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POCATELLO - team billowed from the million-pound locomotive's black stack like smoke from a wildfire, and its booming whistle carried through the cool morning air.
A crowd gathered by the old Union Pacific depot Wednesday morning to see and hear the immense steel relic. The spectacle prompted old railroaders to tell stories of days gone by, and children covered their ears and jumped back when one of the world's few remaining steam locomotive engineers sounded a thundering "woo, woo!"
For the lucky 100 who got to board the Union Pacific passenger train - state lawmakers, police, mayors, prosecutors and other prominent citizens - the experience was comparable to spending three hours in a time machine.
There was a gasp of vapor, and the wheels of the world's largest operating steam locomotive, Challenger No. 3985, slowly started churning at 8:15 a.m. The cars gently rocked as the train gained speed.
The Pocatello stop was the Challenger's first appearance in a decade here and part of the home stretch of a six-state, 2,800-mile Western tour intended to share Union Pacific's heritage.
With each passing moment, nostalgia grew among the local passengers, who were greeted at their destination, Montpelier, by another crowd of people waiting to witness and photograph a part of their city's past.
The short trip made state Rep. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, feel 13 again. It brought back memories of scampering among the cars with her brother on a 1954 train trip to visit family in California.
"I thought it was the most exciting thing of my life," said Block, who telephoned her brother during the ride to rub it in. "It's a great way to travel with children because they don't have to sit still."
Sitting at a table in what was once a cocktail car, JoAn Wood,
R-Rigby, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, recounted the sad day in the late 1950s when Ririe tore down its train depot.
She gazed out on the white trail in the train's wake and mountainsides painted red and yellow with fall color.
"This tickles me to see that steam," Wood said. "I wish we had more rails all over like we used to."
As the train approached Soda Springs, three startled mule deer leapt a barbed wire fence and sprinted across a pasture.
From a plush chair in the coach car, Rep. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello, recalled train rides made during college, when students filled an entire train car heading back to Idaho State University after weekend visits with family in the Boise area.
"I wish grandkids could have the opportunity to ride the train," Smith said. "This stirs up the desire to ride a train all across the country."
Union Pacific has a fleet of 50 cars to assemble for passenger trains, which the company uses exclusively for special events, public relations and executive trips for valued customers.
There's a dome car with windows that enable passengers to see 360 degrees from above the top of the train. Some trains have an observation car at the rear with a large window in the back wall. There are coach cars, business cars and even a souvenir car converted from an old post office car. The company has a few diesel locomotives for passenger trains but only one steam locomotive.
Of the 105 Challengers that were built for Union Pacific between 1936 and 1943, No. 3985, which was built in 1943 for fast-freight service, is the only one still operating. It was last used in regular service in 1957 and was retired in 1962. It was stored in the Cheyenne, Wyo., roundhouse until 1975, when it was placed on display near the Cheyenne depot. In 1981, a group of Union Pacific volunteers restored the locomotive to running condition.
It originally burned coal but was converted to use fuel oil in 1990.
To say the Challenger is large would be an understatement. Consider the distance from home plate to first in baseball is 90 feet. The Challenger is 122 feet long.
The Challenger has a 4-6-6-4 wheel arrangement, and despite it's immense size, it can make tight turns because its frame has hinges.
It requires a great deal of maintenance to operate the irreplaceable locomotive, and wherever it goes, a support crew follows its path on nearby roads. After every 100 miles, the Challenger must stop to be lubed.
The train's top speed is 70 mph, but it didn't roll much faster than 42 mph during the Wednesday morning tour.
In the souvenir shop, volunteers Mary Nystrom and Penny Braunschweig sold three model Challenger 3985 locomotives - special edition replicas with autographed boxes - at $595 each.
Their husbands are crew members, and volunteering allows them to be with them on long trips.
Nystrom's husband, Lynn, is one of four Union Pacific engineers trained to run a steam engine.
After he became a Union Pacific locomotive engineer, Lynn spent years learning to run a steam engine. Braunschweigs' husband is a fireman.
Reed Jackson is Union Pacific's only full-time steam locomotive conductor. Because the locomotive uses about 45,000 gallons of water each day, much of his job entails getting permits from cities to tap into fire hydrants during stops.
"We scout the routes by vehicle six months ahead of time. We'll look over our locations where we may be on display and make sure each one has a fire hydrant accessible," Jackson said, adding Pocatello has a hydrant on Union Pacific property so no permits were needed here. "We do carry our own fire hose."
Jackson, who has been permanently assigned to the steam engine for the past five years, said Union Pacific's passenger trains have been stationed at the Super Bowl and set up like a hotel for Union Pacific customers. They have been used for fund-raisers to benefit children with cancer, the Bush Library and other causes. They've been part of centennial celebrations in Idaho and Wyoming. And they've transported famous authors.
"It's a wonderful, nostalgic feeling to be a conductor on a passenger train at all in this day and age, let alone a steam-engine train," Jackson said.
John O'Connell covers Pocatello city government and edits the Great Outdoors section for the Journal. He can be reached by calling 239-3128 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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