Locomotive 119 powers annual Steam Festival at Promontory

Dec 29 2013 - 2:47pm

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Steve Sawyer, a steam locomotive engineer, looks down the tracks, while operating the locomotive 119 Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013 at Promontory Summit. (DYLAN BROWN/Standard-Examiner)
Steve Sawyer, a steam locomotive engineer, looks down the tracks, while operating the locomotive 119 Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013 at Promontory Summit. (DYLAN BROWN/Standard-Examiner)

PROMONTORY SUMMIT -- Hundreds gathered for the 15th annual Steam Festival on Saturday to see an icon of America's transportation history in action as Locomotive 119 slowly made its way down the tracks at Golden Spike National Historic Site and emitted its distinctive billowing clouds during its only runs of the winter. 

The old-fashioned train is a full-sized, 60-ton replica of those that first populated the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads when the "Golden Spike" joined the two lines together at Promontory Summit in 1869. Visitors were allowed on board when Locomotive 119 came to a stop and got to glance around as volunteer locomotive firers fed the steam engine with coal and described the history behind the machine and what made it run. 

Tammy Benson, chief operating officer at the site, said the goal behind the festivities is to educate Utahns about the state's storied railroad past, which helped Ogden develop as a population center.

"It meant work for Mormon settlers that were here," Benson said. "And economically it opened up the West for settlement. It was less than $1,000 now for a family to relocate out West."

Traveling from Omaha to the West Coast took six months before the advancement of the railroad networks to the western United States, according to Benson. 

"If you didn't hit Laramie by the Fourth of July, you pretty much weren't going to get over the Sierra Nevada (mountains), as the Donner party found out," she said. 

When the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads joined in Utah in 1869, travel time from New York City to Southern California was cut to just seven days.  

"It's fascinating to think how nice it was for those pioneers who got to come late rather than traveling on wagon wheels," said West Jordan resident Chris Isom, who attended the festivities with her husband, daughter and grandchildren, noting she and her husband were history enthusiasts and wanted to know about the site. 

Despite Promontory's historic status, the original locomotives that traversed it - Locomotive 119 and its partner engine Jupiter -- were scrapped for metal around the turn of the 20th century. The current replica, made in 1979, is a realistic replica. 

"A question we always get is whether it was always this brightly colored," said volunteer locomotive firer Daren Dancer, gesturing to the red sheen on the train. "And it was. This was the Victorian period (and) it was a way to promote the railroad."

Dancer grew up on a farm in Utah in which the railroad cut directly through his property, between his parents' home and barn. Most days he would run out to wave at the engineer. He said most kids today, however, have little background with trains, particularly antique ones. 

"A lot of them don't understand what a steam locomotive is. They ask, 'Where's the engine? And it's like, that is the engine,'" said Dancer, pointing to the coal room.

Bonnie Hanson attended from Salt Lake City with her husband and nearly 3-year-old son, who she said is a big fan of the children's TV series Thomas & Friends but has never seen a train in person.

"He is obsessed with trains. But he's pretty nervous though now that he's here," she said with a laugh. "He's a sort of fascinated nervous." 

Four hundred pounds of coal were used just to start the locomotive, and two tons would be used up before the Steam Festival was over. The engine took 48 hours to heat up sufficiently for its first run of the weekend.

"It's not like we can put the key in it and run it," Benson said, smiling.

The locomotive will make multiple trips down the tracks Sunday and Monday every 90 minutes between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. before going dormant for the rest of the winter. The Steam Festival will also provide motorcar and handcar trips on those days between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

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