10 very special steam fantrips

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, May 22, 2017

It’s been a good spring for mainline steam, what with early performances already by Norfolk & Western 611, Union Pacific 844, and Milwaukee Road 261. There’s much more to come this summer. The staff over at Trains is marking the season with Big Steam is Back, a new special-edition magazine and companion video.

All this excitement has got me in a nostalgic mood, thinking about a lot of trips I took over the last 40 years when “big steam was back” the first or second or third time around. Here are some favorites:

GTW 5632 storms out of Dearborn Station on Oct. 30, 1966. Laurence H. Rehm photo
Grand Trunk Western 4-6-2 No. 5629, Chicago–South Bend, October 29, 1966: Dick Jensen and his peripatetic Pacific were the toast of mainline steam when they teamed up for this memorable round trip on Grand Trunk Western for the Railroad Club of Chicago, the first of two that weekend. This was my first big steam excursion. I was 15. I’ll never forget the excitement of a dramatic photo runby near Stillwell, Ind., nor my puzzlement over the “Menk the Fink” buttons some of the fans were wearing.

“Delaware & Hudson” 4-8-4 No. 302, Hoboken–Binghamton, N.Y., May 26–27, 1973: I put “D&H” in quotes because the 302 was in reality Reading 2102, masquerading as a D&H 4-8-4 in recognition of the latter railroad’s sesquicentennial. With its temporary elephant ears and headlight flush with the smokebox, the 2102 made a reasonable facsimile. Most memorable part of this High Iron Company trip: the high-speed sprint across rural New Jersey via the Lackawanna Cutoff of 1911, in its day the embodiment of a “super railroad.”

SP 4449 takes a curve on its epic Atlanta–Alexandria ferry trip in 1975. John B. Corns photo
Southern Pacific 4-8-4 No. 4449, Atlanta–Alexandria, Va., August 28–29, 1976: This was hardly a typical ferry trip, although the stated purpose was to get the Daylight engine back to the American Freedom Train after a hiatus in Birmingham, Ala. In fact, it turned out to be a steam trip for the ages, a real “were you there?” experience. Trains Editor David P. Morgan reported that 2,049 people rode the 19-car train! Fans with reliable stopwatches recorded a thrilling 79.5 mph during the 4449’s mad dash between Culpeper and Manassas, Va.

Norfolk & Western 2-6-6-4 No. 1218, Columbus, Ohio–St. Louis, June 9–12, 1990: There were a lot of great Independence Limited trips back in the heyday of the NRHS convention, but this had to be one of the best, a four-day rambling adventure on Norfolk Southern across Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois behind one of the greatest steam locomotives ever to burn coal and boil water. For much of the trip I shared a seat next to an open window with my old friend, historian Jim Scribbins, and together we reveled in the sounds of 1218’s hooter wafting across cornfields. Later we arrived triumphantly in St. Louis Union Station, to be joined by (count ’em!) Frisco 1522, Union Pacific 844, and Cotton Belt 819.

PM 1225 and NKP 765 pause at Botkins, Ohio, on their run to Huntington, W.Va., in 1991. Victor Hand photo
Pere Marquette 2-8-4 No. 1225 and Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765, Lima, Ohio–Cincinnati, August 3, 1991: The two Lima-built Berkshires made a great pair once they rendezvoused at Lima to head for the NRHS convention in Huntington, W.Va. My friend John B. Corns and I were lucky enough to be in 1225’s cab amid a violent thunderstorm as the two Berks’ whistles echoed off the brick walls of what remained of the Lima Locomotive Works plant. The experience left the entire crew spellbound.

Louisville & Nashville 4-6-2 No. 152, Paris to Mayville, Ky., May 20, 1988: Authenticity ruled on this lovely little trip through the northern Kentucky hills on a former L&N branch, by then operated by Transkentucky Transportation, or TTI. The Kentucky Railway Museum’s beloved 4-6-2 performed beautifully, pulling a short three-car train of heavyweight equipment, distinguished on the rear end by open-platform 10-section buffet-lounge Mt. Broderick, built by Pullman in 1926. Video producer Greg Scholl sponsored the outing.

UP 844 curves through Belden, Colo., on its memorable Tennessee Pass farewell trip in 1997. C. W. Edinger photo
Union Pacific 4-8-4 No. 844, Denver–Grand Junction, Colo., June 21–22, 1997: The queen of excursion 4-8-4s gave a huge trainload of passengers a chance to ride UP’s rugged and incredibly beautiful ex-D&RGW Tennessee Pass line for the last time. Most of this magical route was mothballed shorty thereafter, although, happily, the portion through the Royal Gorge remains very much in business as a tourist operation. It’s hard to imagine the 844 working any harder than when it dug into the long westbound grade to the 10,212-foot summit above Minturn.

Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261, Green Bay–Neenah, Wis., June 11, 1994: The burly, just-restored 261 had only been on the road a short time when Steve Sandberg and his crew took it out for this classic fantrip on Wisconsin Central. My personal highlight of the day came when Steve allowed me to join him and his late mother, the indefatigable Judy Sandberg, down on the ground for an emotional salute to the engine as it roared past to begin a photo runby at Wrightstown.

Frisco 1522 pours it on with a BNSF employee special in 2001. John B. Corns photo
St. Louis-San Francisco 4-8-2 No. 1522, near Tulsa, Okla., May 19, 2001: Never underestimate the power of a 1926 Baldwin 4-8-2, especially in the hands of a determined hogger. Tapped to pull the BNSF Employee Appreciation Special, the 1522 tackled one of the old Frisco’s toughest pieces of railroad, Tiger Hill, on the Cherokee Sub of the Southwestern Division, three miles of twisting 1.1 percent grade coming into Tulsa from the north. Cool as a cucumber, engineer Jeff Schmid made a point of not using the BNSF diesel assigned to the train. It was quite a show.

Southern 2-8-2 No. 4501, Knoxville, Tenn., August 30, 1975: The Southern’s green-and-gold queen was in her prime for this starring role at the convention, which also featured Clinchfield 4-6-0 No. 1. The entire four-day weekend was worth it for one sensational moment: an especially raucous 4501 photo runby at Jellico, Tenn. John Corns and I gave a wave to Dave Morgan, seated in his customary open-window coach seat, but unbeknownst to us, standing just a few feet away, was 15-year-old steam fan and future Trains Editor Jim Wrinn.

These are just some of my favorites from what seems like a lifetime of riding behind mainline steam. Surely you have plenty of your own. Maybe you were along for some of these very same trips. I’d love to hear about it in the Comments section below.

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