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Sunday, Sep. 25, 2016

All aboard: Steam engine roars into Le Mars

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Brenden Fisch, 4, of Remsen, with his grandpa Joe Fisch, cheers for the Challenger as it chugged into Le Mars Wednesday for a stop on its tour from St. Paul, Minn. to Cheyenne, Wyo. Pictured above, workers tune up the 1943 steam locomotive, passengers look out at the Iowa countryside from a domed railcar, and the engineer looks at the tracks ahead.
History came to town on the rail Wednesday

Chugging and steaming and tooting the whistle, all one million pounds of the steam engine Challenger rolled into Le Mars for a whistle stop on its five-state tour.

Dozens of people gathered at the tracks to catch a look at the 1943 Union Pacific (UP) locomotive

For some, this was a trip down memory lane.

"My husband was a main line engineer on this very engine," said Virginia Templeton, of Alton. "It was a very interesting life."

Her husband, Floyd Templeton, started out as a train fireman in 1941, keeping the fire stoked to create the steam for the engine.

"These big engines burned 23 tons of coal an hour and used 55,000 gallons of water an hour to make the steam," she said.

After a few years, her husband took his exams and became an engineer. At times, the Templetons road as passengers on trains pulled by engines like the Challenger out west, Templeton said.

"Floyd's been gone 23 years now," she said as she waited for the locomotive to approach. "It'll be nostalgic to see it. Maybe I'll have a tear in my eye."

Designed to carry freight quickly across the nation, the Challenger packs what would equal 8,000 horsepower in modern terms, according to Jim Leonard, a volunteer and retired UP employee aboard the train.

"This was the absolute apex of steam engine locomotives," Leonard said, explaining the engine is even hinged to allow it to go around curves.

"It was considered the engine of change," he added.

This particular engine, No. 3985, was retired in 1957.

But a group of UP employees didn't want to let the mighty engine collect dust forever. They volunteered their time to restore it, and it hit the rails again in 1981.

Now the world's largest operating locomotive, No. 3985 runs special exhibition routes to celebrate rail history and promote train crossing safety awareness.

Its current run, from St. Paul, Minn. to Cheyenne, Wyo., is the last for the year, Leonard said.

After the engine stopped in Le Mars, several area government leaders and road engineers who deal with train crossings were invited aboard to ride to Sioux City in the passenger cars.

Inside the cars, passengers walked through a narrow hallway to a coach car, then through another door to a domed observation car, built in the late 1950s or early 1960s. There they could watch the scenery pass from a windowed dome on the top level of the train car.

"Forty years ago they built coach trains like this that are more comfortable than first class airplane seats," said Struble Mayor Joe Vollmecke, who enjoyed the roomy passenger chair and view of the Iowa countryside.

The last car of the train was the St. Louis car, a business car complete with a long mahogany-colored dining table, rich drapes and wallpaper, and a lounge with lounge chairs and desks facing windows providing a back view.

The passengers inside the train weren't the only ones curious about the locomotive. Dozens of cars on the nearby interstate matched the engine's speed of about 45 mph (although it tops out at about 70 mph).

"They're the foamers," Leonard said of the caravan of drivers. "Train people gave them that name because if they hear a train's coming, they start foaming at the mouth. But now they proudly claim the name."

And no train ride would be complete without a conductor.

Before the train chugged out of Le Mars, Conductor Reed Jackson hollered "Board!"

Jackson has been traveling with the challenger for 25 years, and he's been a trainman for 10 more.

"This is my heritage," he said. "My grandfather was a trainman for 50 years and my father was for 45 years."

He stayed overnight in Sioux City with the rest of the train crew Thursday. The Challenger No. 3985 will be on display in Sioux City from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday before heading toward Cheyenne, Wyo.

The great part of this job, Jackson said, is getting to put smiles on people's faces when the train comes to town.

"What a job," Jackson said. "It's every little boy's dream. And mine too."

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