- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

ABOARD LOCOMOTIVE 3985 — When Steve Lee drives by, cattle stampede, deer run for their lives, fish jump from the water, children grin and gape, and grown-ups wave.

It’s not the force of Mr. Lee’s personality that changes the world as he moves through it, but rather what he’s driving — a million-pound steam locomotive that shakes the ground as its 12 drive wheels churn along the rails.

Mr. Lee, of Cheyenne, Wyo., is the engineer who operates Challenger, locomotive No. 3985 of the Union Pacific Railroad, the largest steam locomotive still operating in the world.

In the cab with Mr. Lee is Lynn Nystrom, also a fully qualified engineer, who acts as fireman when the Challenger is on the rails. He watches the gauges, making sure the flames are getting enough fuel and are hot enough to produce the steam that drives the wheels.

“He’s making the steam,” Mr. Lee said, with a nod at Mr. Nystrom, “and I’m using it.”

Challenger passed through southwestern Arkansas last month on its way to a stop at North Little Rock, where it was on display for a day as part of a month-long nine-state excursion from Wyoming to Houston and back. The train returns to Houston in early June and also will run between Denver and Cheyenne in late July.

Wherever and whenever the train shows up, crowds gather to see the working relic of a bygone era. Where the train doesn’t stop, onlookers gather along the rail line, grinning and waving at the occupants of the locomotive’s cab as it speeds by.

“It made me think of the good old days,” said Don Walthall, 69, of Magnolia, who drove nearly an hour to Hope, Ark., to see once again something that was common during his youth.

“There used to be three or four trains (with steam locomotives) a day passing about a mile and a half from my home,” he said.

Gary Johnson, director of the Hope Visitor Center and Museum, housed in the town’s historic train station, said the locomotive’s arrival was a big event for the community. Mr. Johnson is helping Hope prepare for events related to the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library at Little Rock.

“I haven’t even had time to plan for the Clinton Library stuff because for the last two months all we’ve done is prepare for this train coming,” he said.

Among the crowd of a thousand or more that gathered at Hope, hundreds of grade-school youngsters dismounted from yellow buses during the wait for Challenger’s arrival on a wintry day.

As the locomotive approached, belching steam and gray smoke from burning No. 5 fuel oil and issuing long blasts on its mournful whistle, the students stood on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of it in the distance.

“I can see it. I see its light,” a fourth-grader called out to her teacher.

As the huge engine, 122 feet long, inched to a stop, it drew a simple exclamation from a boy standing on the gravel railbed 15 feet back from the tracks: “Wow.”

Built in 1943 at the American Locomotive Co. in Schenectady, N.Y., Challenger was retired in 1962 and stored in a roundhouse at Cheyenne until it became part of an outdoor display near that city’s depot in 1975. A group of Union Pacific employees undertook a restoration that took several years, getting the locomotive back in running order again in 1981.

The day before it arrived in Hope, the engine pulled seven cars behind it at speeds reaching 60 mph through the rolling countryside. Cattle in track-side pastures, accustomed to diesel locomotives, turned and ran from the chugging engine, and a group of four deer bolted and sped away, flag-tails flying. Horses shied and galloped off, and fish in water-filled sloughs along the track, apparently spooked by the vibration of the ground, cleared the surface of the water in agitated jumps.

The name Challenger originally was applied to a whole class of locomotives, 105 in all, built for the railroad. They were built to haul freight, not having enough speed to pull passenger trains.

“The only reason it was built was World War II,” Mr. Lee said. “There was a huge demand for transportation.”

No. 3985 is one of two steam locomotives still operated by Union Pacific, but both are strictly for show and nostalgia.

• • •

The Challenger No. 3985 steam locomotive will return to Houston in early June to pull several fund-raising trains for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Points of Light Foundation and the Bush Presidential Library. Complete schedules for the train’s run are scheduled to be posted on Union Pacific’s Web site, www.up.com, next month.

No. 3985 also will pull the 13th annual Cheyenne Frontier Days train, sponsored by the Denver Post, July 24. This special passenger train will operate from Denver to Cheyenne. Guests will spend several hours at the rodeo in Cheyenne and return to Denver that evening by train. Tickets go on sale in mid-May. Information is available at 303/820-1904.

The company also plans to create a system so that train fans who live near the route can monitor the train’s progress via the Internet in order to be in place to catch it as it passes by.

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