Union Pacific No. 3985's next stop

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, March 31, 2020

By now, it’s sunk in for many steam fans that Union Pacific Challenger No. 3985 has been retired. A lot of people expressed surprise earlier this year when Union Pacific steam boss Ed Dickens announced this in an online message. It was really no surprise. It was old news in the same vein that has haunted the actor Abe Vigoda for years (for the truth, see isabevigodead.com). The fact that the 4-6-6-4 has been retired has been no secret either: It hasn’t run since 2010 because it needs a lot of heavy boiler work, UP rebuilt two locomotives (844 and 4014) since then, and the UP steam page branding that came out last spring did not include the much loved Challenger. Additionally, No. 4014 debuted with No. 3985’s oil tender in May, and the plaque honoring the Southern California Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society for its stewardship of No. 4014 was affixed to the former 3985 tender during No. 4014’s visit while in Provo, Utah, in October. Dickens has said repeatedly and publicly that UP has the resources to keep two major locomotives running, but not three. He just confirmed what we already knew, but maybe many of us just held out hope that having the Big Three UP steam mainline steam legends under their own power at once was within reach. It was just too much to ask for.

 

Having said all of that, I don’t know if retired is the right word to use for No. 3985: The railroad could bring it back at any time. Any mechanical object can be rebuilt. It just takes time, money, and more than anything, the will to do it. Does that will exist in the Precision Schedule Railroading world of 2020? For two engines, remarkably, yes. But for three, probably not. I think we should all be grateful that UP still remembers and cares about its heritage and understands that it’s a remarkably effective public relations tool. Two is a generous offering.

 

I’d like to offer suggestions for No. 3985’s future. But before I do, let me express my personal appreciation to UP and to the steam crews over the years for sharing this magnificent engine with us. My first UP steam trip, a Cheyenne-Laramie round trip via Track 3 westbound and Tracks 1 and 2 eastbound, came in May 1987. It was a rollicking outing with multiple photo runbys, blasting cinders galore (the engine had yet to be converted to oil firing), and a well-stocked and well patronized lounge car, where I met the legendary artist Howard Fogg. I came away impressed. The photo above is from that trip while we worked our way west across Sherman Hill on Track 3. My next encounter was when the engine visited the east to pull CSX’s 1992 Santa Train on the former Clinchfield. While on that mission, No. 3985 took the guise of a CRR Challenger and the next number in the series, No. 676. That was an incredible once-in-a-lifetime event. I encountered the engine at Railfair ’99 at the California State Railroad Museum, where it departed early after stablemate No. 844 suffered boiler tube failures. And I rode behind No. 3985 in 2002 from, of all places, St. Paul, Minn., to Kansas City on the former Rock Island Spine Line. It was an amazing locomotive that I have nothing but appreciation to the crews and the management for providing to us with 29 great years. As with all good things, they come to an end.

Now to the future. The good thing is that No. 3985 is safe inside the Cheyenne Roundhouse. That’s a fine home for her as long as UP allows as the photo I made above in March 2016 shows. But should management ever decide that she needs to find another home, I have two suggestions: Evanston, Wyo., has a magnificently restored UP roundhouse just east of the crest of Wasatch Grade on the main line, but no resident steam locomotive that demonstrates what this was all about. It would be a fitting resting place for a Challenger. The other idea would be to return No. 3985 to the location where volunteers started restoring her four decades ago: At a spot of honor adjacent to the Cheyenne depot. Put a roof over her to keep the rain and snow off, and let people enjoy this magnificent machine a few feet away from the main line where she once held court.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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