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Historic train steams through Libby, Troy

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| October 22, 2009 12:00 AM

Local train enthusiasts gathered Monday morning at the rails in Libby and Troy to catch a rare glimpse of a restored steam locomotive pulling a train of vintage rail cars on its way home to Portland, Ore., from the Train Festival in Michigan.

The historic Southern Pacific No. 4449 whizzed through a foggy Libby and stopped in Troy to service the locomotive, a requirement every 100-150 miles.

Tod Hackett, a self-described train fanatic, waited in Libby on Monday morning to see SP4449, the only remaining operable streamlined steam locomotive of the Art Deco era.

“You haven’t seen steam on the rail since, my God, 1958,” Hackett said, explaining the importance of the tour.

Built in 1941, the historic locomotive spent its years pulling daylight passenger trains between Los Angeles and Portland until 1955.

Spectators waited with cameras on Monday, ready long after the train was due to arrive. The novelty train, which carried about 300 passengers, had to yield to every freight train it met on its way from Whitefish. An average of 35-45 trains travel on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe northern transcontinental railway that runs through Libby and Troy.

“When you’re waiting for a train,” Hackett said, “don’t take a watch. It will drive you nuts.”

Thick steam rose from SP4449 as it approached Libby, tooting its distinct horn. At 433 tons, the locomotive operates with a boiler pressure of 300 pounds per square inch and can apply 5,500 horsepower to the rails and exceed 100 mph.  

A second locomotive, a diesel model, brought up the rear of the train, an Amtrak requirement in case the primary locomotive fails. Steam trains were phased out in the 1950s, replaced with the diesel counterparts.

“These have a glamour and history that is extremely appealing worldwide,” said Gus Melonas, spokesman for BNSF Railway. “This particular locomotive has been in movies and pulled the Freedom Train.”

Hackett saw SP4449 for the first time in Spokane, Wash., in 1976.

The locomotive, which was expected to never run again, was selected to pull the American Freedom Train throughout the country for the nation’s bicentennial. Since its rebuild, it has only toured a handful of occasions.

“This kind of thing is going away,” Hackett said. “It’s getting cost prohibitive because of insurance reasons.”

Hackett missed the locomotive when it first passed through Lincoln County on July 4 on its way to Owosso, Mich. He made up for it by catching up to it on Saturday in Essex, and seeing it at a few other points as it made its journey to Whitefish.

Not every spectator Saturday was a train guru. Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade Troy students saw the train off with big waves as it headed toward Spokane, Wash., where it stayed the night.

The locomotive arrived at its Portland home on Tuesday, where it was once again placed under lock and key out of public view until its next tour.