Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2021

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C’mon baby: Do the Locomotion

There are only three 19th century American Standard steam locomotives remaining in the world.

One is housed in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.

Another is in the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

The third sits in Dan Markoff's backyard.

"I wanted to keep a piece of Nevada history alive," says Markoff, 50, a Las Vegas trial lawyer, former UNLV history major and Nevada native whose unique locomotive is the focus of a new documentary, "Eureka's Incredible Journey," which airs at 8 tonight on KLVX Channel 10.

Markoff rescued the 123-year old Eureka & Palisade Railroad Locomotive No. 4 from the scrap heap in 1986, and has spent much of his free time and energy since then restoring it to its original condition.

"God knows, Las Vegas is known for tearing things down that are historical," Markoff says. "Well, here's once instance where we didn't tear something down."

Why is it so "incredible" when the Eureka takes a trip? Because the Eureka is the only train of the three which is in working condition.

"It's not the little engine that could," Markoff notes proudly in the film. "It's the little engine that did."

The 50-minute documentary of the trip along Colorado's Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad line is not the first time the train has graced the screen: The Eureka was used in numerous Western flicks, including "The Shootist," John Wayne's last film, in 1976, and Ken Burns' 1996 PBS documentary "The West," and will appear in an upcoming episode of the Learning Channel series "Extreme Machines."

The Eureka has had quite a storied past: Saved from the salvage yard twice, it is now listed on the U.S. Park Service's National Historical Register.

But it took a roundabout route before ending up in Markoff's hands.

Built in Philadelphia in 1875 by Baldwin Locomotive Works, the locomotive began its life as an ornate freight and passenger train, traveling between the northern Nevada mining towns of Eureka and Palisade. It was sold in 1896 to tote lumber in the Sierra Nevadas, then abandoned in 1938 and rescued from a San Francisco chopping block by Warner Brothers Studios, which used the train for the next four decades in films starring Jimmy Cagney, James Stewart and James Garner.

Eventually, the Eureka ended up back in Nevada when it was sold to Old Vegas, the Western theme park that ran in Las Vegas from the late '70s to 1986. The bankrupt park suffered a fire that toppled the building the Eureka was housed in, nearly destroying the train.

"When I saw it burned up in a fire, it was a pile of junk," Markoff recalls. "Something clicked in my head. I thought (that) if nobody else cares about this thing, at least I would.

"It's not that I was a railroad fan," he adds. "I enjoyed them, but I never in my wildest dreams thought I would end up living with one. And I had no idea at the time there were only three of these things left."

Markoff's initial plan was simply to restore the train exactly to its original specifications. However, it was not a simple task. Re-installing the walnut wood paneling and painstakingly applying the 23-karat gold leaf lettering ended up taking him six years.

"H.G. Wells would have been proud," he says. "It is a time machine."

In 1991, the California State Railroad Museum invited the Eureka to appear at its "Railfair" festival, where approximately 250,000 people viewed the train.

But merely restoring and displaying the engine wasn't enough. It was time for the Eureka to ride the rails again.

In 1992, the town of Eureka invited Markoff to dsiplay the train and run it on tracks they set up. A year later, he flexed her muscles further, taking the locomotive for break-in runs along the Gypsum Railroad tracks in Southern California.

By 1995, the offers were piling up, as various railroad lines began inviting him to run the train as publicty stunts. Even the United Kingdom's Isle of Man has contacted Markoff about bringing the Eureka over there for a run.

Despite the prospect of derailment or some other catastrophe by taking the one-of-a-kind train out for a ride, Markoff has found the risk is worth it.

"It's the little things," he says rhapsodically. "When you go along and the engine's rhythm becomes like music, when you see the little sparks coming out of the stack and winking out as they go behind you, when you look back at the train and see the oil lamps on the cars. It's magical. You cannot tell the difference between 100 some years ago and today. You lose all sense that you're in any period that's modern."

In order to preserve one of these outings for posterity, Markoff and the railroad companies helped provide the financing for filmmaker David Bowyer and his crew to come along and create a record of the 10-day trip last June from Antonito, Colo., to Chama, N.M.

"It's living history," he says, "something you never see except in old black and white photos and Currier & Ives prints. This is an opportunity to see what our state's little contribution was to the transportation world."

In addition to Markoff's crew of volunteers, a separate train carrying 200 fans trailed behind, and fans cheering them on lined the highways along the way.

In the film, the viewer travels with the 44,000-pound Eureka, chugging along (at a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour), passing by railroad landmarks such as the 10,000 foot-high Cumbres Pass, the eerie Phantom Pass, where shadowy figures can be seen in the rocks, and the dimly-lit Rock Tunnel, bored straight through the mountain.

"A lot of tapes on railroading are very linear," Markoff says. "Here comes a train, there goes a train, it's boring as hell. David's has some depth to it, he goes for the story behind it."

Indeed, the film has a little of every plot device: emotion -- when the crew tears up upon reaching the famed Windy Pass; beauty -- with its lush shots of scenic passes and tressel bridges; and even suspense -- will the train's high smokestack clear the low-roofed mountain tunnel safely? (It does.) Will the train squash the herd of cattle that suddenly wanders onto the tracks? (It does not. The only thing that got crushed, in fact, was a film camera set up on the track. "I slammed the throttle shut," Markoff says ruefully, "but you just don't stop these things on a dime.")

The "climax" of the film comes when the crew discovers the wood it is carrying is too "green," or wet for the wood-burning steam engine.

At a standstill in the middle of the desert, things are looking grim, until it gradually dawns on the railroad crew that the wild sagebrush dotting the landscape could provide enough firepower to get the train going again.

As the crew began throwing the sagebrush onto the train, a group of Englishmen from the fan train behind asked what they were doing.

Embarassed to admit they'd run out of good wood, Markoff bluffed to save face. I told them, 'This is a grand old Western railroading tradition,' " he recalls. "Then the whole train got off and started ripping off stuff and helping us out."

Ironically, Markoff points out in the film, the answer was right above their heads the whole time -- the Nevada state flag which was flying on the locomotive features a wreath of sagebrush, the state flower. "Here we were, scratching our heads, and of all things, sagebrush gets us out of a bind," he says, laughing. "Our state flower saved our bacon."

Markoff has no specific plans for the Eureka's future, but the dedicated Nevadan does know one thing.

"I'll tell you this," he says emphatically: "It will never leave Nevada again."