by Dak Dillon/photos by the author
While an impending shutdown of steam operations for a federally mandated inspection and rebuild would signal a slowdown for many excursion railroads, for Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad it marked a year of growth and the beginning of a significant renewal of operations and equipment.
Track improvements, passenger car upgrades, and the final runs (at least for awhile) of the only operating steam locomotive in Kansas helped the organization have a banner year, with visitors coming from more than 40 states and 10 foreign countries to the middle of the state’s Flint Hills.
Formed in 1993, Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad operates a mix of historic equipment and motive power on former Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific track between Abilene and Enterprise, Kan. The route meanders five miles along the former Herington-Salina Subdivision of Rock Island across crop fields and pastoral rural landscapes before crossing the Smoky Hill River to begin the uphill climb into Enterprise, where the train stops for passengers to disembark at an operating grist mill. Without a turntable or wye, the engine runs around the consist in Enterprise to pull the train back to Abilene. With limited track speed, the entire journey takes passengers about two hours.
ABOVE: Ric Jung removes the chains from Santa Fe 3415 ahead of its morning passenger excursions on September 3, 2022. The chains are used when the engine is stopped, with one placed on each side of one driver to keep it from rolling.
An ex-Hutchinson Northern Railroad Alco S-1 diesel-electric locomotive provides power for some excursions, with the railroad’s consist featuring open-sided gondolas, a Union Pacific caboose, and even a wooden Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad passenger car from 1902. But for most visitors, the star attraction has been Santa Fe 3415, a 4-6-2 Pacific-type steam locomotive built in June 1919 by Baldwin Locomotive Works for Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe.
Wearing builder’s plate number 51861 and tarnished from nearly 103 years of service and display, the 3415 has seen better days and has plenty of character — but that didn’t stop tourists from coming to see its final-for-now season. The locomotive drew an average of 500 riders to Abilene for each weekend of steam operations in 2022, with nearly 700 for the final weekend in October.
A 3400-class locomotive, Santa Fe 3415 was one of the last Pacifics purchased by the railroad, and was designed to pull passenger trains such as the Chief at speeds of up to 65 mph or more. The class primarily worked on routes such as Kansas City, Mo.–La Junta, Colo., and Newton, Kan.–Galveston, Texas. In the later years of its operation, however, the engine was switched mainly to freight and mail duty, with diesels favored for passenger service.
ABOVE: The 3415 heads eastbound toward the Jeep Road crossing outside Abilene on its final run of the day with a dinner train on September 3, 2022.
Initially coal-fired, Santa Fe 3415 was converted (along with the rest of the 3400 class) to burn oil in 1931, which it still does today. The railroad officially retired the engine in 1954 and placed it on static display in Abilene’s Eisenhower Park, named after the city’s other famous resident, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The engine would sit there for some 40 years until the city began redevelopment of the park in 1996, prompting the donation to the recently formed Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad organization. Under new ownership, the engine would sit again as a static display outside the organization’s historic Rock Island depot. In 2005, the decision was made to restore the engine to operating condition, a process that took four years and 12,000 volunteer hours and would ultimately lead to the locomotive’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places…