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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

3 Comments leave one →
  1. GeneMoser permalink
    October 10, 2010 11:16 am

    The Challenger is not the world’s largest steam locomotive. It’s the world’s largest operating steam locomotive. The C&OH-8 – 2-6-6-6 is the world’s largest existing steam locomotive. There are two still in existence.

    • October 10, 2010 11:52 am

      Thanks for pointing out the typo; one of the pitfalls of writing in an environment where you get interrupted repeatedly.

      The Allegheny is indeed the leader in boiler capcity, horsepower, engine weight, and is longer than Big Boy sans tender. Big Boy is longer when adding the tender to the mix.

      The main knock against the 2-6-6-6 isn’t actually a knock against the locomotive itself, but rather against the conservative motive power pratices of the C&O. The railroad did not use the 2-6-6-6 in a service it was more adept to until diesels had bumped them from the mountains. The H-8 was designed to produce high horsepower at speed, and the capacity was not utilized fully on coal trains in the mountains.

      Big Boy, of course, was used in service it was acually designed for. As such, Big Boy as a class outperformed the H-8. While the H-8 may have had a stellar record in the service it was assigned to, the story of the Allegheny is as much a story of unrealized potential as anything else. With relatively low boiler pressure, the design had the potential for even more performance while Big Boy was pretty much at the limits of the design.

      When making comparrisons, the Union Pacific Challengers were much more in the class of the N&W A. The two were similar in size, though the A generated more boiler horsepower and could outperform the 4-6-6-4 in similar service.

      Personally, I’ve seen four of the “big five” in person. I’ve chased 3985 and both chased and ridden behind 1218. I have also seen H-8 1601 at the Henry Ford Musuem as well as Big Boys at St. Louis, Omaha and Cheyenne. Earlier this year, I also saw Challenger 3977 in North Platte. I have also seen one of the surviving N&W Y’s in St. Louis.

      I have yet to see one of the remaining DM&IR 2-8-8-4’s.


  2. Stephen permalink
    March 29, 2011 3:05 pm

    The comments on Big Boy, Vs Allegheney, those are all historical references, and though extremely interesting, The 3985 is The World’s Largest Operating Steam Locomotive. The era of the Big Boy and Allegheney aree over, but all 10 survivors need to be kept looking good. I really liked the pictures! Thanks!

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