The Challenger at high tide

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, January 17, 2020

East of Lodgepole, Nebr., Union Pacific 4-6-6-4 No. 3985 strides toward North Platte with revenue freight train PCYNP on Sept. 18, 1990. Kevin P. Keefe
A couple of weeks ago, Union Pacific steam boss Ed Dickens clarified what many of us had expected to hear for quite some time, that 4-6-6-4 Challenger No. 3985 won’t be back in service anytime soon, or perhaps ever. 

The reasons are pretty obvious: UP’s heritage operations team already has its hands full running and maintaining 4-8-8-4 Big Boy No. 4014 and 4-8-4 No. 844, and bringing back 3985 would require another expensive overhaul. Such are the consequences of running the wheels off it, from its original restoration in 1981 to its sidelining several years ago. 

I was disappointed to hear the news, because I always loved the Challenger. What a great locomotive, in many ways the ultimate expression of both speed and power (sorry Big Boy). Steam author William L. Withuhn lauded the whole class for their “unparalleled ability as heavy, four-cylinder freight locomotives that could run at passenger-train speeds.” If you ever saw the 3985 in full flight, you know what he means.

That said, I cannot criticize the railroad’s decision. Ever since it decided to keep 844 on the roster back in 1960, Union Pacific has shown every other major railroad how to showcase its heritage with class. Having the gallant 4-8-4 around for six decades is evidence enough. Last year’s astounding return of 4014 was something else altogether. Carping about the 3985 at this point would be hugely presumptuous, to say the least.  

But that doesn’t mean I can’t lament the mothballing of the dear old Challenger. I encountered the 3985 several times over the years and always came away impressed. With all due respect to N&W 2-6-6-4 No. 1218 and its brethren, I can’t see how UP’s 4-6-6-4s cannot be considered the world’s most successful simple articulateds, given their sterling dual-service operational record on UP, not to mention how they begat near-carbon-copies on Clinchfield, D&H, Northern Pacific, and SP&S. 

Longtime UP steam boss Steve Lee has the Challenger rolling along the Overland Route. Kevin P. Keefe
My appreciation of 3985 dates back to September 1990, when I got one of the luckiest Trains assignments of my career. Union Pacific had decided to spend nearly $2 million on upgrading its steam facilities in Cheyenne and wanted to showcase the project — as well as the 3985’s recent conversion to oil — by inviting the railfan press to see it. In those days, the railfan press consisted mainly of Trains and Railfan & Railroad magazines. 

I could write a separate story about how we all got to Cheyenne, but it would seem shameless, such was the degree to which UP public affairs director John Bromley showered us with hospitality. The railroad delivered us to Cheyenne aboard two business cars, the Cheyenne and the Kenefick, with me getting on near Chicago and Railfan’s Jim Boyd and Mike Del Vecchio boarding at Council Bluffs. We ended up flying across the Overland Route that night on the back of a piggyback train, arriving at Cheyenne at something like 4 a.m. I can tell you that the master bedroom in the Kenefick is just what you’d expect it to be. 

Along the way, the gregarious Bromley treated us to some wonderful meals in the dining room of the Cheyenne — a wag in the office dubbed it the “surf ’n’ turf trip” — as well as some fascinating tales from inside the railroad. The on-board service definitely made an impression on Del Vecchio. “I’ll never forget the French toast we had for breakfast, served by a genuine (retired) Pullman employee,” Mike told me. “I recall soaking up the atmosphere of the service and traditions that were, even then, nowhere else in railroading.”

(A word about John Bromley: Now retired, he was a classic old-school p.r. professional, which means he cultivated relationships with the news media based on trust and respect. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.) 

The roadbed blurs at 60 mph below Kevin Keefe's feet in a view from the fireman's-side gangway of 3985's cab. Kevin P. Keefe
After touring the Cheyenne shop for a day, we got ready for the return trip, in which the Challenger would head east on the point of a 67-car freight train, sans diesel, before arriving in North Platte to make a ferry move of equipment over to Omaha for the city’s annual River City Roundup festival. I got lucky again, drawing the first cab ride on the 3985, from Cheyenne east 120 miles to Lodgepole, Nebr., where the Railfan boys would take over. 

It’s an understatement to say that the sunny morning of September 18 was thrilling as I climbed the ladder up to the Challenger’s lordly cab. Soon we were under way, the 3985 easily handling the 11 loads and 56 empties of what was normally the DENP train (Denver–North Platte) but which that day carried the designation PCYNP, the first “P” for “passenger.” 

What can I say about riding 3985’s cab at 60 mph? Fantastic. My notes remind me that the ride was smoother than perhaps any other mainline engine I’d ridden, as well as surprisingly quiet. The engine’s double stacks were so far forward that I didn’t perceive them to be that loud. What was more noticeable was a background sound, a constant, deep, basso profundo that seemed to emanate from deep inside the boiler.

Our engineer that day was Steve Lee, at the time UP’s manager of steam operations and a denim-overalled man right out of Hogger Central Casting. With his familiar stogie in his right hand, Lee put the 3985 smoothly through its paces, only occasionally barking out exchanges with fireman Lynn Nystrom. Their jokes occasionally came at my expense. If you had a thin skin, you had no business being aboard 3985.

All too soon we arrived in Lodgepole, where I was obliged to climb down and watch the crew do some light servicing before setting off again for North Plate. I managed to hitch a ride for a time with someone driving east along U.S. 30 and photographed the mighty Challenger at a grade crossing east of Lodgepole. Then she was gone.

I saw the Challenger several more times, including a memorable visit to Milwaukee back in 2002. But, of course, nothing could top September 1990. Now, nearly 30 years later, I find myself hoping Mr. Dickens and his railroad come up with a retirement plan worthy of this magnificent machine. I salute mighty Big Boy — how can you not? — but I’ll always love the Challenger.

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