December 29, 2012

Op Images: Symphony of steam links region to its past

On a clear, warm October day, the Union Pacific No. 844 steam locomotive slowly made its way under the I Street viaduct with the mournful whistle echoing and steam billowing off the structure.

I joined in that multisensory experience of the steam era, part of a 13,000-mile tour for the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Pacific Railway Act and launching of the Union Pacific Railroad Company.

Climbing into the cab above massive 6-foot-8-inch-tall wheels, I chatted with engineer Ed Dickens as he prepared No. 844 to move, fire flashing and whoomphing in the firebox like a giant breathing.

As the last steam locomotive built for Union Pacific, during World War II, Dickens told me that No. 844 was "state of the art modern and powerful" for long-haul passenger travel. It is the longest continuously operating of the big 4-8-4 engines (four leading wheels, eight driving wheels and four trailing wheels to support a large firebox), and the only one never retired.

No. 844 has a top speed of 110 miles per hour and needs large-capacity storage for 23,500 gallons of water and 6,000 gallons of fuel oil. Bearing that kind of weight requires a lot of wheels, hence the "centipede" tender design with 10 wheels in a rigid frame, plus four wheels in front that can swivel.

I stepped down and watched Dickens blow off steam – letting condensed water out so it wouldn't blow the covers off the cylinders – enveloping the crowd in white plumes. He blew the whistle – a lonesome three-note tune – as small children covered their ears.

Chuff, chuff, chuff. Ka thump, ka thump. Hiss.

Now the difficult part. No. 844 was the first steam locomotive to travel the new tight radius curve linking Old Sacramento to the downtown railyard and the new mainline tracks. Dickens opened the throttle, and as you see in the photo, the Roseville derailment crew was on hand to make sure the rigid centipede tender stayed on the tracks.

Mission successful, the crew connected the various support cars, and off No. 844 went on a journey over the Sierra. I rode in a vintage passenger car, deboarding in Roseville.

My husband and I then chased the train to Colfax. What a treat to see No. 844 steaming across the deck truss bridge in Auburn and out of the old tunnel at Clipper Gap – steadily climbing from 56 feet in Sacramento to 3,300 feet in Colfax.

We left the train there, having enjoyed the "Symphony in Steam: A Visual and Sonic Journey, 2012" and reveling in Sacramento's living connection to its past.

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