The pressures of job and family don't leave much time for hobbies, but I took a personal day for myself Monday. I'm a train buff, and the big Union Pacific steam engines don't often come to the Bay Area.
The plan was to photograph No. 844 rolling through Martinez and perhaps see it at another point down the line, ideally along the Pinole waterfront.
Newspeople say they have ink in their veins; steam runs in mine. My mom and dad met at a locomotive factory in La Grange, Ill., where they both worked, my Rosie the Riveter grandmother was a lathe operator there, and my brother recently retired after almost 40 years as a railroad engineer.
After dropping my son off at school I staked out a spot next to the UP tracks off Marina Vista in Martinez. It was 8:30 a.m.; the train was scheduled to be in town an hour later, but rolled through two hours later.
It was a lonely stakeout at first, but by the time the train came, some 200 folks had gathered at the Amtrak station just to the west of my position, and others were all up and down the line.
Several nice people who joined me at or near my spot; two older couples unfolded chairs and sat down; others had cameras and were scoping out the area for their great shot. Many of them, I'm sure, wouldn't have given a modern train a second look. But this was different.
No. 844 was UP's last new steam engine, built in 1944. It hauled mostly passenger trains until 1957, and spent the last few years of its regular service life pulling freight trains in Nebraska. Far more efficient diesels replaced virtually all U.S. steam engines by the late 1950s.
It is believed to be the only large steam locomotive in the U.S. that was never retired, having entered special UP service in 1962. The big Cheyenne, Wyo.-based steamer and its train are on their Western Heritage Tour, which began Saturday in Cheyenne before heading west through Utah and Nevada before crossing Donner Pass into California.
When the distinctive steam whistle finally sounded to the east, we all took our planned positions.
The steam engine — with its art-deco streamline style — was very cool, but the train — a gleaming yellow 1950s-era streamliner — was beautiful, the stuff of art-deco posters, far more glamorous than today's generic Amtrak cars.
My video camera was running on a tripod and my digital camera was clicking in my hands. The still images turned out better than the video; but my brother will like the video.
As the train pulled out, I phoned my friend Steve, who was waiting with his three sons in Crockett, alerting him that No. 844 would soon be upon him.
Then it was on to Pinole where, years earlier, I had photographed trains along the waterfront. Alas, a fence now closes off the whole area.
An attempt to double-back to Tennant Avenue failed by a minute or two. Ah, the frustrations of train-chasing.
That was enough high-pressure hobbying on a sunny day off. A leisurely drive took me to UP's Oakland freight yard to meet Steve and see the train up close.
About 100 photographers, and their vehicles — one fan even came in a taxi — had gathered there.
"It's steam ... it's alive," said Jim Maurer as the 844 steamed and hissed about 100 feet away. "I've gone as far as Inner Mongolia to see steam engines, so going to Oakland from San Jose wasn't that far."
We watched the simmering locomotive for a while, then returned to the mundane world.
One of my handful of action shots will surely find its way to my little railroad "gallery" along the stairs.
Reach Sam Richards at 925-943-8241 or email@example.com.