Sunday, December 11, 2005

Big wheels keep on turnin'....

A good day today: a long sleep-in, the Sunday paper, good coffee (Jingle Java), and an afternoon of successful erranding and holiday shopping.

But the best of all was when Bill and I were driving toward OMSI and saw the unmistakable rhythmic puffing of vast clouds of white steam, and heard the ghostly sound of a steam whistle. This signs could only mean one thing: that one or more of Portland's famous steam enghines were out and about.

We pulled off McLoughlin and drove down by OMSI to take a look. And moments later, from around the bend suddenly appeared the vast orange, red, and silver bulk of the Southern Pacific 4449, also known as the "Daylight." We stood maybe 8-10 feet away as she passed. You just have no idea.... No idea. The ground literally shook--not just vibrated, or trembled. SHOOK. The sound of the steam whistle was so loud that even with ears covered, it was almost intolerable, but thrilling.

Five minutes later, the SP&S 700 followed the 4449. Once again, the ground shook. Once again, we were filled with the electric thrumming, the sense of power as the massive engine passed. Once again, we held our hands over our ears as our hearts pounded along with the steam whistle.

These are immense engines. It's hard to give any idea of their size unless you're standing a few feet away from them, like we were. The 700 is slightly bigger than the 4449. How big is it? The 700, built in 1938, is 111 feet long (that's one-third of a football field) , 17 feet tall (just a little shorter than a two story house), and weighs 440 tons. The wheels on the 700 alone are almost 8 feet tall. The boiler creates up to 5000 horsepower, and the engine can reach sustained speeds of 80 mph. This site shows a really nice view of the engine, parked, while this site shows some excellent action shots.

The SP 4449--at 110 feet, 16 feet, and 433 tons--is only slightly "smaller" than the 700 (Funny how "small" can be such a relative term, isn't it?) However the 4449 is much speedier, having traveled at recorded speeds of 100-110 mph. (Does this even make sense, the idea of something a third of a football field long motoring along at 100 mph?)

Both engines pulled onto the tracks behind OMSI and stopped there. A temporary depot had been set up-- one of those plastic tent-buildings. Bill parked the Jeep and we walked over, and that's how we discovered that for the next week or so, the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation is offering holiday rides on the two trains as a fund raiser for their restoration and upkeep. Will we try to take one of the short rides, to Oaks Park and back? Maybe--but whether we do or not, it can't be much better than what we saw and did today, hanging out with others like us who'd heard about the trains or heard their whistle, all of us oohing and ahhing and taking pictures, and smiling and jostling in that way that people have when they're in common company.

There's a little more -- some family history about the trains. It happened many, many years ago (yes, I'm telling a story, so pull up your chairs and get comfortable), when Ralph and I were still married and when Katie and Scott were little (if Erin was there, she must have been a baby). We were all sitting at the dining room table when all of a sudden, we heard a train whistle. For those of you who haven’t been to my house, I should explain that a major north-south train line runs past our back yard. We’re used to the sight and sound of trains—they go by several times a day. Sometimes, if the train is heavy enough, the glasses in the china cabinet even jiggle.

Anyway, on this day we heard a train whistle. But this one was different, with a thick, rich, melodic sound. It was a steam whistle. At about the same moment that we realized this, we also registered the chug-a-chugging sound that goes along with steam-driven wheels. We rushed out onto our back deck, just in time to see the SP 4449 go by.

As you may recall, in 1976 the 4449 got a new, temporary paint job and became famous for pulling the bicentennial Freedom Train. Thanks to this, we could identify the engine from magazines and television. But to see it this close up--right behind our house—was exciting.

We grabbed coats and shoes, jumped into the car, and within one minute (actually less, I think) we were in pursuit of the 4449. We arrived at the train station just ahead of it and were able to watch its approach. It was an amazing experience.

What is it about humans and trains? It's said that there’s a true romance to the rails, and I must say that I agree. When I was little, Mom and I often took the train between Portland and Spokane, an overnight trip then of about 12 hours. We’d get a sleeper, and I remember drifting off to sleep as the rails clickety-clacked beneath us, the movement of the train car rocking us to sleep.

I wish for anyone reading this that you get to know what it's like to travel on a train. And the way Amtrak is going, I’d suggest you do so quickly. In the meantime, go here for a sound file of the SP&S 700. It's nothing like standing 10 feet away from the engine, but it's still haunting and beautiful.

Like I said, it was a good day.


Erin Pez said...

I have this memory from being little and the Freedom Train going by, and being on the porch with you and Katie and Scotty. The sky was FILLED with thick black smoke. But it wasn't ugly... it was amazing.

Jess B said...

Hello The Mommy... what a great story. I felt like I was sitting in the living room listening to you tell it. I have to say that I have never been a passenger on a train, but I have always thought it would be a fun way to travel. At least until I saw the episode of Sex in the City... but over night might be okay. :0)

Moonwriter said...

The Jessica! Welcome to The Mommy's blog! Do you have a blog?


Jess B said...

Sorry... no blog! I don't think I have enough to say... oddly enough. :o)

Margaret (SP fan) said...

Wow - moonwriter - you write VERY eloquently about one of my FAVORITE things!!! I have a passion for trains - and the SP 4449 is, to me, quite simply one of THE most BEAUTIFUL things I have EVER seen. You are VERY fortunate to live so close to an active main line.

And, yes, no one who has not stood near one of those amazing steam locomotives when she is running can really ever understand how AWESOME they are. They DO shake the earth - AND can run VERY fast! The 4449's rebrn speed record is 87 mph, back in 1977 when she was the Freedom Train, and that was on the Southern Railway. I read somewhere that she is cross-counterbalanced for 106 mph - and that was NOT a record for a steam locomotive.

I can imagine something BIG going FAST - and get goosebumps even thinking of it - but think of this: how FAST some of those parts have to move! The rods (side and main) are VERY large - and have to stand slamming back and forth several times PER SECOND!! wow . . . .

The crews of both the 4449 and the 700 deserve a BIG "THANK YOU!" - AND some $$$$. They are all volunteers, as far as I know. It takes a LOT of WORK to keep these amazing machines operational. And a LOT of cooperation by the major RRs, which now have far too much business to be willing to allow main-line excursions more than on very rare occasions.

I myself have been VERY fortunate to have chased and ridden behind the SP 4449 on main-line excursions a number of times. I got to be a "Car Host" (car attendant) on pasrt of the "World's Fair Daylight" behind the 4449 back in 1984 in California.

I am an avid railfan, and live and breathe the SP. I even like to say that if you scratch me, I will bleed SP scarlet and gray (colors they painted their diesel locomotives until they were absorbed into the Union Pacific in 1996 (boo! hiss! I do not like mergers, and THAT one was the one I dislike the most - because it killed the Southern Pacific.

Y'know, if I am gonna yak at this length, I REALLY should start my own blog. Later . . .