“We’re going to rebuild some steam engines!”

“Yes, you are!”

Those happy words from Alex Beams, mechanic for Railroading Heritage of Midwest America and Ed Dickens, head of the Union Pacific Steam Program in Cheyenne, WY, sum up the excitement over UP’s donation of three famous locomotives to the Railroading Heritage of Midwestern America (RRHMA) in Silvis on November 20.

The pair were joined by railroad fans who donated $250 or more for the once in a lifetime chance to tour the restoration shop and get up close to the gigantic steam engines that rolled into town the night before.

“Ed just brought them back. He’s in charge of the Union Pacific steam department out in Cheyenne and they just made a 900 mile trip across here with both these engines, the diesel, a bunch of extra cars and made it here all in one piece,” says Beams. “Ed’s crew did an awesome job getting this stuff here and now we’re going to tear ‘em apart and bring them back to where they’re brand new or even better.”

Anyone hoping for a fast turnaround on these engines is going to be disappointed. “The Challenger over there, the 3985 we’re hoping we could do it in about three years,” says Beams. “Of course, we’ll find out more once we get into it and do all the initial inspections and figure out what all needs to be replaced on it.” Replacing parts that have worn over time isn’t the only challenge for the restoration crew. “They’ll be some modifications to bring it up to some of the modern technology standards that the railroads require now that has to do with the positive train control system on it and everything all the diesels are running. We have to adapt that into a steam engine. Ed and his crew did a great job putting it on the big boy the 4014 outside so we’ll work with them on getting that system put in on the Challenger and potentially maybe even the 5511 here.”

There’s no tracking down parts for a restoration project like this, says Beams. “There’s no calling up (a hardware store) and saying, ‘hey I need this.’ It’s fabricating from scratch.” Fortunately, Union Pacific brought paperwork, so they don’t have to completely fabricate from scratch. “Union Pacific has pretty much all the drawings for everything on the locomotives, so we’ll be able to look at all the original drawings for the engines and recreate the parts from there and potentially make improvements because materials have gotten better, technology has gotten better as far as how to fabricate them.”

The idea for bringing the engines to the RRHMA came about because the world has been begging to see the Challenger in action, says Dickens. “For years there has been an appetite for the world to see the Challenger operate. The Union Pacific operates steam locomotives for public relations. We have two, so there was an opportunity to see these locomotives live and breathe again. This facility was obtained specifically for that purpose and Union Pacific very graciously donated all of this equipment to the Railroading Heritage of Midwest America for the express purposes to be rebuilt even better than new. Yesterday we concluded our final part of the transaction and that was actually physically getting the equipment here. We departed Cheyenne WY on November 11th, and we ran 900 miles. We’d overnight periodically here and there and we got here, and we were an hour and a half late, which is amazing. That’s part of what you’ll see with the relationship with this organization, that kind of tenacity. You will see, these locomotives will rise up again and be rebuilt in this famous shop in Silvis.”

These trains aren’t destined to sit quietly in a museum once they’ve been restored. According to Beams, they have a lot of life left in them and they’re heading back on the rails. “We’ll go out and run excursion trips with them. We’re looking to work out some deals with the different bigger railroads and go out and run excursion trains with them.”

Railroad fans can keep up with the renovations on the engines by visiting the RRHMA’s website here and on Facebook, as well as learn more about fundraisers and how to donate.

Donations go toward the locomotive rebuild process, but some money also goes towards the infrastructure of the building and everything inside. It takes more than just parts to rebuild a steam engine, says Beams. “This building was built in 1903. The Rock Island railroad built this, and this is their original steam erecting shop. There was a roundhouse out back, a turn table and everything and it’s really something now to be bringing steam back into an old steam shop and rebuild it now.”

The project is going to take work, time and money, but it’s all worth it, says Beams. “It’s going to really be something to start rebuilding steam engines back in an old steam stop that you know has had steam in it in quite a long time and we’re going to be putting the turn table back in, building the roundhouse. We’re stepping back in time with the building and everything and the property and taking it back to the steam era.”