Life aboard the No. 844 ‘Living Legend’

Flickr.com photo Union Pacific steam engine No. 844 will be in Southeast Idaho on Wednesday.

Flickr.com photo
Union Pacific steam engine No. 844 will be in Southeast Idaho on Wednesday.

By Daniel Bishop, The News-Examiner

MONTPELIER — Merrill Transtrum got out of the Army and came home to Montpelier to find his father had started using a milking machine. This put Transtrum out of a job.

Therefore, in 1947 Transtrum started working for the Union Pacific Railroad as a fireman on the steam engines.

“I provided the lunch bucket, and they provided the No. 2 scoop shovel,” said Transtrum, of Montpelier.

The 800 steam engines were passenger engines only because they were smaller and their wheels were higher, allowing the train to move faster but not pull as much as a freight engine.

“We had it going 100 mph out on the flat,” Transtrum said.

Steam Locomotive No. 844 was the last steam engine built for Union Pacific.

Known as the Living Legend, the newly restored steam engine will be in Southeast Idaho on Wednesday.

Known as the Living Legend, the locomotive will be making a 1,600-mile roundtrip journey this month in honor of the historic Boise Deport’s 92th anniversary. On Wednesday, the newly restored steam locomotive will be rolling through Southeast Idaho.

Photo courtesy of The News-Examiner Merrill Transtrum

Photo courtesy of The News-Examiner
Merrill Transtrum

The No. 844 will be at the Montpelier depot at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday as it passes through on the goodwill tour. Then it will visit Soda Springs at the Main Street Crossing at 2:45 p.m.

It will arrive in Pocatello around 4:45 p.m. Wednesday at the Pocatello Railyard near North Harrison Avenue and Omaha. It will stay in Pocatello until 8 a.m. Friday morning, when it departs for Minidoka.

During the longer stop in Pocatello, the locomotive will be on display at the railyard near North Harrison Avenue and Omaha from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday. There will be some steps set up so people can walk up and take a look in the cab, and staff members will be on hand to answer questions and speak about the steam locomotive.

The No. 844 was delivered in 1944; only 10 other steamers were built that year. It wasn’t a coal burner — instead it burned oil. This made the job of the fireman even more challenging, but the train was more efficient.

“Coal engines had to be serviced in the round house to get more coal,” Transtrum said. “But the oil burners could go 300 miles without refueling; they just needed to take on water.”

At the start of each shift, Transtrum cleaned the deck and the water glass. Cleanliness was important because if he couldn’t see the water in the glass, he didn’t know how much water was in the tank. Too much water meant that more heat was needed to build the steam presser. Not enough water, under a quarter of an inch in the glass, meant that there was a risk of the tank running dry on the hills.

Transtrum got very good at gauging the heat of the boiler simply by putting his hand on the tank.

“I felt if I could just barely put my hand on [the tank] and it was too hot, take it off, then it was just right,” Transtrum said. “If I could hold my hand on there, it was too cold. If I couldn’t hold my hand on there, it was too hot.”

It was crucial to have the oil just the right temperature. If the oil was too cold, the oil wouldn’t burn. If it was too hot, the oil would pass out as a fine mist.

“If you wanted to take six months to a year off, just boil one of those over and let it blow through the wind and back over that complete passenger train with that old black oil,” Transtrum said. “They didn’t approve of that very much.”

Often, burning the oil would cause a build up of deposits, or “sut,” on the pipes, making it not heat the water as well.

“You would have a sand box that would hold around 50 gallons of sand,” Transtrum said. “You could only do this when the engineer had the throttle open, so you’d have an exhaust up through there. You’d take a scoop of that sand and whip that sand up through there, and it would cut all the sut or any obstacles that was on those pipes out of there. After you’d put a shovel full of that in there, look out the window, the smoke would be coming out of there so black you could ride a bicycle back out on that black smoke.”

It only took a shovel or two and the pipes would be cleaned out and the heat gauges would show the improvement.

Then there was the time Transtrum went back to sleep.

“I was called to go out on the (844) one morning,” Transtrum recalled. “I lived just three blocks from the depot. When that old engine came over the crossing there at Montpelier, that old whistle, you could hear it clear to the other end of the valley. I heard that whistle and hit the floor and I was a-running. I jumped in the car, drove right up to the engine, ran right up the ladder and they were just trying to find someone else to take my place. They weren’t going to wait for me.”

In the 1970s, use of trains changed. More people were driving and routes were cut. Transtrum was promoted to a foreman and worked out of Pocatello, then out of Oregon, and then back to Idaho Falls. With each promotion, the pressure on Transtrum increased.

“I never saw [an engine] explode,” Transtrum said, “and I never wanted to.”

When the pressure on him got too high, Transtrum decided that he needed to retire. That was 33 years ago. He came back to his ranch in Bear Lake, and he still looks at his days on the 844 as good days.

“It was a fabulous career,” Transtrum said, “and a good life… I’ve really enjoyed it.”

“When they took away the steam engines,” Transtrum said, “they took the romance out of the railroad.”

He said it was easier to run a diesel engine, but it just wasn’t the same.

When the No. 844 comes back to Montpelier, Transtrum will be there. Maybe he will once again be able to blow that “old whistle.”