When Engine No. 8444 came to the depot in Topeka in 1984, the crowds that showed up to see the Union Pacific’s last steam engine made me think back to old whistle-stop train tours made throughout the United States. The most famous was President Harry S. Truman’s 30,000 mile tour during his 1948 re-election campaign that saw him deliver as many eight speeches in a day.
Seabiscuit made a whistle-stop tour from California to Baltimore, Maryland, as the famed race horse’s owner drummed up sentiment for a match race against War Admiral in 1938. Tragically, solemn crowds stood at train stations in 1968 to say their final goodbyes to Bobby Kennedy as a train took the assassinated Presidential candidate from California to Washington, D.C., and his final resting place in Arlington Cemetary.
The draw of those tours was a candidate, horse or a slain renowned American. In Topeka, the draw was the steaming and hissing relic from a time long since passed. What a sight it was to photograph. Put into service in 1944 as a high-speed passenger train engine, the locomotive was initially numbered 844. The number changed to 8444 to differentiate it from new diesel engine locomotives in 1962.
From 1957 through 1959, 8444 hauled freight in Nebraska before being saved from the junk heap to become Union Pacific’s “Living Legend.” In June 1989, Union Pacific restored its original number 844 after the steam locomotive retired from its special service to the people of the United States, which I am happy to say included me.