I stood beside the railroad tracks in the heat of the Texas summer, listening intently for the distinctive sound of a steam locomotive. Other than the cicadas chirping from the nearby mesquite trees, I couldn’t register anything out of the ordinary. I closed my eyes to heighten my sense of hearing – still nothing.
Suddenly the harsh dinging of a railroad crossing bell broke the silence. I flinched reflexively as the candy-striped mechanical arm descended to block the road a few steps away from me. It wouldn’t be long now.
Moments later, a metallic whine began emanating from the tracks to my right. The high-pitched sound of the vibrating steel railhead grew slowly more pronounced. Turning to look down the line, a faint glimmer of light caught my eye: The pulsing headlight of a vintage 4-8-8-4 steam locomotive had appeared on the horizon.
As it rounded a distant curve, the passenger cars trailing behind it came into view, curiously distorted by the heat waves that hung low over the roadbed. The wail of the locomotive’s whistle rang through the air, and steam exploded from the machine’s cast iron valves with a deafening hiss. I stepped back from the tracks and watched the steel colossus barrel by at track speed, the warmth of its boiler cutting through the ambient heat of the muggy August day.
The engine’s massive driving rods chugged back and forth repeatedly, propelling the old beast down the tracks. The locomotive’s tender followed immediately behind, its large white Union Pacific lettering passing in a blur. Then, almost as quickly as it appeared, the locomotive – Union Pacific 4014, the largest operating steam locomotive in the world – and its string of streamlined passenger cars disappeared around a bend.
Union Pacific 4014 was one of 25 4-8-8-4 steam locomotives, dubbed Big Boys, manufactured by the American Locomotive Company between 1941 and 1944. (The 4-8-8-4 designation identifies the locomotives’ wheel arrangement, which consists of a four-wheel leading truck, two sets of eight driving wheels and a four-wheel trailing truck.) Weighing a staggering 600 tons, the 132-foot-long behemoth is a living, breathing testament to the mechanical genius of its era.
Unlike passenger locomotives belonging to competing railroads, Union Pacific’s steam engines would forgo streamlining, instead roaming the rails with their jumble of gears, steam hoses and boiler rivets exposed to the public eye. As a result, the Big Boy broadcasts an aesthetic of efficiency, toughness and sheer brutality.
Union Pacific 4014 was returned to service in 2019 after a multiyear restoration, but the pandemic forced the cancellation of its 2020 tour. So when its new schedule was announced in 2021, a certain corner of the internet was set abuzz.
The tour would span 34 days and stretch through 10 states in the Midwest and the South. Major publicity stops were planned in St. Louis, Fort Worth, New Orleans and Denver, among other cities. And the Big Boy would make dozens of brief whistle stops in small trackside towns along the way.
And so it was that in August 2021 I joined the crowd of rail enthusiasts following Union Pacific 4014 to Fort Worth. The Big Boy sat on static display as thousands of spectators filed into a gravel lot near the city’s Amtrak station. Youngsters – many of them dressed in engineer overalls and pinstripe caps – tugged at their parents’ arms in excitement. A steady parade of modern diesel locomotives passed by on adjacent tracks, their engineers and conductors leaning out the windows of their own cabs to get a better look at the mighty relic of yesteryear.
Early the next morning, a smaller crowd of die-hard rail fans turned out to witness Union Pacific 4014 depart for points south. Billowing clouds of steam escaped from each side of the locomotive as a plume of thick black smoke rose into the cool morning air. With Big Boy starting to gain speed, a deep, mournful blast escaped from its whistle, bidding Cowtown farewell. As it passed, the crowd of spectators quickly dispersed – and the chase was on.
Over the course of the next eight hours, I joined a convoy of fellow train enthusiasts, all of us leapfrogging from town to town in an attempt to witness the magnificent steam engine pass by as many times as possible. After a few minutes at each whistle stop, Big Boy steamed off the line to its next destination. Without fail, scores of onlookers swarmed the vacated tracks as soon as the last passenger car rolled by. They scanned the railroad ties in search of the pennies, nickels and dimes that they’d placed on the tracks to be flattened by the steam locomotive’s wheels.
For many Americans, encountering a train is merely an inconvenience. Freight trains can block road crossings for long stretches at a time; their loud horns can be heard at all hours of the night; occasionally they even derail in a terrifying fashion. Never mind the fact that many of our consumer goods are moved by rail at some point, or that vital raw materials – steel, lumber, sand, petroleum products – as well as produce and other perishables are commonly transported on our nation’s freight rail system.
And yet, even to nonenthusiasts, there’s something mesmerizing about witnessing this particular locomotive – though I struggle to explain exactly why that is. Perhaps Union Pacific 4014 reminds us of a time when our communities were more connected with one another. During the golden era of railroading, after all, practically every major city and town in the United States was linked by passenger railroad. And in those days a town’s train station might have acted as the social hub of the community: It was where the day’s mail arrived, where telegraph operators sent and received messages from around the world, where loved ones shared teary goodbyes and joyful hugs of reunion , where marching bands escorted parades of fighting men as they marched off to participate in two world wars in as many generations – and where they returned home, both the living and the dead.
Perhaps the Big Boy’s draw is more closely tied to the sense of awe one feels at our collective ability to harness simple elements like water, fire and carbon with such ruthless and graceful efficiency. Or maybe beholding steam locomotives like Union Pacific 4014 simply reminds us of the wide-eyed wonders of childhood, long since dulled by the seemingly endless demands of grown-up life.
Whatever the case, personification seems to come naturally to these machines that move rhythmically and breathe steam – machines that will likely outlive most of the people who designed, constructed, maintained, operated and marveled over them.
My day in Texas ended at a former Southern Pacific rail yard some 25 miles north of College Station, where, as usual, a sizable crowd had gathered to watch the impressive train pull into town. Traffic on neighboring roads slowed to a crawl as motorists craned their necks for a view of the locomotive.
Big Boy let out a cloud of steam as it slowed to a stop just shy of a highway overpass. A few dozen onlookers climbed up the concrete embankment of the overpass to snap photos. Before long a local police officer showed up on the scene. Apparently annoyed by the traffic jam snarling the otherwise quiet town, he began shouting orders for the crowd to disperse.
It quickly became evident, though, that the die-hard train enthusiasts had no plans to comply. One gentleman turned to the officer and delivered a plea for mercy: The crowd wasn’t blocking traffic, nor were they doing anything illegal, he argued. Others in the group nodded their heads and echoed the same message. Sensing that the group of spectators wasn’t going anywhere, the officer gave up and walked back to his squad car in defeat. A cheer went up from the crowd before they turned their attention back to the star of the show.