PROMONTORY -- Early arrivals to Golden Spike National Historic Site's Winter Steam Festival saw a crystal dawn Tuesday. White hoarfrost coated brush and weeds as swirling fog muffled the distant clang and thump of the steaming, hissing engine.
Festivals in better weather attract hundreds of visitors, but here a hardy several dozen at any one time huddled around the engine, wreathed in its steam exhaust and hunting for angles. Looming mountains slowly appeared in the gray, chill air, then disappeared. Uncovered fingers froze, but everywhere camera shutters clicked.
The site's steam festival, which continues today and Thursday, is held to give photographers a chance to shoot the steam engines in cold winter air.
The steam the engines vent and spew lasts longer in the cold, but when the air is already filled with frozen water vapor, the photographer's job gains new challenge.
Some events offered today and Thursday may depend on the weather; call 435-471-2209, ext. 29, if you have questions about the festival.
Kyle Tebbs, of Tremonton, stood near the rails and pondered the situation. Steam from the engine's stack and pistons flowed and swirled nicely, but white steam was quickly lost against the gray sky.
So he'd point his long lens, push the button, ponder the tiny screen on the back of his camera and shoot again.
"I've shot this train, but not since I got digital," he said. "But it's a steam engine, isn't it? It was high-tech, beyond comprehension of the people who saw it."
The Golden Spike Historic Site has two steam-powered train engines, the Jupiter and the 119. They are exact replicas of the original engines that met at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869.
They alternate in the winter festival, one showing off to the visitors while the other is overhauled. The 119 already had its work done.
Engineer Ron Wilson stood by the engine, helping visitors climb up the small, steep steps to see the cab.
"She's actually in really good shape," he said. "She's had a little work done on her Westinghouse (an air pump made by that company) and her tool boxes."
The site is so careful about keeping the engines historically accurate, he said, that the Westinghouse air pump is intentionally put on the right side of the engine so it won't show in the annual "Champagne Photo" recreation of the joining of the rails.
While safer than the original version of the pump, this model didn't come out until after the joining of the rails, he said, so they keep it out of sight.
Scott Pitman, a volunteer at the site, said he appreciates all the history the engines there represent, such as the story of how the Union Pacific's Engine 119 ended up at Promontory in the first place.
Disgruntled lumber workers kidnapped the head of the Union Pacific and held him hostage until he came up with two months' back wages, he said, delaying the joining of the rails from May 8 to May 10.
The delay also allowed rains to weaken a bridge in Weber Canyon. The engineer wouldn't cross it, so the 119, normally used for freight, was brought from Ogden simply because it was the only engine ready to move.
At 1 p.m. the engine did a photo run so fans could take pictures of it moving, trailing smoke and steam.
There was much clanging of the bell and blowing of the whistle as it fired up and backed up, its brilliant red paint with gold and brass trim disappearing into the mists of fog and steam.
Coming back past the visitor center, its smokestack released a white plume that stood out against the gray fog as the giant steel wheels rumbled along the rails. The whistle wailed, the bell clanged, shutters clicked and Wilson waved photogenically from the cab.
Afterwards, inside the visitor center, a gaggle of three photographers who'd made the trip all the way from South Jordan and West Valley City, pondered the tiny screens on the backs of their cameras. Were they disappointed?
"No, not disappointed at all," said one. "You shoot what you get," but then asked if a local news reporter could guarantee blue sky for the next drive by of the engine.
"Absolutely," they were told, but the clouds closed in more, and they soon left for the drive home.