Steam locomotive slated for Bald Knob stopover

By Keith Boles - bio | email feedback

WALNUT RIDGE, AR (KAIT) - Mainline steam will once again ride the rails in Northeast Arkansas.

Union Pacific 844 blew into Poplar Bluff this morning just before noon.

Ganell Kopp and her son Caleb were among hundreds waiting on the train.

Kopp, "I figure it's a once in a lifetime thing for him. I don't know how often he's going to get to see a steam engine come through Poplar Bluff."

The Kopps were 2 among many who braved the heat waiting to get a glimpse of history. The 844 was the last steam engine purchased by the Union Pacific.

Excursion conductor Jim Coker who will be celebrating 40 years with Union Pacific on Wednesday says this locomotive has never been in a park or on display. "It's been on active duty since 1944." Coker said.  "It's run hundreds of thousands of miles for these public relation excursions and it's great to get out and see all the people."

To celebrate the visit, the train was honored with a declaration from the Governor and the winners of the best train drawing contest were announced.

But it was the locomotive that everyone wanted to see. This massive machine towered above the fans who came to touch and have their picture taken. Children covered their ears when the whistle blew and stood amazed next to the huge driver wheels that were taller even than their parents.

It seemed that everyone had a camera, many had two or three hanging around their necks. Larry Stiles, a rail fan from St. Louis chased the train all day. He said the attraction for big steam is because of what used to be commonplace is now such a rarity.

Stiles, "For so long it was the American way of travel it was like the airplane of today it was commonplace."

Stiles said these massive locomotives are so uncommon, new generations are curious as to how they work and how big they are. Heard over and over again was the question, "How does it work." Each time the patient crew member would explain about the steam process and how it works.

Stiles says that what he likes about going on visits like this one. A new generation of Railfans is being given a glimpse of a machine that used to thunder through Poplar Bluff on a daily basis.

Stiles, "Some of them have never seen one, They want to see it and find out what it's all about."

Conductor Jim Coker says many of the people that come to see the train have railroad connections in their families. He himself is a 3rd generation railroader and showed me his watch his grandfather gave him after retiring. Cokers grandfather was a steam locomotive engineer.

Coker says the locomotive visits bring a sense of connection to people.

Coker, "It's great you bring back a lot of the fond memories of people that remember them running."

And it also is an opportunity to make memories for a generation that will not see mainline steam unless it's a special train like this one.

In Corning, sisters Mason and Hayden Cohn watched the train pass by.

Cohn, "They're really, really rare these days and Now they're just rare and it's amazingly big. The wheels are ginormous."

Engine 844 will be on display in Bald Knob from 10 til 6 on Tuesday with a 9 am scheduled departure for Little Rock on Wednesday.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)