Silvis will be on everyone’s radar

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, May 3, 2022

On March 23, 1946, UP 3985 pauses at Evans, Colo., while hauling the Pacific Limited. R.H. Kindig photo
When it comes to railroad preservation, big things often appear in the unlikeliest of places. How else to explain an amazingly authentic roundhouse popping up in a cornfield on the edge of little Sugar Creek, Ohio? Or the presence of regal Norfolk & Western J-class 4-8-4 No. 611 gracing the 4.5-mile Strasburg Rail Road?

Add Silvis, Ill., to your list of delightful surprises. There, an organization with a mouthful of a name — Railroading Heritage of Midwest America, or RHMA — is set to receive a treasure trove of equipment from the Union Pacific Railroad, which is donating most of the assets of its heritage fleet. Sometime soon, the shop complex of the late, lamented Rock Island will become a railroad preservation must-see. 

Silvis made news earlier this year with the announcement RMHA had acquired the complex, leasing a portion of it back to former owner National Railway Equipment. Now, RMHA is set to receive from UP just about everything the latter has in Cheyenne except for Big Boy 4-8-8-4 No. 4014 and 4-8-4 No. 844, both of which, of course, continue to have “active” status on UP’s motive-power roster. 

Meanwhile, just look at what RHMA is getting: Challenger 4-6-6-4 No. 3985, one of the icons of steam’s finest hour; 2-10-2 No. 5511, the last engine in UP’s huge fleet of 144 Santa Fe types; EMD Centennial DDA40X No. 6936, the Saturn rocket of diesel locomotives; plus various other equipment that includes an E9B, four coaches, and two business cars. 

A pair of DDA40X monsters climbs Sherman Hill near Hermosa, Wyo., in December 1972. Mel Patrick photo
While the name RMHA might be new to many, it’s actually a metamorphosis of a very accomplished group, the Friends of the 261, operators of Minneapolis-based Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261, led by its president, Steve Sandberg.

Sandberg has a long track record of defying the naysayers. It was way back in 1991 when he announced his intention of restoring the 261 and somehow making the engine a paying proposition. I remember huddling with my boss, Trains Editor Dave Ingles, and agreeing that Steve might be tackling a bridge too far. How wrong we were.

Now Sandberg and his organization have an opportunity to expand on their already considerable success. Plans call for both steam locomotives to be fully restored to operating condition, with the 3985 set to go first. Same goes for the 6936, which Sandberg reports merely needs its 92-day inspection updated. The organization reports that a fund-raising campaign is about to go into full swing, with pledges from major donors guaranteeing a $2 match for every $1 from the general public. Details will appear on the RHMA website.

In many ways, the Silvis project is a brilliantly creative solution to a problem faced by Union Pacific: how to honor the railroad’s storied past without being saddled with too many unproductive assets. Say what you will about today’s great big rolling railroad, it still knows how to honor, and better yet protect, its heritage. The RHMA donation, coupled with UP’s continuing commitment to 4014 and 844, is an extraordinary act of corporate citizenship.

Now, much of that heritage will be in the hands of Sandberg and his team. Preservationists at heart, they are ready for the challenge.

“Ultimately, this is about being able to preserve this equipment for future generations,” says Sandberg. “When we were approached about this idea, we knew we needed to have a facility to properly house this equipment, plus the financial support to go with it. The acquisition plan for Silvis was purpose-built to acquire this UP equipment. We definitely put the cart before the horse.” 

In the Challenger, RHMA will be the steward of one of railroading’s greatest steam locomotives. The 4-6-6-4 class at UP was already into its seventh year when the railroad ordered its next-to-last batch of 31 Challengers from Alco in 1943 (5 of which ultimately went to the Rio Grande). These engines were in many ways the ultimate in dual-service engines, looking as much at home dragging 100 freight cars up Sherman Hill as they did sprinting out of Omaha with the National Parks Special. They are monuments to two of the great architects of steam, UP motive power chief Otto Jabelmann and Alco designer Alfred Bruce.

UP 5522, sister of preserved 2-10-2 5511, works in helper service near Castle Rock, Wyo., in 1953. Henry R. Griffiths Jr. photo
Although No. 5511’s story has less sex appeal, the 2-10-2 deserves its place in UP steam lore if for no other reason than it was the last engine in the railroad’s large class of 144 TTT, or “Two-Ten-Two,” class engines (there was no way the Union Pacific was going to call these by the more familiar moniker “Santa Fe.”) A classic example of the drag-era locomotive, in later years the 5511 worked faithfully in helper service. It is also distinguished by its rare Young valve gear, which employed piston rod motion on one side of the engine to control the steam valves on the other side, said to reduce dynamic load on the main driving wheel.

Then there’s the 6936, a monster only Union Pacific could love. In fact, the 6,600-h.p. dual-engines-on-one platform units weren’t even listed in the EMD catalog when they first began appearing in May 1969, so specialized were they for UP. Measuring nearly 100 feet in length, the 47 units in the DDA40X class helped introduce the so-called “cowl” nose. They also drew photographers to trackside all over UP’s westernmost main lines, just like the articulated steam monsters of a previous generation.  

Meanwhile, if Sandberg’s motivations are largely those of a professional preservationist, it cannot be said that Union Pacific’s gift — especially that of the 3985 — doesn’t also strike him in a deeply personal way. For it was the Challenger that, way back when, captured the imagination of a star-struck teenager. 

“I have a history with the 3985,” says Sandberg. “One of the gentlemen who first rebuilt the Challenger was Don Ringstad, and he mentored me when I was around 14 years old. I was able to travel to Cheyenne in 1980 and ’81 and spent some time tinkering on the engine. When the engine went to Railfair in 1981, my dad and I traveled with it.”

Railfair ’81, you’ll recall, was the first of several large-scale railroad celebrations staged by the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. That first event attracted several visiting engines, including UP’s 3985 and 844. It was on the former that Sandberg cut his teeth.

“Every evening, we took the engine south of the festival grounds for coal and water, and the crew let me run and fire the engine a bit,” recalls Sandberg. “One evening the guys looked at me, said I knew what I was doing, and left me alone in the cab while they left for dinner. There I was, just a kid, hostling the engine!”

From such small, youthful moments come big dreams. They don’t come much bigger than this arrangement between Union Pacific and the RHMA. I’ve been to the Silvis shops only once before, and that was just to watch it go past my window on an Iowa Interstate steam excursion. Looks like I’ll be going back — often. 

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