By Luke Hegdal
HERMISTON Train enthusiasts gathered alongside a gleaming passenger train at the Hinkle station Wednesday just to catch a glimpse of the last steam locomotive built for the Union Pacific railroad company.
Locomotive 844 dwarfed the crowds, with drive wheels more that 80 inches tall, as they waited in line to talk with the engineers.
Built in 1944, the engine is the oldest surviving locomotive that was never retired from active service and was designed as a high speed passenger train.
According to Engineer Lynn Nystrom, the engine has a top speed of over 100 mph, and he calls it his sports car.
In reality, the train is more like a traveling town. It carries 24,500 gallons of water for steam, and more than 6,000 gallons of oil.
The Howard Fogg boiler car carries a backup steam generator, electric generator to provide power to the passenger cars, three sleeping rooms, shower, laundry, and lounge for the crew on extended trips.
Behind the Howard Fogg car is the Art Lockman, a maintenance car, a rolling machine shop that handles repairs.
Farther along are the numerous passenger cars, with well padded seating and legroom that almost seems extravagant. There was enough room for a six-foot-two-inch reporter to fully stretch out.
A person standing in one of the bathrooms would be able to stretch to their full wingspan and not touch the walls.
Several of the passenger cars had upper decks with arched windows and swiveling chairs so passengers could see the countryside in both directions, and the bar cars were nothing short of luxurious.
Walking through the dining car, old menus catch the eye offering a choice of broiled salmon or breaded veal for the heady price of $3.25.
The superb condition of the train, both interior and exterior, wasn't easy to achieve. In 1957 it was converted to freight service as diesel engines took over the rail lines, and was almost scrapped in 1960.
In the year 2000, Union Pacific decided to restore the train to its former glory.
"We had over 500 people a shift working on it," said Nystrom, adding that restoration and maintenance is an ongoing process.
But according to Margo Bieker, the cost is worth it.
"We feel a responsibility to our history, and we like to share it. " said Bieker.
Locomotive 844 is currently on tour from Wyoming to Washington, making stops along the way. According to Nystrom, they will have seven different groups riding the rails this trip.
While passengers ride in air-conditioned comfort, however, the engineer and fireman are working in close proximity to the furnace. Temperatures can reach as high as 135 degrees in the summer according to Fireman Rick Braunschweig.
A fireman on a steam engine keeps the boiler running, monitoring pressure and temperature of the engine.
Union Pacific also maintains a police force, called special agents, that predates the FBI. This force, colloquially referred to as yard bulls, has federal jurisdiction, and is used to protect the passenger train from vandals.
For anyone interested in following Locomotive 844, the Union Pacific web site has a GPS tracking system that pinpoints the location of their showpiece.