Across Midwest, they heard the whistle blowing

A 74-year-old steam engine called Frisco 1522 returned to the open tracks last week, after spending more than three decades in a museum.

For decades, it sat immobile in the corner of the Museum of Transportation here, a silent monument to the Industrial Age.

But thanks to the efforts of a dozen volunteers and a variety of supporters, a 74-year-old steam engine, which logged 1 million miles in its day, is rolling once more on open track. Last week, Frisco 1522 chugged and puffed some 250 miles from suburban St. Louis to Galesburg, Ill., for a rail festival.

In a fast-paced, high-tech age, the steam engine may seem nothing more than a quaint relic. But the enthusiasm of the crowds who turned out to cheer the 1522 on indicates something more than mere nostalgia. For many, restoring the train meant preserving a slice of history - along with the uniquely American values associated with a time when people knew their neighbors and life moved a little slower.

The story begins in 1926, when the 1522 was built in Philadelphia and shipped out west, where it joined the Frisco Railroad. For 25 years, the train hauled passengers and freight out to Kansas City, Mo., down to Ft. Worth, Texas, and over the southern tip of the Great Smoky Mountains to Birmingham, Ala. Locals still recall the 1522 pulling into St. Louis during Union Station's heyday in the 1940s.

But the advent of the diesel engine put the Frisco 1522 out to pasture in 1951. A few years later, it was acquired by the Museum of Transportation, where it stood for the next 30 years, kids clambering over it like a climbing tree.

In 1985, a dozen men determined to get the train up and running again. They spent 40,000 hours and an estimated $1 million meticulously restoring it. But when it came time to fire up the boiler, they realized that three years of blood, sweat, and gears had been the easy part.

The railroads were concerned about liability. It took 10 years and 10,000 miles of test runs for the volunteers to convince them they were a legitimate operation.

In 1997, plans were laid for a 4,400-mile victory tour. Fire departments around the Midwest were lined up to stand trackside, ready to refill the 1522's 17,000-gallon tender and slake its 100-gallon-per-mile thirst. A shadowing oil tanker had to be arranged for as well, since the locomotive only gets 0.6 miles per gallon.

The big steam locomotive and its billowing cloud of smoke set out from the museum. Soon it was thump-thumping across open tracks, as iconographic of the American landscape as a cowboy with a Stetson.

Less than 30 miles out, disaster struck. Don Morice, one of the founding members of the steam train association, still recalls the sound of the alarm - a high-pitched chirping, signaling that the bearings had blown. The entire journey was immediately scrubbed. The volunteers were forced to back the train all the way home.

In the weeks following, the men debated putting the project to rest. But Mr. Morice wouldn't let them - largely because of the reception the train received as it returned from its failed mission.

"They were lining the tracks - kids, families - waving and yelling," says Morice, wearing a dark-blue jumpsuit with a 1522 patch sewn on the chest. "They said, 'You've got to fix it.' It made quite an impression on me. You should have seen their faces. People love steam engines. I decided we had to do it, we had to fix it again."

And they did. It took two years of renewed effort, but on June 19, 1999, the 1522 once again rolled onto the mainline and headed east.

It was "running like a Swiss watch" when a tie on the tracks near St. Louis gave way under the unusual stress from the heavy locomotive, and the 1522 derailed. A crane, unfamiliar with rerailing steam locomotives, accidentally destroyed the same troublesome bearings when it lifted the behemoth back on the tracks.

The volunteers were devastated, but adversity had begun to steel them. This time, they decided not only to do the same repairs yet again, but to do it in half the time: one year.

Now, 12 months and another $200,000 later, their dogged resolve has paid off.

With three blasts from its powerful steam whistle signaling its departure, the Frisco 1522 pushed out of the Museum of Transportation yard at 10:18 a.m. on June 19. Turning another page in its colorful history, the locomotive quickly disappeared around a bend.

The big engine even made it to Galesburg ahead of schedule, at times reaching speeds of 55 miles per hour. "She's running like a dream," said Morice.

A tenacious dream, at that.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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