A whistle stop in Worthington

WORTHINGTON -- The train was late, but its tardiness didn't diminish the crowd that gathered at Worthington's train depot Wednesday morning. Hundreds of people maintained their vigil along the tracks, looking for the first signs of the steam loco...

WORTHINGTON -- The train was late, but its tardiness didn't diminish the crowd that gathered at Worthington's train depot Wednesday morning. Hundreds of people maintained their vigil along the tracks, looking for the first signs of the steam locomotive's arrival as it rounded the bend.

The Union Pacific Railroad's Challenger No. 2958, the world's largest operating steam locomotive, made a whistle stop in Worthington as part of a five-state, 1,700-mile tour celebrating railroad heritage. After an overnight stay in St. James, it headed to Worthington but was delayed by a slow stretch of track and an unscheduled stop in Butterfield, where some school children had gathered.

Meanwhile, the crowd in Worthington patiently waited, giving some a chance to talk about the days when passenger trains were a common sight. Walter Willey of rural Worthington had many relatives who worked on the railroad, and he recalled the days when the depot's lunch counter was a bustling place, filled with hungry disembarking passengers, and there were also non-paying passengers -- hobos who rode the rails.

"The cars would be open, and you could see the bums with their feet hanging out," he described.

When it became obvious the train would be more than a few minutes late, Bill Hoevet of Worthington called to reschedule an appointment. He wasn't about to miss seeing the same type of train upon which his mother, Eunice Peterson Hoevet, once worked.


"She was a nurse stewardess," Bill explained. "I think she was one of the original ones in the system, although they might have had them out east before that."

He and wife Judi have a collection of memorabilia from the time in the 1930s when Eunice served aboard the Challenger series of trains, based out of Omaha, Neb. The railroad hired nurses so they could help mothers with children and be trained for emergencies.

"She'd go to Los Angeles on one, have a layover, then a couple days later, a different one would come out, and she'd take it back," Bill said.

"She even wore a little hat and a UP uniform," added Judy.

While the older generation reminisced about the good ol' days of train travel, there were a lot of younger train aficionados on hand, too. Lucas Larson, 20 months old, came from Sherburn with his grandmother, Lona Larson, to see the big train in person. Like many tykes his age, Lucas is enamored of trains and plans to dress up as Thomas the Tank Engine for Halloween.

"Train on the track," said Lucas over and over again as he waited its appearance. "Toot, toot!"

Finally, in a cloud of steam, the massive engine pulled into the station as the spectators jockeyed for the best picture-taking angle. At its helm was Lynn Nystrom, a native of Rock Rapids, Iowa, who serves as engineer.

"I left Rock Rapids in 1958 and went into the service," Nystrom said. "After I got out, I applied for a policeman job in Worthington, but wound up being a policeman in Albert Lea instead. But I had the railroad in my blood."


Nystrom has now worked for the railroad for more than 30 years and was one of the UP employees responsible for restoring Challenger 3958, about a three-year process. Nystrom has been an engineer with the heritage fleet since 1991, and his wife, Mary, serves as concessions coordinator, so they ride the rails together.

"This is basically why I didn't retire," he said, looking around at the assembled crowd. "I'm having too much fun. ... It beats working for a living."

The Nystroms live in Cheyenne, Wyo., where Challenger 3958 is based. The train makes three to five tours a year, varying in length from five days to three weeks. They will return home from this trip on Oct. 9 and stay put through the winter months.

For this excursion, the Challenger locomotive was pulling nine cars, including a souvenir car that Nystrom refers to as the "rolling Kmart." Souvenir sales help to fund the train's expeditions, he explained.

The two cars behind the locomotive carry water -- 28,000 gallons apiece -- while there's room in the locomotive for more water and 6,000 gallons of fuel. It can burn 50 gallons of fuel per mile and use 200 to 300 gallons of water per mile. It's hardly an efficient mode of travel, but Nystrom and the others involved with the antique train feel it's worth it, especially when people turn out like they did in Worthington.

"This is the only Challenger running," Nystrom said with pride. "There are two left in the world, but the other one is in a park."

Hoping to make up time, the Challenger was soon on its way south to its next stop in Sheldon, Iowa, leaving Worthington behind in the same manner in which it arrived -- with a big puff of steam.

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