Train lovers call it the “Living Legend” — Union Pacific steam locomotive 844. It was built in 1944, the last of its kind before diesel replaced steam power. Though it changed from running as a high-speed passenger engine to freight service, the locomotive never officially retired and has been part of the Union Pacific fleet of locomotives for 73 years. It has been to Boise a few times, but not since 2010.
The historic locomotive is en route from its home in Cheyenne, Wyo., and will pull into the Boise Depot around 5 p.m. Saturday on a journey called the “Boise Turn Special.” A city celebration the next day — Sunday, April 23 — will mark the 92nd anniversary of the iconic depot.
But many in this community — and beyond — are more interested in the train than its destination.
“There’s probably a railfan-following as great as for NASCAR or for people shooting rockets to the moon,” said Bob Jenkins. “We have a hell of an underground.”
Jenkins, 63, counts himself among that underground.
Jenkins left his home in Wendell on Wednesday to catch up with the 844. The plan: chasing the locomotive from Soda Springs to Pocatello and taking photos along the way. Jenkins doesn’t want “roster shots,” or photos that just show the train. He wants photos of the locomotive in a notable setting, like you’d see on an old Union Pacific wall calendar.
Jenkins, who is retired from a career in the Navy, followed the steam locomotive along the Portneuf River with a friend, Army reservist Adam Vogt. Jenkins wanted a shot of the 844 rounding the curve in front of Lava Hot Springs.
“Everyone knows the hot springs. But they haven’t seen a steam engine there,” said Jenkins.
After that, they are traveling west, “and get ahead of the 844 as it comes into Gooding,” he added. There, he wants a night shot of the 844 with the grain elevator near the tracks. Then it’s on to the Malad River bridge, an old steel and stone bridge near the mouth of the Malad River on the highway between Gooding and Bliss.
“It’s hard to get back there, near the bridge, but if you can, you can get a nice shot,” he said.
Finally, he wants to get far enough ahead of the 844 that he can look back and take a photograph of the “sun shining on its nose” as the locomotive continues on toward the Treasure Valley.
Jenkins inherited his love of trains from his mother. Jenkins’ dad, a truck driver, gave her a train set one Christmas in Seattle. Jenkins still remembers the sight of the toy train circling the Christmas tree. In the 1960s, when Jenkins was old enough to carry a camera, his dad would drop him off in the Seattle rail yards. Jenkins would roam the yards, alone for hours, taking pictures of trains. Back then, five major lines ran through Seattle. That meant scores of trains of different colors to photograph. Today, Seattle has just two lines: the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Yellow and orange trains, respectively, said Jenkins.
He had wanted to be an engineer, but “Vietnam,” he said, “got in the way.”
He enlisted and became a career Navy man instead, but was eventually able to become an engineer, if in an unexpected way. After retiring, he built and ran a “park train,” or small railroad for children outside Missoula, Mont., for six years.
Sometimes, he meets people who think his love of trains and his determination to drive for miles, just to photograph them against an Idaho backdrop, is odd.
“I just ask them if they like to take pictures of birds or race cars at the racetrack or baseball players at the baseball field. Then, they get my point,” said Jenkins.
Because of his train photography, he “knows just about every foot of track from Soda Springs to La Grande.” He’s met people from Japan, Germany — fellow train lovers who have traveled to the U.S. to see them. When he lived in Bliss near the train tracks, his status as an avid railfan was so well-known, the train crews would call him on their radio to let him know they’d be passing by. He’d get their messages on a scanner he kept tuned to the railroad frequency.
Trains have built a community around Jenkins. Ultimately, though, the lure is in the machines themselves. The idea of a single person controlling a milelong train, “and the brute force of them,” he said.
“Steam, unlike diesel, is alive. You see the wheels turning. You smell the smoke. You hear the whistle.”
Every steam whistle has its own melody, he said. Some are high. Some have what Jenkins called a “mid-tone throaty sound that you can hear from miles away.”
Sometimes you could know an engineer just by the way he made the steam whistle, he said.
The whistle on the 844 — one people will likely hear this weekend in the Treasure Valley — is “pretty much in its own world,” said Jenkins. “Like the first time you hear a rattle snake. You just know what it is.”
“When you hear the whistle, you’ll know the 844 is coming.”
Anniversary Celebration: Boise Depot turns 92
The public celebration is from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, April 23, at the Boise Depot, 2603 W. Eastover Terrace. Tours of the depot are full, but there will be many events, including model train exhibits, vintage cars, food and more. The 844 steam locomotive will not be open to the public, but will be parked on site.
The 844 will pull out the Boise station and head back to Wyoming at 8 a.m. on Monday.
Follow the journey of the 844
Check out the route at up.com (noting that all times are subject to change since the train is en route). Keep up on the latest, follow Union Pacific’s 844 on Twitter, “UP Steam.” Union Pacific is now restoring another steam locomotive in Cheyenne, Wyo., Big Boy 4014. Follow the progress on Union Pacific Railroad’s Facebook page.