Train revives railroad memories

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 21, 2002

Challenger 3985 passed through Albert Lea about 10 a.m. Thursday on the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and attracted groups of people at every crossing who wanted to see what is the largest and most powerful operating steam locomotive in the world today.

People assembled long before the train actually passed through the city at the Margaretha and Garfield Avenue, South Broadway, Third, and Hawthorne Street crossings, plus the parking lot at the Buy and Save Store and at the former Rock Island Depot area to see this train. Many brought their cameras, and some even had their parade-watching folding chairs to relax with as they waited for this rare event.

As radio reports on KATE came in about the train’s location &045; Manly, Northwood, Gordonsville, Glenville, and the Elks Club &045; the anticipation built up. Adding a special nostalgic touch was the deeper whistle of this particular engine.

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The locomotive and about 11 vista dome passenger cars were en route from Mason City, Iowa to South St. Paul. This train went north on what was once the Rock Island Railroad tracks, and is now part of the Union Pacific system.

The train, which revived so many memories of passenger and streamliner railroad service of another era, will be on display in South St. Paul on Friday. Then the train is due to come back through Albert Lea on Saturday sometime estimated to be between 10:30 a.m. and noon en route to Des Moines, Iowa.

One of the people who waited for the train near the former Rock Island depot was Jim Doty. He retired in 1980 after five years with the Milwaukee Railroad and 28 years with the Rock Island Railroad. From 1960 to 1976 he was the Albert Lea station agent and zone manager for the Rock Island.

As Doty waited for the train to arrive he carried what he called a train-order hoop. This long, Y-shaped device was once used to give written messages to the trains’ engineers as they passed the depot. And the message he had written as a greeting to the city was actually picked off the string between the points at the top of the Y by the engineer of 3985.

&uot;It was pretty nice to see those beautiful cars with the vista domes and seeing an old engine again,&uot; he said.

Doty added that in the 1950s the &uot;Rock&uot; had four passenger trains each day going in each direction between Des Moines and the Twin Cities. Several of these trains also carried the U.S. Mail, he emphasized.

Rev. Milton Ost, who retired as the pastor of Albert Lea’s Grace Lutheran Church, said, &uot;This was a real old time memory reviver. It brought back memories of another era.&uot; He added that railroads were an important part of life where he grew up in North Dakota.

&uot;It was great,&uot; said Paul Hagen, a retired city fireman commented. &uot;I haven’t seen anything like this for years.&uot; He added that his father worked for the Rock Island Railroad for 45 years, and an uncle worked for the same firm for 47 years.

Ralph Randall of Albert Lea said, &uot;It doesn’t happen every day. You have to take the opportunity when it comes.&uot;

This black-smoke-producing, powerful engine with the 4-6-6-4 wheel arrangement was built for the Union Pacific Railroad in 1943 by the American Locomotive Co. It was one of 105 Challengers assembled for this railroad between 1936 and 1943. Engine 3985 was used for regular train service until 1957. It was retired in 1962 and stored in a roundhouse in Cheyenne, Wyo., until 1975, when it was put on display near the Cheyenne depot. A group of railroad employees volunteered their services to restore the locomotive to running condition in 1981.

The Challenger engines were designed for fast freight service, plus some passenger train service. This particular engine originally burned coal for fuel and was converted to use No. 5 fuel oil in 1990.

Dan Stanley now works for a firm in Burnsville. He wrote, &uot;I grew up in Albert Lea and still have family there. I was fortunate enough to see the former Rock Island Rocket (a passenger train) pass through Albert lea in the ’60s. It was discontinued in August of 1969.&uot;

This train left Cheyenne on June 6 on an excursion trip to Omaha, Chicago, Milwaukee, Mason City, South St. Paul, Des Moines, Kansas City. It will return to Cheyenne on June 27.