By Thomas Dyrek
For the third time in a row, Nickel Plate Road 765, arguably the best known steam locomotive east of the Mississippi, has completed a successful season of excursion trips in Chicagoland and on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in Ohio. Since 1980, the locomotive has made many appearances at various railroad events and has pulled several mainline excursion trips. Since 2016, the locomotive’s owners, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, have partnered with Metra Commuter Rail of Chicago to run excursion trips, the first one being in 2016, operating between Chicago and Janesville, WI and return. This was an all day trip, and both FWRHS and Metra decided that it would be better to do multiple trips a day instead of just one. Their solution: the Joliet Rocket.
The Joliet Rocket was set to run over the former Rock Island Railroad between Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station and Joliet, a line that had not seen any steam since a 1973 run with Southern 4501. The train would run northbound out of Joliet with the 765 on the point once in the morning, and once again in the afternoon. It would stay at LaSalle Street Station for a couple hours for a small festival held at the station, then return to Joliet with a diesel locomotive provided by Metra leading, since there is no place to turn the steam locomotive around.
The excursion was scheduled for Father’s Day weekend, 2017. The 765 deadheaded from Fort Wayne to Chicago on Thursday, and the train was assembled and prepared on Friday. The first trip was scheduled to leave Joliet at 9:30 AM on Saturday, and my father and I had the privilege of riding it. The train pulled into the Joliet station a few minutes late, and all the passengers rushed aboard the train to avoid a further delay.
Before long, the 765 whistled off and we accelerated out of Joliet. The train sped up to around 60 miles an hour and maintained that speed for a majority of the trip. Many of the excursionists packed into the car vestibules to get some fresh air, hear the stack talk and maybe swallow a few cinders. I had never rode a mainline steam trip before, and as soon as I stuck my head out the side of the car, the smell of burning coal, the sound of the 765’s Nathan 6 chime whistle, and the sight of crowds of people standing trackside became a memory that I will never forget.
The 765 whizzed through the southern suburbs of the Windy City before beginning to slow down for the approach to LaSalle Street Station. Because the train was too long to fit onto one platform, it was split in half and the diesel shoved the second half onto a track next to the steam locomotive. We detrained to be welcomed by 1940’s music being performed by the Farmland Jazz Band, fresh sandwiches and brownies, and the loud hissing of the grease gun that was being used to lubricate the locomotive.
After enjoying our lunch, we wandered down to the end of the platform to get set up for a photo runby. After a few regularly scheduled Metra trains departed and arrived, the 765 backed out of the station, waited for one more train to depart, and then put on a spectacular show as it chuffed (more like thundered!) back into the station.
All too soon, we boarded the train and the diesel towed us out of Chicago as the sound of the band playing Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” faded into the distance—a very fitting song for the end of a great steam excursion! When we arrived back in Joliet, my dad and I decided to hurry to the Mokena Metra station a few miles ahead to watch the second trip of the day go by. When we got there, a crowd had already formed and we spent 15 minutes or so trying to find a place that had little to no people.
Shortly after we found our spot, the unmistakable sound of a steam whistle echoed in the distance, and a smudge of smoke appeared over the horizon, followed by a headlight. Then, the 765 showed us what its builders at the Lima Locomotive Works intended it to do. The locomotive flew past us at an incredible rate of speed–my dad guessed at least 65, I believed it was pushing 70. Whatever speed it was going, it was fast. (No wonder the Nickel Plate painted “High Speed Service” on their cabooses.) Before any of the onlookers knew it, the train was gone, continuing its speedy journey to Chicago.
The 765 deadheaded back to Fort Wayne the following Monday. My dad and I took a trip out to the FWRHS facility to see it that winter in a much more relaxed setting, and a volunteer there told us that they were talking about doing the Joliet Rocket again the next year. Sure enough, the 2018 excursion schedule included another trip to Joliet in September. This year, my dad and I decided that it would be much more fun to chase the train instead of riding it, so we invited a few of our railfan buddies to spend the weekend with us watching the 765 from the ground.
Our first encounter with the 765 was the Saturday morning trip. We were set up at the Mokena-Hickory Creek Metra station, and soon the 765 came into view. It was going a lot slower than before, but it still put on quite the show as it trundled past. The train disappeared into the distance and we decided to go to New Lenox to watch the return trip. Once again, the train came, but going much slower than the year before. Slightly disappointed by the speed, we went back to Mokena for the second run of the day. We waited for the better part of an hour before the train, running several minutes late, came into view.
A lot of people complain about late trains, but this time it was a good thing, at least for us. The engineer was in a hurry to make up lost time, so the 765 blew past us at track speed. Now this was the Joliet Rocket that I remembered. Whistle blowing, throttle wide open, and crew waving, the train was no more than a dot on the horizon within sixty seconds or so. The 765 left me, my dad, and our railfan buddies in a minor state of shock, but the subsequent applauding by the onlookers on the platform snapped us out of it and we headed home with big smiles on our faces and full memory cards in our cameras.
After the Joliet Rocket trips, the 765 went to the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for a couple weeks and returned home to Fort Wayne. One can hope that the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society’s partnership with Metra will continue for years to come and that the 765 can be enjoyed by future generations. The FWRHS is no doubt a professional operation and certainly railfans young and old are eagerly waiting for the 765’s 2019 schedule to be published.
Looking back at our experience, my dad and I both agreed that the FWRHS’ advertisement for the 765 was right. It truly is a time machine.