Chasing the Challenger

June 10 and 11


Monday, June 10

After an exchange of Email messages and phone calls, I'd arranged to meet Bill Smith from Dallas, TX, today to try to get some pictures of UP 3985 as it arrived in Boone.  He and I had corresponded now and then, but I'd never met him in person.  Bill grew up in Ames and visits here in Iowa a couple of times a year.  His stay just happened to overlap by one day the UP steam loco's trip across his home state.

I left Indianola around 7:45.  We had a warm, overcast morning, 75 degrees with a dew point to match.  Since I was to meet Bill at the Ames depot at 10:00, I had time to do a little scouting first.  I got to the elevators at Jordan in one hour.  An empty autorack train was parked at the highway crossing with UP 4855 and 4150 on the point.  In the Boone yard, I spotted three coal loads and a manifest, the latter led by 4652 and 6745.

I next drove out under the high bridge.  A friend had commented a few days ago that "You'll probably have to be there at dawn to get a seat.", but there was no one around but but the people who've been working on the center span.  From the scanner I learned that maintenance people had the bridge until 11:00 and that once opened, it would be under a 20 mph speed restriction.  I circled back for another look at the yard.  The UP had barricaded off the entrances and set up a generous parking area where the yard office used to be.  There was a long line of porta-potties ready, and people were busy setting up concessions - looked like this was going to be a real circus!

I got back to Ames with about 15 minutes to spare and worked on the crossword puzzle until I spotted a car with a Texas plate circling the lot.  After introducing ourselves, Bill grabbed his camera and we got in the Jeep.  We went back to Boone, drove around for a while and discussed whether we wanted to go west and try to chase the train back to the Kate Shelley Bridge.  By now there was one other vehicle parked on the hill southwest of the bridge, so we pulled in behind.  Around 10:45 we heard someone on the radio say that the steam train was "15 minutes out of Dennison", and concluded that they were running well ahead of schedule.  The UP's published version called for a 1:30 arrival in Boone, but it appeared that they could easily beat that time, so we decided to just stay on the hill.

While we waited, I just took pictures of the rail traffic across the bridge.  At 11:00 there was an eastbound stack train powered by UP 4096 and 4728.  As you can see in the picture, there was quite a bit of moisture in the air. Another stacker followed just a few minutes later with UP 4679, 9200 and 9244 (note the bridgeworkers getting into position to watch the steamer).  By now there were vehicles and people starting to accumulate along the gravel as well as lots of traffic on the road beside us.  In spite of the humid weather, the road was quite dry, and we endured great clouds of dust with every passing car.

About this time, some wag came on the radio and said, "Did you hear that they've decided to park that steam train in Carroll overnight?"  The reply was, "No, I didn't hear that..."  I'm sure he expected to see gravel flying, but it didn't work.  Actually, the great majority of the people watching for the train were not hard-core train buffs and didn't have scanners or other such gear.  We were even asked which way the train would be going.  The turnout of "lay persons" was largely due to publicity on WHO AM radio by "Van and Bonnie".  These two had managed to get a cab ride on the steam loco in exchange for the publicity and the trade worked very well.

At 11:25 we had our first westbound, UP 4245, 9226 and 7506 with containers.  Currently, even though the bridge has two tracks, it is operated only one direction at a time.  The work on the center section is to strengthen that span so that the rails can be operated simultaneously.  A second westbound followed at 11:40, covered hoppers behind UP 9723 and 2376.

The crowd and the dust thickened as we approached noon.  Bill (on the right) and I were joined by Rich Ketcham, an Ames railfan that I'd met back in March while covering the Story City derailment.  At 11:56 a third westbound stack train, with UP 8528 and 8551, took the bridge.  The last train ahead of the steamer was next, eastbound UPY 711 and UP 404 with six covered hoppers.

12:05 - the bridgework people have used their crane to raise a gondola with three persons up over the bridge.  Others simply stand on the south main (left-handed running is the standard here).

12:07 - a horde of buffs on foot comes over the hill behind us with their tripods and cameras, presumably those who've been chasing the Challenger in from the west.  I disconnect my scanner's external speaker as a courtesy to those taping.  Not that anyone's trying to be quiet anyway - in the Durango in front of us, the woman in the driver's seat does something to set off her car alarm and can't get it shut off.  She eventually opens the door and gets out of the car.  That seems to do the trick and the Dodge stops honking at us.

12:11 - there she is!  Rolling out over the haze in the Des Moines River valley.  I attempt to make some video with the digital camera, but the results are not pretty.  Wait for it, I got some good stuff later!  After watching the whole train cross the bridge, Bill and I join the parade going down under the bridge, across the river and uphill on the gravel into Boone.

I didn't expect to see the train again until we reached the yard, but when the dust cleared at the top of the hill, there they were, barely moving.  The parade turned south and most stopped to watch the train pass at a grade crossing.  Two of us grabbed the empty (and blocked by the train) left lane and turned onto a road that parallels the rails down to Division Street.  In front, trying to pace the loco and take pictures out of his passenger window at the same time, is railroad artist Stewart Buck.  Just in case he's making video, I give him a little Jeep horn to record and go around.

I instruct Bill, "I'm going to stop right behind that van - get your camera ready...  Okay, bail!"  Stu returns the honks, pointing out that I've left my door open.  We're on what should be the shady side of the rails, but there's a good overcast and the shots of 3985 turn out just fine.  We benefit from there being lots of strangers in town - most of the crowd turns north toward the Boone and Scenic Valley depot.  We wait for the special to pass and then head east on the first street south of the rails.

Soon we were ahead of the train again.  I drove into the company lot east of the new yard office and we got a few more pictures as the head end moved slowly toward the yard.  Each side of the loco apparently had a sun-glasses-equipped, designated starer.  I recognized one on the fireman's side, John Smith, UP MOP out of Marshalltown.  The man on the engineer's side did an especially thorough job on us as the cab passed.

We moved next to the yard where the big loco and its train were pulled slowly around a curve to the southeast.  Here's the consist:

UP 3985
Oil tender
Two water tenders
Art Lockman (baggage)
Howard Fogg 209 (Generator car)
Sherman Hill (baggage)
Portland Rose 5473
City of Salina 5486
Columbine 7001 (dome car)
Sunshine Special 5480
Council Bluffs 5769 (baggage)
Texas Eagle 5483
Challenger 7015 (dome car)
Katy Flyer 5468
Generator car 207
North Platte 104 (observation car)
Here and there one could spot passengers on the train, but for the most part the cars appeared to be unoccupied.  A cut was made in the consist and the front portion pulled down.  The front half of train did not quite clear a switch, so it was recoupled and cut again, with two additional cars left behind.  Eventually a diesel was used to set the rear portion to another track.  Pulling pins, throwing switches and going into the "Red Zone" today was Mr. Steve Lee, director of the steam program for the Union Pacific.  Steve was carrying his trademark cigar and was happy to talk to some of the senior "foamers" and even have his picture taken.

Here are a couple of video clips of the Challenger pulling into the yard.  Now and then you can hear the rails creaking and popping under the weight of the 4-6-6-4.  Video 1 (3.7 Meg .MOV file), Video 2 (4.3 Meg .MOV file)

They tied up just after 1:00.  Almost before the big loco had stopped, a line of people had formed to have a look in the cab and marvel at the size of this amazing piece of machinery.  Bill and I hung around for a while to get more pictures and then went out to have some lunch and head back to Ames.


Tuesday, June 11

Tuesday opened early with a light shower, still pretty warm but better than Monday.  I was on the road at 5:45 a.m. in order to pick up Dave Harvey in Urbandale.  Dave handles the O Gauge stuff at work and he and I have visited many times over the hobby shop counter.  When we were talking about the Challenger visit to Iowa he asked if we could get together for some steam chasing and I happily agreed.  I picked up Dave at 6:30 and we drove northwest out of Urbandale, taking Hwy. 17 to Boone.

Even at 7:00 in the morning, there was already a large crowd at the yard to see the locomotive and watch it leave town.  3985 was parked on a curve and this morning I was able to get a good shot of the articulated loco's boiler overhang.  WHO's "Van and Bonnie" were on hand, with Bonnie creating screams from the audience as she tried out the whistle.  Dave was recognized by the radio talent, Hobby Haven being one of their advertisers, and got called over for a short on-air interview.

Scheduled departure was 8:00, and when we saw the rear end of the train being pulled back into position we moved out east of Boone to get pictures as they left the yard.  We found a parking spot near Jordan amidst hundreds of others who also wanted to see and hear the engine pass by.  It turned out to be over an hour before the steamer left the yard.  In the meantime, we had West Central Elevator's GeeP and critter, knocking around covered hoppers for entertainment.

Dave and I both failed to correctly interpret a flashing icon on his camera and concluded that it wasn't working.  I loaned him my older Olympus 2500 while I used the 2100.  Below you will find pictures taken by both of us.  His will be marked with the credit, "DH" where it's not obvious from the text that he took them.  The video clips, by the way, are from the 2100.  I set up the external speaker on the Jeep again so that we could keep track of the dispatcher's radio conversations while we watched for 3895 (DH) to start moving our way.

The dispatcher brought plenty of traffic by as we all waited (DH).  At 8:00 we had a westbound stack train, a two-flagger with new SD-70's UP 4948 and 4908.  Next up was light power hustling eastward, two CNW patches, UP 408 and 405.

At 8:15 we had a CWEX coal load pulled by UP 8067 and 7093.  Fifteen minutes later there were empty autoracks behind UP 4546 and 2908, with UP 4864, 4061 and 4358 right on their taillight pulling more containers.

We'd enjoyed a short shot of sunshine, but by 9:00, it was getting very dark in the west and we could see some lightning on the horizon.  The last train ahead of the steamer was another intermodal, pulled by UP 4942, 4468 and 8852 (SP patch).  The dark western sky is pretty noticeable in both Dave's and my shots of this train.

Just after 9:00 we finally spotted smoke over the yard and knew that 3985 was headed our way.  I got one still image as the Challenger approached and then switched the Oly 2100 to video.  Dave got several shots as the train approached, passed in front of us and blasted by the elevators at Jordan.  Here's the video: (7.5 Meg .MOV file).

We'd planned ahead to try to beat the train to another spot somewhere down the line to the east, so we joined the long parade of vehicles heading for Hwy. 30, where we could all run at least 65 mph.  From the radio we knew that 3985 would be stopping in Ames to "drop two passengers", Van and Bonnie, I assume.  The chasers were in luck this morning as traffic on Main 1 (eastbound here) started encountering signal problems and had to slow to restricted speed.

We had no problem beating several of the trains we'd seen outside of Boone to our next stop, "Devil's Hollow".  The Hollow is a point on the UP where the old CNW mainlines pass over the former Rock Island route, today known as the "Spine Line".  This railroad bridge is mixed in with two highway bridges where old Hwy. 30 (today E-41) goes over the Spine and then under the CNW.  Oh, and there's a creek flowing through here, too, just to add visual variety.

At 9:45 we caught a westbound piggyback train passing over the highway bridge.  On the point were UP 9485 and 4429.  Just a couple of minutes later we saw 8067 again.  By this time the sky (DH) was starting to look very "interesting" out here.  Just after 10:00, we had a downpour.  Fortunately, it didn't last very long.  By 10:25 all the buffs were out on the road again and watching the rail traffic.

Westbounds were coming through at normal speed while the eastbounders were still apparently experiencing signal problems.  At 10:41 we had a WEPX coal empty behind UP 7226 and SP 228.  Just nine minutes behind was a CWEX empty led by UP 6803 and 8091 (one of these was DP, but I didn't catch the rear unit or which train).  While waiting, we discussed the probability that there would be a westbound on the bridges when 3985 passed.  There had been a brief discussion on the radio of moving 3985 over to Main 2, but it was now obvious that we were seeing a rerun of the Boone traffic and that the steamer was on the north track.  All we could do is hope that there wouldn't be a train on the south rail at the same time.

The Challenger got to the Hollow right at 11:00 - on the original schedule this was the time for their service stop in Cedar Rapids, and they were still moving at restricted speed behind several other trains.  I got two quick shots of the engine on the railroad overpass and then switched to video (4.8 Meg .MOV file) again for the highway bridge.  Dave got still images, including this nice one on the highway bridge.

Challenger's entourage of fans was off and running again, this time in a sort of "low speed chase" mode.  We ended up near the rear of several dozen cars, but the head of the line gradually out-paced the steam loco and after a while we found ourselves in position to get a few shots (DH) as the engine rolled slowly through the fields (DH) west of Colo.  I love this one of the horses (DH).

I decided to go for a spot on the gravel just east of State Center for our next photo stop.  The rest of the crowd in front of us seemed to have thinned out, either going for grade crossings or perhaps hurrying ahead to Marshalltown.  The last vehicle remaining in front of us, a Firebird that had made a 5-point turnaround back at the Hollow, abruptly turned south onto  a "Level B" road, with the recent deluge quite muddy, and nearly failed to stop before sliding into the ditch.

We pulled away from 3985 and passed the 4942, still moving at restricted speed, just east of Clear Creek.  When we got to the gravel crossing I'd picked out east of State Center, there were just a few locals and their impatient children waiting for the train.  One other load of fans in one of those little toy SUV's showed up after us but parked in front of the Jeep (Bad Buff etiquette, but it was that kind of day).

4942 came by just before 11:30, accelerating (DH) as it went by us.  This gave me a chance to get some shots of the SP unit as it passed the grade crossing.   Apparently the signal trouble had cleared up, so we knew we'd have to really move it if we were to catch the steam train again.  At 11:42 we could see the smoke as the articulated loco (DH) came through State Center.  They'd very obviously gotten a highball on the ATC cab display and were ready to make up time (DH).  They waved at the kids and crashed over the grade crossing.

We jumped in the Jeep and tailgated the lead vehicle out of there.  In about a mile, we both caught up to a slowly-moving utility truck.  The  road makes two right angle turns, and as we reached the second one, the fellow in the truck realized why he was being followed so closely and waved us around.  I picked out a spot at the bottom of the hill, just the right distance from a grade crossing, and parked facing east on the north side of the road.  We had a few seconds to line up our shots before the Challenger arrived.

Dave got a couple of nice stills here as the engine approached.  We had it all at this point, the sky, the smoke, the sunshine, a south breeze - it was great!  I made video (7.5 Meg, but worth the wait, .MOV file) and got what I came for - a really nice run-by with a full whistle sequence for the grade crossing.

Time to roll again!  This part of the chase was the most intense, and I figured it was probably hopeless, but we (again) got lucky.  They had a malfunctioning crossing gate, requiring the train to slow briefly to 15 mph.  We were behind a fellow in a blue pickup who was doing just fine until he reached a moment of indecision at an intersection and stopped to think in the middle of the road.  I expressed my concern with the horn and some gestures and he got moving again.  We stayed right in the cloud of mud and gravel from the pickup all the way to the paving that went into Lamoille.  Dave covered his eyes now and then, but thanked me later.

The pickup went south and we joined a group of fans at the Lamoille grade crossing for today's last look at 3985.  It was just before noon when they came around the curve and headed over the E-35 grade crossing.  Here are our last few shots:

UP 3985 approaching
UP 3985
UP 3985 (DH)
Mr. Lee at the throttle
UP 3985 going
UP 3985 (DH)

After this pass, Dave and I loaded back up and drove back to Nevada for lunch.  We both felt we'd had a good day and a great chase.  I was back in Indianola around 3:30 to start going through the images, altogether 250 files from the two days.

That's It!