom was the standard car port, while the upstairs was climate controlled and had a huge layout. There were many people there for the session, which lasted well into the night. I started getting a little concerned about the time, since the next day was another steam excursion. In the end though, we were having too much fun and just said the hell with it.
The next morning we woke up late. Way too late. The train we planned to chase was long gone. We checked the schedule and figured we could head west a good distance and catch the train a few times on the way back. So we loaded up in Rob’s Escort and headed as far as Sullivan, Missouri.
Mid June of 1990 found the Midwest in the middle of a heat wave. In Sullivan, we got out of the sun and took refuge under a tree, but it didn’t help much. The temperature was pushing the 100 degree mark, and the high humidity made it even worse. But that was okay, after all a steam train was coming. So we waited. And waited. And waited. We sat around twiddling our thumbs for several hours before we caught wind that the train was delayed and was still well to the west.
Since it looked like we still had plenty of time to kill, we jumped back in the car and drove down the road to Bourbon. As we pulled into town, the first thing we noticed was an obvious lack of railfans. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. Rob rolled his window down and talked to a local.
“If you’re here for that steam train, it came through a few minutes ago.”
We did a quick U-turn and jumped on the interstate, heading east toward St. Louis. Eventually we caught the train, though fans jammed up the interstate to the point that traffic came to a brief standstill. We managed to catch it three times, but it was mostly the trip that got away.
The last trip of the convention left the next day as the 819 headed back to Pine Bluff. We screwed up and never saw it. Somehow we got it in our heads that the train would leave out of St. Louis Union Station. So we went to an area between the station and the bridge over the Mississippi. Unfortunately, the train left out of Dupo on the Illinois side. By the time we realized our mistake, the train was long gone. We drove south on Route 3 and near Chester we did see a cloud of smoke in the distance, but that was as close as we got. In the end we just broke off the chase at Gorham and watched diesel powered trains all afternoon.
It was getting toward evening when we got back to my parents’ place. We watched what video we had managed to get, though the video camera had bought the farm after the 844 trip. It was after dark before Rob and Patrick headed for Marion. Rob dropped Patrick off at his Mom’s house and then headed up the interstate to Mt. Vernon. On the way he hit a deer that ran out across the road, caving in the front of the car and forever giving it the moniker “Deerslayer” after it got out of the shop.
Not a bad way to enter my post high school life… taking part in the biggest steam event to hit the midwest since the last fires were dropped on the Illinois Central in 1960. I haven’t topped it yet.
Copyright 2009 – Mary Rae McPherson