You never forget your first fantrip

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, November 2, 2021

GTW 5629 charges out of Chicago's Dearborn Station, headed for South Bend on its October 30, 1966, excursion for the Railroad Club of Chicago. Laurence H. Rehm
To this day, I don’t know how I found out about the first steam excursion I ever rode, 55 years ago this past weekend. I’ve scoured several 1966 issues of Trains magazines and can’t find a thing. No announcement in the “Running Extra” classified ads, no small display ad, nothing in Editor David P. Morgan’s news coverage.

But there I was, standing on the platform at Chicago’s Dearborn Station, waiting to join hundreds of other railfans on what turned out to be a formative event in a 15-year-old’s life: a round trip on Grand Trunk Western to South Bend, Ind., behind what at the time was one of the stars of mainline steam, Dick Jensen’s ex-Grand Trunk Western 4-6-2 No. 5629.

Co-sponsored by GTW and the Railroad Club of Chicago, the 5629 ran two trips on October 29 and 30, 1966. I was along for the first trip, a Saturday. 

Everything about that day was eye-opening. I’d only been reading Trains for about a year and had spent most of my life loving railroads in isolation. To encounter a whole trainload of somewhat like-minded fans was reassuring, even inspiring, although I couldn’t help but note how any of them seemed over the top in their enthusiasm. All those hats and vests covered in patches and pins, all that camera gear hanging around their necks, all those “Menk the Fink” buttons — this was a strange new world.

My companion that day was one of my best friends, Frank Boswell, who was decidedly not a railfan but game for a new adventure. As the day progressed, Frank was increasingly amused by the craziness surrounding us, and told me so.

The 5629 roars eastbound out of Chicago at 103rd Street on GTW's double-track main line. Jim Boyd
But I was having a ball. I recall my first encounter with the noisy interior of the baggage car behind the 5629, where guys stood at the open doors, bristling with microphones attached to reel-to-reel tape machines, catching every nuance of the Pacific’s performance, the veterans admonishing us teenagers to keep our mouths shut. 

I spent a lot of time in the concession car, marveling over all the T-shirts, the “I Rode Behind 5629” and “I Rode Behind 5632” buttons, the Kromer engineer caps, and boxes and boxes of 8 x 10 photographs for sale. I bought a couple of steam action photos and a handful of flimsies, oblivious to what they said or meant.

Meanwhile, up front the 5629 was putting on a quite a show. Jensen and his crew ran fast, as I recall, and our ride east of Griffith, Ind., was exhilarating, especially when Lake Michigan began doing its thing, throwing lake-effect snow squalls over the Trunk’s double-track main line. 

The snow was especially intense near Kingsbury, where the Wabash crossed over the GTW on an impressive through-truss bridge. It would be the site of my very first photo runby. I’d read enough in Trains to know what a runby was, and I was excited to witness one, but Frank couldn’t help but laugh as he watched 800 people climb off a train in the middle of nowhere, clamber up the side of a steep cut, watch their own train back out of sight, then come roaring back in a stirring display of noise and steam. I was transfixed.

An hour or so later, in downtown South Bend, I had a chance to admire the 5629 up close. I was too young, too inexperienced to know exactly what I was looking at. I certainly wasn’t aware of the changes Jensen had made to the front of the engine, lowering the headlight to give the doughty old GTW 4-6-2 a more rakish, USRA-ish appearance. Not to mention the big Soo Line 4-8-2 tender that appeared to give the light Pacific a lot more bulk. All that was stuff I’d learn about years later. 

GTW Extra 5629 East approaches the Nickel Plate diamond at Stillwell, Ind. Don Ball
I’m embarrassed to say that my own photos of that day are pretty terrible. I had borrowed my parents’ Argus C-3, loaded it with black-and-white film, and proceeded to establish my reputation as a mediocre photographer.

However, in checking the Kalmbach library the other day, I was heartened to see that a number of top-shelf photographers were out the following day for the encore trip, recording scenes exactly the way I might have imagined them from aboard the train.

Louis H. Rehm composed a stirring portrait of the 5629 marching out of Dearborn Station amid an admirable plume of exhaust. None other than future Railfan Editor Jim Boyd managed a heck of an action shot as the excursion roared through southwest suburban Chicago. And Don Ball, creator of so many influential railroad photography albums of the 1970s and ’80s, got very creative at Stillwell, Ind., placing his camera on the rail and catching 5629’s reflection as it approached the Nickel Plate diamond from a distance. 

Many who read this today are undoubtedly aware of what ultimately happened with Dick Jensen and his beautiful Pacific, of how his reputation would become forever tarnished over the unconscionable fates of not only the 5629 (scrapped in 1987) but other engines he owned, of how his long string of high-profile steam trips sputtered to a halt after just a few short years. Jensen died in relative obscurity in 1991 at age 60. 

But on this 55th anniversary of my first wild ride behind mainline steam, I prefer to put all that aside for the moment. On that weekend, storming along home rails, Grand Trunk Western 5629 and its crew put on a performance for the ages. I’m glad I was along to witness it.

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.


Login, or register today to interact in our online community, comment on articles, receive our newsletter, manage your account online and more!


Get the Classic Trains twice-monthly newsletter