Fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, or buzz down the interstate to Tucson or Yuma, and a certain portion of the state’s history is not so apparent.
The wheels for modern Arizona began turning when the first train chugged into the state in 1877. The railroad brought industry and tourism, changed farming into agriculture, and helped grow communities.
You can celebrate Arizona’s rail history by checking out the Arizona Centennial Steam Locomotive Tour, a special tour of Union Pacific’s fabled Steam Locomotive No. 844. This giant of the rails lumbers into the state in November 2011 as part of Arizona’s Centennial Statehood celebration.
No. 844: A Life on the Tracks
No. 844 is a Northern class steam locomotive with a wheel arrangement of 4-8-4 and a massive weight, tipping the scales at 907,980 pounds, or 454 tons.
It was the last steam locomotive built for Union Pacific Railroad, which used it for high-speed passenger travel beginning in 1944, when it pulled trains such as the Overland Limited, Los Angeles Limited, Portland Rose and Challenger between cities such as Chicago, Portland and Los Angeles.
The locomotive had a top speed of 120 miles per hour and could pull 26 passenger cars at more than 100 miles per hour if the track was smooth and level. The top speed limit, though, was usually kept to a more prudent 80 miles per hour.
When more efficient diesel engines took over passenger travel in the 1950s, No. 844 found a second life as a freight engine in Nebraska from 1957 to 1959.
In 1960, in danger of being scrapped, No. 844 was instead retired to special service as Union Pacific’s railroad ambassador.
The engine has made appearances at events such as the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans and the 50th anniversary of Los Angeles Union Station in 1989. It is also used for excursion runs, such as the crossing of the 8,015-foot-high Sherman Hill between Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming, the highest point of the transcontinental railroad.
The Arizona Tour: See a Piece of Railroad History
When No. 844 pulls into Arizona, you’ll be able to climb up on a special platform to get an eye-level view inside the cab of the locomotive. A Union Pacific engineer will be on hand to answer questions and point out the locomotive’s features.
Be on the lookout for support cars that travel with the locomotive, such as the Howard Fogg, Union Pacific’s last boiler car, built in 1949; the Art Lockman maintenance tool car, circa 1962, which was once used as a baggage car; and the 1961 Reed Jackson concession car, which started out as a railroad post office, used to sort and transport mail.
Tentative stops in early November for the Arizona Centennial Steam Locomotive Tour include Willcox, Benson, Vail, Tucson, Red Rock, Coolidge, Queen Creek, Gilbert, Mesa, Tempe, Phoenix, Eloy, Casa Grande, Maricopa, Gila Bend, Wellton and Yuma, all towns and cities that the railroad helped shape. Viewing is free.
To get more details on exact locations and dates, you can follow the locomotive on Twitter, http://twitter.com/#!/up_steam.