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A Few Moments At Eureka

March 20, 2010

The sun was low on the horizon as I pulled into Eureka, Missouri.

It was September 28, 2002, and it had been a long day on the road. I had left home in the pre-dawn hours, and it got only more hectic as the day progressed. This, of course, was to be expected on a steam chase.

The weekend of the 28th and 29th was to be the last weekend of service for Frisco 1522 as an active excursion locomotive; with the conclusion of the weekend, the engine was to be returned to static display at the Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood, Missouri. I had seen the locomotive on a number of occasions since 1990, and there was no way I was going to miss seeing her in action one last time.

As I had done on previous trips, I planned the westbound leg to Newburg carefully to get the train at certain locations to make sound recordings of the locomotive working hard. Once the train had climbed Rolla Hill on the return leg, it was a free-for-all of leapfrogging the train as many times as possible. The strategy had worked well in the past, and this day was no exception.

Now, with the day coming to a close, I realized I had one last crack at getting a shot of 1522 as a live locomotive in the light of day. Downtown Eureka was full of people milling about; most of them to see the steam train they knew was approaching by the flood of camera toting fans beginning to filter into the area. To get away from the crowd (and the chatter that is the bane of the recording engineer), I headed away from downtown and along a quiet side street that paralleled the tracks.

Finding a spot that looked promising, I turned the van around and set up my gear; a camera on a tripod with a twenty foot cable release, two shotgun microphones and around fifty feet of microphone cable. I blocked out the shot for the camera and estimated where the locomotive needed to be to be in frame. Then I set the shutter speed at 1/30th second to capture the speed of the train. I check my audio levels and the light meter, waited a few moments, and checked everything again.

The sun continued to sink lower in the sky.

“Come on,” I thought. “I couldn’t have gotten THAT far ahead of it.”

A few more minutes passed as I stood next to the camera. Isn’t it funny how the mind plays tricks on you at such a time? You strain to hear something in the distance, and your mind tries to oblige even when there is nothing there. Tires on a distant highway hit just the right note, and for a moment you’re sure you heard it.

“Oops,” one part of the brain tells another. “My bad.”

Never mind.

Then I heard it. Really. The deep baritone whistle in the distance I had heard so many times before. I quickly made one more check of the light meter in the camera and jumped back in the van, turning on the record deck and starting the tape.

A bright pinpoint of light appeared in the distance, as the train rounded the curve at Allenton a couple of miles away down the arrow straight rails. For a few moments the approaching train was silent, with only the quiet chirping of crickets to be heard. The air was totally still. The light silently grew nearer, with a smudge of black smoke rising above it.

Then the sound began to be heard; an impossibly fast galloping sound. The chuffs of the exhaust, one with each quarter turn of the drivers, nearly merged together into a continuous roar that pulsed with each revolution. As the train neared, the sound grew in intensity. The train began to emerge from behind the pinprick of light that was the headlight. Above it the trail of smoke hung perfectly above the train, undisturbed in the still air against the backdrop of the orange sky.

The sound of the exhaust grew steadily into a roar, as 1522 was working all out at track speed as it made a run at the hill into Kirkwood. Louder it grew, until the train was suddenly right there. I hit the plunger on the cable release and hoped the camera fired. An instant later the locomotive rushed past in a blur of flashing rods and roaring exhaust. The engineer hauled down on the whistle chord as she passed, the whistle barely audible over the roar from the stack. Then she was past, trailed by twenty cars full of fans pounding over the welded rail at a mile-a-minute. The Amtrak diesel bringing up the rear to supply power for the cars broke the spell for a moment, but only just for a moment, as the train receded into the distance.

Slowly the roar of the locomotive faded into the sounds of the evening, punctuated by the mournful call of the whistle. After a few minutes, I packed my gear into the van and headed toward downtown St. Louis.

As I drove toward St. Louis on I-44, I was thinking about where I would stay the night before catching the final run the next day. As I drove up the long hill out of the Meramec River Valley, the exhaust pipe blew off the exhaust manifold on the driver’s side. This is the sort of thing that might be expected when driving a vehicle that is a quarter century old, but of all times…

The pipe was wedged into place fairly well so that it didn’t appear I would lose the whole thing, but I didn’t feel like chancing it any more than I had to. So I grabbed a pair of ear plugs from work out of the center tray and called it a trip. I drove the back roads home in an attempt, successful I might add, to avoid any hassles over my now deafeningly loud vehicle.

The following day, while hundreds of steam fans from around the world watched the last run of Frisco 1522, I watched the San Diego Chargers get a rare victory with my father. The Chargers had yet to emerge from the dark recesses of ineptitude at the time, and we had such a good time watching the game that I had no complaints from the weekend… with the possible exception of the bill for fixing the exhaust system the following day.

Looking back at it, as much as I would have liked to have one more day with my old friend, that last time I saw Frisco 1522 in the light of day would have been hard to top. Certainly it was how I would prefer to remember her; working all out at speed with a long train in tow.

Those few moments at Eureka were a fitting farewell.


The Ozark Flyer is westbound near downtown St. Louis.


The train is just starting to accelerate as the markers clear the siding at Valley Park.


The westbound Ozark Flyer accelerates away from Sullivan.


Now eastbound for St. Louis, the Ozark Flyer passes in silhouette near Cuba.


A group of people watch the eastbound Ozark Flyer from an overpass west of Sullivan.


The eastbound Ozark Flyer accelerates away from the siding at St. Clair after meeting a westbound freight.


Here she is one last time. The Ozark Flyer sprints up the straightaway at sunset; a moment at Eureka.


Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

One Comment leave one →
  1. T. J. Kaufhold permalink
    March 20, 2010 5:34 pm

    Ah so wonderful, that last one I can hear it, I can feel it,and I have cinders in my eyes and mouth. Well done again Mary Rae Thank You T.J.

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