Southern Pacific Railroad Engine #1673 rolled out of New York's Schenectady Locomotive Works in November of 1900, bound for Arizona. Twelve years later, Constant "Connie" Weinzapfel was born in Tucson. Over the next 85 years, the paths of the engine and the longtime railroad engineer would cross many times.
Locomotive #1673 is a mogul 2-6-0 type engine, built to haul freight. According to one author, the name probably came from the moguls of India, since "both personified power."
At first, #1673 burned coal, but in 1905 it was converted to oil. By that time, 33 mogul railroad engines were being operated in Southern Arizona.
Connie Weinzapfel was born into a railroad family. His father, Michael Charles, or M.C., worked for the Illinois Central railroad company for seven years before moving west in 1911 for his wife's health. Over the next 39 years he would be both a fireman and engineer for Southern Pacific.
It was during this period that the Weinzapfel family first encountered Locomotive #1673. Connie's father operated the engine to haul perishables, part of the 1 million miles of service it would put in for the railroad company.
At 65 tons, with a 30-ton tender attached, the engine is well suited for some of the secondary rail routes found throughout Southern Arizona. These lines, such as those south of Benson, were where #1673 put in much of its time.
Meanwhile, by the early 1930s, Connie Weinzapfel was beginning to make a name for himself on the local sports scene. As a starting basketball player for Tucson High, he was described as "a constant threat at back guard."
After high school, Connie gave up an athletic career because the academic requirements of college concerned him. Plus, he was marrying Rilla Mae McGuire, the daughter of a railroad man. They took their honeymoon in a Model A Ford, a car Connie still owned and adored almost 65 years later.
The couple resided in downtown's Armory Park neighborhood, an area predominately occupied by railroad households. The Weinzapfel family had lived nearby at the time of Connie's birth, and he would stay in the neighborhood his entire life, always fighting to preserve the area's historic integrity.
While in high school, Connie had a job delivering ice to homes and businesses, including those in downtown's infamous red light district. After he graduated, for a few years he worked at several downtown theaters, including as the assistant manager of the Fox, earning $25 a week.
Then in 1937, Connie hired on with the railroad, a job he had long cherished. "As I grew up I always wanted to be what my father was," Connie told the Arizona Historical Society in 1984. "I said from the day I was born, or the first day I can remember, that I wanted to be a locomotive man."
Connie first had to learn how to "fire" a steam engine. Over 45 days of unpaid instruction in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, he was taught the trade. When his apprenticeship was up, he signed on as a paid fireman for the Southern Pacific Company on June 18, 1937.
Life for a railroad man in those days was not glamorous, or easy. Years later Connie remembered, "I spent 272 days in the first year out of town, away from my family. The second year was 243 days." Then he added, "That was one of the hardest things in the world. You couldn't plan anything with your family. You couldn't say, 'I'm going to be in for your birthday.' ... My wife was--I mean she carried a cross. It was wonderful, you know, to raise three kids like she did, because they could never plan on me. She had to do it all."
By 1943, Connie Weinzapfel had become a railroad engineer, just like he said he wanted to be. And why not, because according to Connie, "The second most sought-after, thought-of job in the United States was the locomotive engineer. President was first ... you wanted to be president or else you wanted to be a locomotive engineer."
His affection for steam engines was obvious. Connie would always say of them, "It was a live thing, it was hot as a firecracker." He remembered years later, "When we were segregating cars, we call it 'kicking' cars, I mean, you put up a heavy steam and go 'ch, ch, ch, ch, boom,' and away the cars would go, kicking cars. So I loved it. I mean, I loved to run a steam engine."
It took skill to be a railroad engineer and operate a steam locomotive. In Connie's opinion, it required "two good hands and a little bit of head. ... You don't learn the skill overnight. It takes three years."
But operating a steam engine wasn't without its problems. As Connie recalled in 1984, "The only thing I didn't like about the steam engine is you had a lot of trouble with the gassing of the engine, or if you didn't set the fire right, or if the wind blew, it would blow your fire out--if you didn't have your oil right. That was the great problem, gassing; if you didn't have a good fire it was a great challenge. I mean, you always had to worry about getting blowed up."
LOCOMOTIVE #1673 GOT TO meet Connie Weinzapfel in the late 1940s when the two of them operated a route south from Benson for three months. Three days a week they would haul items such as cattle, foodstuffs and dynamite from a plant at Curtis, Ariz., and feed for the cavalry horses at Fort Huachuca. On three other days they would make the 16-hour round trip to Patagonia via Elgin.
The small community of Elgin was to play a major role in the history of the locomotive a few years later. In 1954, Hollywood decided to film the musical Oklahoma in the area and needed a way to get supplies and equipment to the site, a job the railroad could help with.
Shooting began on the $6 million production in July and a cast and crew of 280 along with 100 extras was assembled. But the film needed an operating steam engine in one scene, so Locomotive #1673 served that function also, after being gussied up to look more authentic by adding a decorative smoke stack and a wooden cowcatcher. While actors sang about everything being up to date in Kansas City, a steam-spewing #1673 sat at the fictitious depot of Claremore in Oklahoma.
Everything, of course, was not up to date with steam engines by that time. Diesel-powered locomotives were replacing them all over the country and the romantic era of steam was coming to a close. Where once there had been 65,000 steam engines in the U.S., by the mid-1950s only a few thousand remained. As Connie Weinzapfel said of the transition to diesel, "I hated to see the steam engines go. ... With a diesel, there's no noise, there's no nothing."
While most steam engines were being turned into scrap metal, the fate of Locomotive #1673 was fortunately different. In early 1954, railroad man and Tucson City Council representative Louis Menager wrote, "Considering the fact that steam locomotives have just about gone out of existence and will soon be past history," he proposed that the city obtain a engine for a "permanent display of a relic steam locomotive" in some city park.
This idea was a natural, since Southern Pacific had first arrived in Tucson in 1880 when the remote and isolated community had 7,000 residents. Seventy-five years later, the company was responsible for almost 2,700 local jobs with a payroll of $13 million. And, as the Tucson Daily Citizen noted, "Tucson and the Southern Pacific have come a long way in the three-quarter-century span. ... And what has happened to the little frontier town is as obvious as the contrast between old Engine No. 1673 and the big, sleek diesels which now whirr through every day."
Menager suggested to Southern Pacific Railroad officials that Shop Dinkey engine 564 would be satisfactory to meet the community's needs. After some reluctance to cooperate at all, the company instead decided to present Locomotive #1673 to the city as a Christmas present. At a small ceremony, Southern Pacific's Tucson division superintendent, G.A. Bays, said, "We have the children of Tucson particularly in mind and we hope that for many years this engine will be a demonstration to them of what railroading was like before the diesels replaced steam engines."
But a locomotive that had been in the movies and was one of the last operating steam engines in Tucson deserved a bigger send-off than that. It got it on March 20, 1955.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the railroad to Tucson, a great celebration was held at the train depot on Toole Avenue. There were displays of new railroading equipment, a model train set and free rides in 1880s-vintage cars pulled by #1673, "last of the steam engines."
Despite cold, wet, windy weather, an estimated 10,000 people turned out for the event. The highlight of the day came when a deed for the locomotive was presented to Tucson Mayor Fred Emery, who in turn gave it to Nelson Bledsoe, president of the Arizona Pioneer Historical Society. Bledsoe, according to the next day's newspaper, "promised to keep the engine for all to see at the side of the society's new building [at Second Street and Park Avenue] adjacent to the campus."
Moving the engine there didn't happen quickly. It was June before a crew from Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Company, working under the direction of Roman Weinzapfel, Connie's older brother, relocated the locomotive to its new home. Their services had been donated free of charge by the company president, Mrs. Walter Wakefield.
In 1962, the engine had to be moved again. The Historical Society was expanding and needed the space. The Tucson City Council agreed to pay the approximately $1,800 bill for relocating the engine, this time to Himmel Park on Tucson Boulevard. As the Arizona Daily Star reported, "Councilmen agreed that once the engine gets to Himmel Park it won't be moved again because it may cost more to move it than its worth in junk."
BY THAT TIME, CONNIE Weinzapfel had finished spending months in San Francisco, helping to haul the fill on which Candlestick Park would be built. Back in Arizona, Connie would often operate a train between Tucson and Lordsburg, N.M. In addition to his work on the railroad, Connie was also deeply involved with union activities as part of the Arizona State Legislative Board of Railway Brotherhoods.
As a longtime member of the board, he worked to improve safety conditions, and fought for benefits for employees and the families of people injured or killed on the job. Of this experience, Connie would say, "That was the greatest thing that I ever did. I didn't only help the men, I helped the railroads. Anything that's good for the railroads is good for the men."
Connie, a teetotaler his entire life, also earned a strange nickname during this period. His fellow workers, who gave each other tags such as "Horseface" or "Whistle Prick" or "Squeaky," placed the ironic nom de guerre of "Six Pack" on Connie after an unusual incident. He was in the engine of a train that was at the Golden Eagle company loading beer when a damaged but still drinkable case was placed aboard the caboose as an apparent gift. Connie was later given a six-pack, which he intended to take home for his son-in-law. But police officers intervened, and charged him with theft, a crime for which he suffered a 32-day suspension.
Things didn't go well for Locomotive #1673 throughout the 1960s, either. The City of Tucson, after moving the engine, didn't maintain it, or for a few years even enclose it within a fence to prevent vandalism. By 1979 vandals had even painted over the "Southern Pacific" logo on the engine's tender, replacing it with their own brand of "Southern Comfort" humor.
The engine even left its tracks in the park. According to the Star in 1966, "Young railroad buffs last year put hours and hours of spare time into restoring the old engine to operating condition. The object of the extra work was just to fire her up and clear the cobwebs from her ancient whistle, but the feeling of steam in her boiler and smoke in her stack was a little too much for old 1673. She rolled off the forward end on her track mount and into the chain link fence in front." It would take an entire year before a crew of volunteers managed to secure the equipment to replace the locomotive onto its tracks.
The 1970s saw several attempts to move the rusting and deteriorating engine once again. The first was a proposed relocation to the Pima County Fairgrounds so #1673 could become part of the Museum of Science and Industry located there. Supporters wanted to restore the locomotive's exterior appearance. John Watts of the museum told the Tucson Citizen in 1979, "The city wasn't taking care of the engine. Southern Pacific gave it to Tucson in 1955, and the thing is just rusting away."
Later Watts added, "We plan to have this thing spiffied up just as soon as humanly possible. Once it's ready, anyone can go up into the cab, sit in the engineer's seat, ring the bell, blow the whistle and operate the gears. The only thing it won't do is move."
Watts was correct in that last assessment. Despite the museum having arranged for the move, the Tucson City Council rejected the idea by a 4-2 margin. Tom Volgy, who represented the central part of town, complained there had been enough problems in the area without losing the historic locomotive. "Now they want to take our choo-choo train away," Volgy said in opposition to moving the engine.
Instead, Volgy proposed relocating the engine back downtown, to sit next to La Placita Village on Broadway Boulevard. It could be done, he thought, in time to mark the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the railroad in Tucson, which would be celebrated in March of 1980. But that move didn't happen. either.
ALSO STAYING PUT WAS Connie Weinzapfel. He thought of retiring when he turned 65 in 1977, but by then his wife, Rilla, had cancer. He kept working to retain his medical coverage so she could receive treatment. Plus, as Connie always said, "I'm a crazy guy 'cause I love my job."
Old steam engine #1673 didn't make it downtown for the centennial of the arrival of the railroad to Tucson. Connie did, however, and told about 100 people celebrating the occasion, "A steam engine to us was a living thing. It was singing to you all the time. Today's locomotive is dead."
A few years later, a group of local rail enthusiasts looked at bringing #1673 back from the dead. In May of 1984, they thoroughly inspected the engine including its boiler, trying to see if it could be placed back into operation for a tourist train between Tucson and Nogales. Their recommendation was "that an entirely new boiler be fabricated for this locomotive as a part of any general rebuild." The estimated cost of doing that, along with rebuilding the engine's running gear and the tender, was between $540,000 and $800,000.
Assuming these funds couldn't be raised, the group suggested a different approach. They proposed a cosmetic restoration of the engine, followed by the development "of an appropriate setting and environment for display of the locomotive." Nothing, however, came of this idea, and #1673 continued to slowly rust away in Himmel Park.
By November of 1987, Connie Weinzapfel's half century of working for the railroad was coming to an end. Rilla, his wife of 53 years, had died in September and Connie was finally ready to retire.
On Thanksgiving Day he got a sendoff covered by the local media and told them it was an appropriate day, since he had so much to be thankful for. A few months later a large reception was held in Connie's honor at the Arizona Historical Society, where he was presented a plaque "for his years of work in preserving the history of the city and the railroad."
But Connie's preservation work wasn't finished. His beloved Model A was in his back yard, unrestored. Plus, Locomotive #1673 still sat in Himmel Park, a rusting relic of its once proud past.
With the help of other antique car lovers, Connie had his Model A repaired, and even built a new garage for it. To work on the old steam engine, by 1991 he had joined a small group of other concerned citizens who were meeting under the auspices of Tucson City Councilwoman Molly McKasson.
Soon after this group was formed, the City of Tucson was approached by three organizations, all of which wanted to acquire #1673 for themselves. The town of Benson was going to use it as part of a railroad display. The Arizona Railroad Museum in Chandler wanted to add the engine to its collection. A private railroad restoration company also expressed interest.
Connie Weinzapfel's response to these requests was that Locomotive #1673 "belongs right here. It belongs to the people of Tucson." The Tucson City Council agreed, and in March of 1992 appointed Connie and several other volunteers to a Locomotive #1673 task force. The group was given two jobs: restore the exterior of the locomotive and eventually relocate it back downtown.
THE TASK FORCE FIRST HAD the engine listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Of the 355 mogul 2-6-0 engines ever built, only seven remained, thus making #1673 a special piece of history.
The group then secured grant money from the Arizona Heritage Fund, financial assistance from both the Tucson/Pima County Historical Commission and the City of Tucson, and dozens of small contributions before arranging for the locomotive to be sand blasted and repainted. Prior to that, the members of the task force spent hundreds of volunteer hours preparing the engine for restoration, including placing a new metal cowcatcher on it, the parts for which had come from Connie's old garage.
The restoration work was completed in early 1994 and on March 20 of that year an unveiling ceremony of the newly repainted Locomotive #1673 was held. Eighty-one-year-old Connie Weinzapfel was beaming proudly that Sunday morning. Wearing his traditional outfit of denim bib overalls, a denim jacket along with a stripped engineer's cap and a trusty pocket watch, Connie still looked like he could hop into the cab of the engine and fire her up. With an impish grin on his face and a sparkle in his eyes, he talked of his beloved steam engines for as long as people wanted to listen.
But time was starting to catch up with Connie. As he wrote in his 1995 Christmas letter, "It's harder now to remember things like I used to, but I'll keep working at it as long as I've got the steam. I've fixed up so many broken down things in my time, now that I'm 83, I've got to remember that the thing that needs some fixing is me."
Despite that, as the task force debated moving the engine back downtown, Connie remained adamant. He wanted to see the locomotive returned to the former Southern Pacific depot.
By the fall of 1996, Connie's health was declining. In October, a group of his friends accompanied him on his last train trip. The tourist train out of Benson ran along the same line where he had operated Locomotive #1673 50 years before. The train might not have been pulled by a steam engine, but on a sunny autumn day with the trees along the San Pedro River turning color, Connie had a wonderful time.
The engineer passed away on March 19, 1998, just one day before the 118th anniversary of the arrival of the railroad in Tucson. He missed seeing the City of Tucson finance a $50,000 relocation of the locomotive back downtown last December. He also won't be here for this summer's planned construction of a display area around the locomotive, to be paid for in part by a $32,600 "Back-to-Basics" grant from Mayor Bob Walkup. But it is in Connie's memory, and that of all the other men and women who worked during the romantic steam era of the railroad, that the project has gone forward.
The plans for the new locomotive display area will be announced on Tuesday, March 20, at 11 a.m. at the downtown train depot, 400 E. Toole Ave. The public is invited to attend.