October 06, 1975 12:00 PM

It is just before dawn in Sioux Falls, S.Dak., and Steam Engine 4449 is hissing with energy and belching white steam. A stocky, cigar-chomping engineer in overalls, red bandana and polka-dot cap oils an 80-inch wheel by the light of a brakeman’s lantern and then checks his gold watch. It is almost 5 a.m. as Ross Rowland hefts his 210 pounds up into the cab of the locomotive and hollers, “Let’s highball ‘er!” Rowland’s Bicentennial gift to the country, the American Freedom Train, has begun yet another day on its two-year, 17,000-mile journey across the U.S.

That Rowland should actually have his hands on the throttle is a boyhood dream come true. Most weekday mornings, Rowland, who lives with his wife, Doris, and their three children in Bernardsville, N.J., rises at a slightly more civilized 7 a.m. He takes a different train ride—the commuter special into Manhattan—where he makes a handsome living trading gold and silver futures on Wall Street. Though Rowland, 35, has prospered, he has never relinquished his early goal—to be, like his grandfather, a real steam locomotive engineer.

To indulge his passion, Rowland bought a Pullman and then a dining car before founding High Iron Company, a club of like-minded railroad buffs. In 1969, 100 years after the event, High Iron put together enough rolling stock to recreate the New York to Salt Lake City segment of the first transcontinental railroad linkup.

The red-white-and-blue-striped Freedom Train is a far more ambitious project. Of the 25 cars, mostly refurbished baggage cars, 12 are mini-museums carrying such diverse bits of Americana as the baseball that Hank Aaron hit to set his record of 714 home runs, George Washington’s hand-notated draft of the Articles of Confederation, a chunk of moon rock, Robert Redford’s suit from The Sting and the manuscript of Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic.

The Freedom Train almost never left the roundhouse. Even though Rowland sank $200,000 of his own money into the project, it foundered. To get the train moving, four corporations—General Motors, Kraft Foods, Pepsi-Cola and the Prudential Insurance Company of America—contributed $1 million apiece. The train was threatened with derailment again when an accusation that the sponsoring companies would make a profit touched off a congressional audit. The companies were quickly cleared.

So far, more than two million visitors in 18 states have visited the train at $2 a head. They move along the cars on a conveyer belt, listening to a recorded narration of the exhibits. The trip through 200 years of America’s history lasts 21 minutes, and an estimated 40 million will take it before the train grinds to a halt April 1, 1977.

Chances are the Freedom Train will still end up in the red. But that doesn’t bother the man at the controls. “He is an anachronism,” says Bob Rowland of his brother Ross. “He was going broke with this thing and it was really bad business. But he said it was good for America. He’s just a very old-fashioned patriot who loves trains. Kinda nutty.”

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