Steam Surprise

We stopped by to see the petroglyphs. The Horsethief petroglyphs are something special to me, wrapped in childhood memories. This is also where I proposed to Deborah, in front of the magnificent Tsagaglalal, or She-Who-Watches. Traveling to eastern Oregon to visit family we had made a point to stop by and see this place again.

Locomotive 4449 under steam at Horsethief Lake
Steam locomotive 4449 under steam at Horsethief Lake near The Dalles in transit to Bend
As we were getting out of the vehicle a lady was walking by, she called out to us…

“Are you here to see the steam engine?”

“Uhh? What steam engine?”

This is a bit of a surprise. The petroglyphs are located just above the riverside tracks. When visiting you park in a small gravel lot just beside a train crossing that leads down to the river and a boat launch.

Not having any clue we had to ask… She let us know that a steam engine is about half an hour out and headed this way. Looking about again I realize we are amongst a group of train spotters… Cameras, tripods set up by the tracks, VHF radios… OK. I can be a train spotter today. Putting petroglyph viewing aside for the moment we join the group by the crossing waiting for a train.

We are quickly filled in on the details… The engine is the Southern Pacific 4449, the last remaining example of a GS-4 late period steam engine. Placed in service in 1941, the engine is a 4-8-4 locomotive typical of the 1940’s and 1950’s, serving until displaced by diesel locomotives.

The engine is currently owned by the City of Portland and normally on display at the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation near downtown Portland. A few times each year the engine is used to pull excursion trains around the state. It is one of these excursions that we stumbled upon as the engine and train were on their way to Bend.

I had seen 4449 a few times before, but never while under steam. In 1976 this engine was restored and used to pull the American Freedom Train, a traveling exhibit for the national bicentennial celebration. My family and I visited the Freedom Train in 1975 when it was visiting Portland. I still remember this orange and black engine as it sat in Union Station.

The group waiting was kept updated by a network of spotters following the train. Twitter and text messages let us know it was close. On cue 4449 rounded the corner and headed straight at us, blowing its whistle as it approached the level crossing.

A beautiful reminder of another age, technology from the past, preserved and operational, the engineer in me marveled at the sight. The engine pulled a full train of passenger cars effortlessly past us on a beautiful summer afternoon. A very nice surprise indeed.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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