On Wednesday, I left the house at seven in the morning. Not for work, as usual…but for a day of tracking. My friend Nic picked me up and we headed southeast. We weren’t tracking a storm, or the historic journey of an Oklahoma settler, or a pack of wild animals…we were tracking a beast that’s been roaming the countryside since World War II. I’d seen it briefly in 2010 but I was not satiated.
The Union Pacific #844 steam locomotive was built in 1944 and is the only steam train never retired from active service by a Class 1 Railroad here in the States. It weighs over 450 tons, boasts 4,500 horsepower, and can reach speeds of 120 mph. It spent the last few years having some boiler work done at home base in Cheyenne, Wyoming but set out earlier this month to tour the Midwest once again. When I learned that it would be coming through Oklahoma, I took a vacation day and reached out to my buddy Nic to see if he would join me on the hunt. And he did! He even offered to drive, which I accepted (a rare event.)
I’d spent hours poring over Google Maps to determine the path the train would take through the Sooner State. Their published schedule on that day took them from Van Buren, Arkansas to Coffeyville, Kansas with stops in Sallisaw, Wagoner, Claremore, and Nowata. As we drove south from Tulsa, we watched the sun rise through broken clouds and talked of many things, including our excitement. We arrived in Sallisaw about twenty minutes early; early enough to go just a little further, to a spot I’d marked on my map.
As we weaved down gravel county roads, though, I began to doubt our timing. I knew the train was getting close and the heavy foliage made it difficult to see very far in the distance. Each railroad crossing we passed had a few cars stopped, with people standing near the tracks in anticipation. As we approached our destination (a small pony plate girder bridge over Wolf Creek) we heard a train whistle pierce the still morning air. We were just in time! We pulled over and got out of the car right as a plume of steam crested the treeline. The sunlight glinted off of the black steel as the vintage locomotive emerged into sight. It was beautiful.
We quickly hopped back into the car and tore down the narrow lane in pursuit. Nic and I both grinned with the untarnished joy of six-year-old boys as the whistle blared again. We followed the train to Sallisaw and joined the dozens of onlookers as it pulled up to the old station. People of all ages gawked at the metal giant as the engineers showed off their beautiful machine. Nic and I left a few minutes before the locomotive was scheduled to depart and waited a few blocks away at a railroad junction. We joined several enthusiasts already in place to capture the passing train, but it was much less crowded.
Our next stop was the one I looked forward to the most: a through truss bridge over the Illinois River near the town of Gore. Every railroad crossing we passed en route hosted a handful of ardent bystanders, waiting for their moment with history. In Vian, it appeared that the entire school had emptied onto Main Street. When we arrived at the aforementioned bridge, it too had a host of observers-in-waiting. Our timing was excellent, and soon after we heard that whistle once again.
Timing & circumstances would not be our friend for the next few hours, unfortunately. A traffic jam in Gore (caused by the gaggle other train-followers) caused us to miss the train crossing the Neosho River in Fort Gibson. About ten miles out from Wagoner, the darkened skies opened up in a torrential downpour. The rain tapered off as we continued north, but we were unable to catch up to it before reaching Claremore. Traffic was horrendous; in fact, it was so crowded we didn’t even stop. Instead, we continued north for about 14 miles to Oologah. The town of 1,150 is known as the Home of Will Rogers, as the famous humorist was born on a ranch a few miles outside of town. A tiny replica of their family home sits next to the railroad tracks and served as excellent context for the passing train.
Pass it did; due to a delay in Claremore, the iron horse raced by at a high speed. By the time we were back on the road, we were sandwiched in another traffic jam. My spirits slumped a bit as it became clear that we would be unable to pace the train as it approached Nowata. The town was similarly swamped with sightseers when we arrived. Nic suggested I look for another place down the line we could drive alongside the steam engine. To my delight, I found a spot that might work. We left early and staked out a spot on the outskirts of the town of Delaware. After a few minutes of hopeful anticipation, that distant whistle told us we’d made the right choice. We had the rural road mostly to ourselves as the train came into view & we were able to pace it for nearly five miles. Cars were still pulled off to the side of the country road as locals witnessed the locomotive pass by.
Giddy with excitement, we continued to Coffeyville to see the Union Pacific #844 to its final destination of the day. Officials switched out the little Oklahoma flag on the front with a Kansas banner as we took our final photographs. The ride home was much like our early morning drive, full of great conversation and excitement. Only now, we spoke mostly in past-tense at the amazing journey that had taken place that day. It was well worth the mileage and something I’ll never forget.