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Great ball of fire!

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, July 23, 2017

Steam locomotive 844 and I entered this world months apart in 1944. The last steam locomotive built for Union Pacific, it never left that railroad’s active roster. Instead, it has served for half a century as UP’s good-will ambassador. With its 80-inch driving wheels, it is a magnificent machine that impresses people of all ages. Yesterday, Cathie and I rode behind the 844 from Denver to Cheyenne and back aboard the train the Denver Post and UP sponsor to celebrate Frontier Days in Cheyenne and benefit Colorado charities. We had seats in the dome of the coach named “Challenger.” My thanks to Chip Paquelet for giving hard-to-get tickets he couldn’t use to Dick Strong, and to Dick and Donna Strong for thinking of us.

“Where did all these people come from?” Cathie asked soon after we left the Denver yards. (At left, the crowd in Greeley that saw us return from Cheyenne.) At every street crossing, at 7 on a Saturday morning, people were there to photograph our 18-car train or to wave us by (the men took photos, the women waved). I explained that there is a Cult of 844, and that notwithstanding the publicity that the Denver Post gave this round trip—our schedule was posted online for one and all to see—this locomotive goes nowhere without tens of thousands of people knowing.

It really didn’t matter how far we got from Denver—the crowds were everywhere to watch this train pass. Pretty soon I abandoned my seat in the dome to go to the dance car immediately behind car “Challenger.” I found a spot in an opening of what had been a baggage car door, where I could listen to a western swing band play Bob Wills tunes and stuff of more recent vintage while feeling the breeze and inhaling the smoke from the locomotive ahead of us and waving to people celebrating an event of this nature.

My mind drifted back to another encounter with the 844, 48 years ago. We were both age 25 in 1969. My newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, had sent me on a train-lover’s adventure of a lifetime. On a Tuesday and Wednesday, I had ridden Santa Fe Railway’s Super C, the fastest freight train ever scheduled, from Chicago to Los Angeles in 36 hours. I would write a Sunday magazine piece about the experience. On Thursday I had a parlor car seat in the observation car of Southern Pacific’s Coast Daylight from LA to San Francisco. Friday had me leaving Oakland on the fabled domeliner, the California Zephyr, arriving in Salt Lake City Saturday morning. The beautiful Zephyr was on its last legs, soon to make its final run (luckily, Amtrak later revived it) and that was the topic of a second story.

In Utah, it was the centennial day of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, the meeting of locomotive cowcatchers to be reacted that morning at a new national park where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met, north of the Great Salt Lake at Promontory—yet another story for me. Busses took us to and from Promontory, by then a desolate locale in Box Elder County far from practically anywhere. Afterward, back in Ogden, Utah, invited guests boarded a special train to Salt Lake City headed by, yes indeed, locomotive 844. I wrote this in a story for the next morning’s Sun-Times:

“The Union Pacific R.R. put a giant steam locomotive in front of a passenger train Saturday, and it nearly brought Ogden and Salt Lake City to a standstill. Some 50,000 to 75,000 persons, most of them under 30, lined the tracks along the 45 miles between the cities. Nostalgic railroad employes in the yards were rapt. What they saw was the last steam locomotive UP owns and perhaps the largest anywhere that still runs.”

So locomotive 844 and I have a long-standing relationship. It was a thrill to renew it yesterday. We’re both still going strong, in particular my friend, that great ball of fire.—Fred W. Frailey

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