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Pacing Frisco 1522 On “The Q”

June 13, 2009

I woke up to the sound of diesel locomotives idling.

Not that I had slept all that well. I was driving from Carbondale, Illinois, to Porcupine, South Dakota, on a tight budget; so tight that I was foregoing the comforts of a motel for the savings of sleeping on the ground next to my car. Under normal circumstances I would have stopped for the night in Nebraska, but I was near Kansas City due to a convenient coincidence.

I rolled up my sleeping bag and drove back to the highway, maybe a quarter mile down the gravel road that had been my lodging for the night. Those idling diesels I heard turned out to be a pair of Union Pacific diesels on a train stopped in the siding on the old Burlington Route line from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Kansas City. It may have been after daybreak, but the full moon still hung in the sky over the train on this hazy early morning.

I had been planning on making this trip for a number of months; ever since I had decided to leave school in Illinois and return west. The reason I was there on this particular day however, was something I had only recently discovered: former Frisco #1522 was making a run from Kansas City to St. Joseph, Missouri. Why not time my road trip to coincide with the steam train?

My plan was mostly to do sound recordings while driving alongside the engine on the parallel highway. A two lane road ran mostly beside the track for around thirty miles, giving me just what I was looking for. I scouted the road to see what I was going to be working with, and then headed to a good location to wait for the train.

I stood around waiting with a group of fans from Kansas City; swapping stories and listening for the first distant sounds of the train that was our collective prey. Eventually we did hear the faint chord of the Burlington chime whistle that had been installed on #1522 for its time on the old “Q.” I sprinted to my car as everyone else readied their cameras.

I turned on the tape recorder with its microphones mounted on the sun visor, pulled onto the highway and started easing down the road. Quickly, I saw the locomotive in my rearview mirror under a cloud of steam as it whistled for the fans whose company I had just taken leave of. I floored the gas as the engine came alongside, and the race was on.

In addition to my trusty Pentax K-1000, I was carrying a pocket size Olympus camera loaded with black and white film. Driving down the highway next to the locomotive at sixty miles per hour I wound the camera, held my arm out the window and hoped for the best.

When #1522 was new in 1926, she was the latest passenger power for the Frisco, designed to make time over the hills of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri and Arkansas. Nearly seventy years later she was again on the point of a passenger train; but this time she was running on flat ground that she was finding far less challenging. There was hardly a murmur from her exhaust; hardly a haze from her stack. No, she wasn’t working hard at all; loping along at a mile-a-minute like there was nothing at all to it.

But then again, this wasn’t the old days. And this train wasn’t the hottest thing on the railroad. Before long the train was slowing, heading into the siding at Iatan to meet a trainload of coal headed east from the mines in Powder River country.

Shortly it was back on the road, which had leapt the tracks on an overpass. The engine barked out of the siding and accelerated for a time before slowing for a speed restriction. Then it was off to the races again for a time, before slowing again through Rushville.

On the far side of Rushville, it was back up to track speed until the railroad and the highway diverged. On the outskirts of St. Joseph, I shot one more photo as the train eased into town.

There was a temptation to follow the train into downtown St. Joseph. This was the end of the run for the day, and it was spending the night before moving on to Lincoln, Nebraska, the next day. There was even the fleeting thought that I could spend this night as I had the last and follow it the next day as well.

In the end, I set those thoughts aside. I was on a cross country drive after all. Instead, I spent the night at the Nebraska State Forest listening to the parade of coal trains on Burlington Northern’s Sand Hills Subdivision.

This time though, I set up a tent.


Copyright 2009 – Mary Rae McPherson

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