When you’re out and about in Boise during the “weekend of 844,” you might cross paths with John Biehn. Now retired from his 44-year career as a meat department manager for the Kroger supermarket chain, he travels between 3,000 and 5,000 miles a year, all in search of historic trains to photograph. He loves the Union Pacific 844 so much, he got “UP 844” license plates for his car. He has traveled to Idaho before to photograph the locomotive, and he photographed the train last July when it traveled to Cheyenne, Wyo., for Frontier Days.
Biehn is making a special trip from his home in Cincinnati this weekend to see the historic locomotive once more.
The 844 is en route from its home in Cheyenne and will pull into the Boise Depot around 5 p.m. Saturday on a journey called the “Boise Turn Special.” A city celebration on Sunday will mark the 92nd anniversary of the iconic depot.
Q: How did your love for trains begin?
A: My father would travel throughout the South as a paint salesman. He would leave first by auto and then send for my mom and I by train. In the mid-1950s, we always had our own room in a Pullman sleeping car. I used to spend all night just looking out of the window. Eating in the dinning car was also a great experience. I always sat by the window and watched the scenery go by as I ate. We traveled to cities like Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami, New Orleans and other places. Then in 1955, I got my first Lionel Train. I still have it along with a major collection of toy trains that go all the way back to the 1920s.
Q: For you, what’s special about the Union Pacific 844?
A: The UP 844 is a locomotive that has never been retired. Since it was built in 1944, it has been on UP’s roster the whole time. When a diesel locomotive appeared on the UP’s roster as 844, the steam engine had its number changed to 8444. It outlasted the diesel and got its original number back. The steamer is a beautiful and great running machine.
Q: What are some train-watching terms that we should know?
A: Most folks like me are called “railfans.” I guess that’s short for rail fanatics. Some are called “steamfans.”
One term I don’t particularly is “foamers,” for steamfans. I guess they foam at the mouth while watching steam trains.
You will probably meet a lot of people who will “chase” this train. What that means is that they follow the train, try to get ahead of it and take photos or videos.
They also “pace” the train, which means they drive right alongside the locomotive taking videos or stills. I pace when my son is with me to help with the driving.
Q: You’ve photographed the 844 in Idaho before?
A: I like to try to get extraordinary locations. I do not like typical grade (road) crossings if I can avoid them. At American Falls, Idaho, a couple of years ago, I shot the 844 as it headed west. There is a trestle there above the dam that holds back the Snake River. There are some interesting old buildings that look like mills near where the water flows below the dam. Just a nice shot.
Q: What has been your biggest thrill as a train lover?
A: That’s a tough question. I guess one thing that stands out is that my son and I got a ride in the cab of a large steam engine in China. Our ride took place at Jingpeng Pass in Inner Mongolia, a 35-mile ride through seven tunnels, over various bridges. The Chinese crew even let me shovel the coal for that trip. It was great.
Another thrill was taking a steam train over the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
Q: How do you explain the love of trains that so many people share? Where does the mystique come from?
A: Most older folks like to reminisce about the old days when things were a lot slower. Other folks marvel at the mechanics of the steam train. They like the sounds, smell, all the steam and power.
Q: What’s the shot of a train that you dream of getting (the brass ring, holy grail, etc.)?
A: The early morning start-up shots of any steam locomotive. There all the steam condensation is released. The locomotive is alive and puts on a great show. Diesels cannot do that.