Steam engine revives memories

Published 2:39 pm Saturday, September 27, 2008

Union Pacific Engine 3985, the worlds largest operating steam locomotive, stopped at the former Rock Island railroad in Albert Lea for just over an hour Friday morning.

This special train is on a 1,700-mile-tour from its home base in Cheyenne, Wyo., to St. Paul and back as part of the celebration of its 65 years of service on what’s now the nation’s largest railroad system.

Local rail enthusiasts and other people interested in seeing a reminder of the past started to keep track of the train as it left Mason City, Iowa, earlier in the morning. This was followed by a stop at Manly, Iowa, then word that the train was passing Gordonsville. However, the first real indication the train was entering the city on the south side came with the distinctive whistle blasts, which sounded for the various street crossings. Then, just beyond the Broadway and Newton avenues crossings, the huge engine and what was really a re-creation of a passenger train of the past came into view at 10:23 a.m.

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This train consisted of 10 cars. Several cars were freight cars, one could have been a U.S. Mail car of the past, a passenger car had a observation deck with a glass enclosed “bubble top,” and the last car was what a crewman called a business car with a small platform at the rear with a steel railing. This was the type of car once so heavily favored by political candidates on their trips to communities across the nation.

During its stop of just over an hour in Albert Lea, people could actually go aboard the train into what was called the souvenir or education car. Here, they could purchase books and various items based on railroad memorabilia from the past and present and view several displays and photos based on the past of this type of transportation.

For some area folks this train served as a reminder of an era when a fast passenger train called the Rock Island Rocket served as the quickest and best way to travel to the Twin Cities or Des Moines, Iowa.

Union Pacific’s Engine 3985, known as the “Challenger,” was built in 1943 and is an articulated locomotive with a “hinged” frame that allows it to negotiate curves. It is 122 feet long, weights more than 1 million pounds, has 6-foot diameter wheels and can reach a top speed of 70 miles an hour. Number 3985 was built originally for fast freight service. It was retired from rail service in 1959 and restored to running condition by UP employee volunteers in 1981 for special usage.

After spending several days in St. Paul, this huge engine will be pulling its collection of rail cars through Mankato, St. James, Butterfield and Worthington to Sioux City and Council Bluffs, Iowa, then through Nebraska, the northeast corner of Colorado and back to its home base in Cheyenne.

More information about this and other railroad steam engines can be found at