April 25, 2009
"I'm headin' for the station with a pack on my back
I'm tired of transportation in the back of a hack
I love to hear the rhythm of the clickety clack
And hear the lonesome whistle
See the smoke from the stack
And pal around with democratic fellows named "Mac"
So, take me right back to the track, Jack!"
- Choo choo ch' boogie: Music and Lyrics by Vaughan Horton, Milton Gabler & Denver Darling
Trains have a magical allure for many people. Maybe it's the fond memories that many of us have of playing with toy trains as children. Possibly, it's the American fascination with big machines. Or perhaps it's the romantic notion of riding the rails, going wherever fate decides.
Union Pacific's steam locomotive No. 844 this week made a tour of the Bay Area and Central Valley. According to UP's Web site, the train was built in 1944 as a high-speed passenger engine. It was saved from being scrapped in 1960 and pressed into special service as UP's goodwill ambassador.
I caught up with No. 844 as it made its way through Livermore. I climbed into the engine's cabin with the crew of five and with a hiss of steam, a deep chug and a hoot of a whistle, we were clickety-clacking down the tracks.
I never realized how much work a train crew does. There was always a lever to be pulled, knob to be turned, all taking considerable effort to operate. The crew was constantly scanning the rails ahead for a signal, crossing or obstruction on the tracks, anything that could pose a hazard. Of the five men, two local residents were a pilot/engineer and pilot conductor. They were continually talking with the engineer, giving him information about upcoming turns or when the train was approaching a grade or the condition of the rails. While the train was in motion, there wasn't a moment of rest for the crew. All the while being seated next to the train's burner which raised the cabin's temperature an estimated 10 degrees warmer than outside conditions. To keep hydrated, they guzzled bottled water like it was going out of style.
Hundreds of people came out to see the vintage engine. They lined rural roads and city streets. Employees from businesses we passed, paused from their work and waved. Train buffs drove alongside in their cars to get a photo of the train. Even when IT reached the Union Pacific rail yard in Stockton, UP workers, who see trains everyday (albeit modern diesels) were like giddy children, craning their necks to get a good look or to take a picture. After the train stopped, some even boarded the locomotive to have their photo taken while seated in the engineer's seat.
When we reached the Altamont Commuter Express station in Stockton, hundreds of people gathered on the platform to greet us. All of them marveled at the iron wonder from another era. The crew was hot and tired, but they were satisfied at a job well done. It was through their hard work that helps keep the romance of trains alive.
Contact photographer Clifford Oto at (209) 546-8263 or email@example.com.