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A sight for sore eyes

8/19/2012

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

WaKEENEY -- It truly was a Kodak moment, all day long.

Along nearly every railroad crossing, and especially at scheduled stops in Russell, WaKeeney, Oakley and Sharon Springs, people -- from infants in a stroller to a 91-year-old former Oakley mail carrier -- turned out Thursday to see the last steam locomotive engine as it made its way through northwest Kansas.

Most people had some sort of camera, whether it was a professional model or a relatively low-quality camera on their phone, to snap pictures of Old No. 844, brought back to help the Union Pacific Railroad celebrate its 150th anniversary.

Ticketmasters in uniform and even a Union Pacific Railroad police officer leap-frogging the train were pressed into action to either take family photos in front of the train or asked to be a part of the picture.

Even one railroad aficionado from Burlington Northern-Santa Fe came running, taking the day off to get a chance to photograph and follow the steam locomotive along its route. One high school student took the day off, the first day of school, to trail the engine.

Many more railroad buffs paralleled the railroad -- bringing Old U.S Highway 40 back to life with a caravan of cars.

Despite the lack of a stop in Hays, residents were undaunted, heading to either Russell or WaKeeney for a chance to catch a glimpse.

At Russell, Hays resident Don Butcher stepped in front of the mighty machine and took several photos.

In WaKeeney, longtime resident Lyndell Dykes, wearing a Union Pacific Railroad T-shirt and a jacket bearing the railroad's logo, showed up early.

Her father was the engineer of No. 844 when she was young and living in Cheyenne, Wyo., where the engine now is based.

"He ran this engine a lot," she said, her camera around her neck and a cane in her hand. "I'm from Cheyenne, Wyo. I came to WaKeeney 44 years ago.

"I've seen this engine a lot of times."

Dykes said when she first heard the engine would be stopping in WaKeeney, she was excited, even telling her brother, a former train engineer.

"I couldn't wait," she said of the train's arrival. "It's kind of old home week."

Bob Helling, himself a UP engineer from Salina, was among those trailing the train.

He and Brian Stevens, Tulsa, Okla., took up a position along the railroad curve just west of Collyer, hoping to snap the perfect photograph.

They started chasing the train Wednesday, starting at Lawrence and traveling through to Salina.

He smiled when asked how far they would be following it.

"Sharon Springs," he said. "We're all railroad buffs."

Along the way, observers put pennies on the railroad track. At Grinnell, approximately 50 people waited nearly two hours for the train's arrival and tried a few quarters.

The train zoomed through at approximately 50 mph, its whistle blaring while residents waved and one woman waved an American flag.

The event was orchestrated well, with the train's own maintenance crew leap-frogging ahead to await the train's arrival. There, they greased up wheels and took the time to hand No. 844 pins to young children.

The steam engine, said Ted Schulte, the train's fireman and second engineer, can produce nearly 4,400 horsepower, nearly the same as the computerized diesel engine -- new in May -- that helped pull the weight of the train.

Railroad crew members circulated among the crowd as the train readied to leave.

"We'll be blowing the whistle here in about three minutes," the ticketmaster said in Russell. "It's very loud, so don't be surprised."

When the whistle blew, children cowered and plugged their ears. In WaKeeney, one young boy cried while a baby in a nearby stroller continued sleeping.

The train then pulled away, heading to its next destination.