In pursuit of a powerful relic of yesteryear: Union Pacific 4014

I stood beside the train tracks in the heat of the Texas summer, listening intently to the distinctive sound of a steam engine. Other t...


I stood beside the train tracks in the heat of the Texas summer, listening intently to the distinctive sound of a steam engine. Other than the chirping of cicadas from nearby mesquite trees, I couldn’t record anything out of the ordinary. I closed my eyes to increase my sense of hearing – still nothing.

Suddenly, the hoarse ringing of a level crossing bell broke the silence. I flinched in reflex as the candy-striped mechanical arm descended to block the road a few feet away from me. It wouldn’t be long now.

Moments later, a metallic whine began to emanate from the rails to my right. The high-pitched sound of the vibrating steel line head slowly became more pronounced. As I turned to look along the line, a faint flicker of light caught my eye: the flashing headlight of an old 4-8-8-4 steam locomotive had appeared on the horizon.

As he rounded a distant curve, the passenger cars following him appeared, oddly distorted by the heat waves hanging over the platform. The whine of the locomotive’s whistle rang through the air, and steam erupted from the machine’s cast iron valves with a deafening hiss. I pulled away from the rails and watched the steel colossus zoom by at track speed, the heat of its boiler cutting through the ambient heat of the muggy August day.

The motor’s massive drive rods swung back and forth repeatedly, propelling the old beast down the rails. 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 world’s largest operating steam locomotive – and its train of streamlined passenger cars disappeared around a bend.

Union Pacific 4014 was one of 25 4-8-8-4 Steam Locomotivesnicknamed Big Boys, manufactured by the American Locomotive Company between 1941 and 1944. (The designation 4-8-8-4 refers to the wheel arrangement of the locomotives, which consists of a four-wheel truck, two sets four-wheel drive and a four-wheel drag truck.) Weighing in at 600 tons, the 132-foot-long juggernaut is a living, breathing testament to the mechanical genius of its day.

Unlike passenger locomotives owned by competing railroads, Union Pacific’s steam locomotives would forego streamlining, instead roaming the tracks with their jumble of gears, steam pipes and boiler rivets exposed to the eyes of the audience. As a result, the Big Boy radiates an aesthetic of efficiency, tenacity and sheer brutality.

Union Pacific 4014 returned to service in 2019 after a multi-year 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 stirred up.

The tour would span 33 days and span 10 states in the Midwest and South. Major ad 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 at 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 thronged a gravel field near the city’s Amtrak station. The youngsters – many of whom wore engineering coveralls and pinstripe caps – excitedly tugged at their parents’ arms. A steady parade of modern diesel locomotives passed the adjacent tracks, their engineers and drivers leaning out of the windows of their own cabs to get a better look at the mighty relic of yesteryear.

Early the next morning, a small crowd of die-hard rail fans turned out to witness Union Pacific 4014 depart south. Clouds of steam billowed from either side of the locomotive as a plume of thick black smoke rose into the cool morning air. As Big Boy began to pick up speed, a deep, mournful breath escaped his whistle, bidding farewell to Cowtown. As they passed, the crowd of onlookers quickly dispersed – and the chase began.

Over the next eight hours, I joined a convoy of train enthusiasts, each of us hopping from town to town in an attempt to see the magnificent steam engine as many times as possible. After a few minutes with each whistle, Big Boy fled down the line to his next destination. Without fail, dozens of onlookers invaded the freed lanes as soon as the last passenger car passed. They scanned the railroad ties for the pennies, nickels and dimes they had placed on the tracks to be flattened by the wheels of the steam locomotive.

For many Americans, meeting a train is just an inconvenience. Freight trains can block level crossings for long distances at a time; their loud horns can be heard at all hours of the night; sometimes they even derail in terrifying ways. It does not matter that many of our consumer goods are transported by rail at any given time, or that vital raw materials – steel, wood, sand, petroleum products – as well as commodities and other perishables are generally transported on our nation’s freight rail system.

And yet, even for the non-enthusiastic, there’s something fascinating about seeing this particular locomotive – though I’m struggling to explain exactly why. Perhaps the Union Pacific 4014 reminds us of a time when our communities were more connected to each other. During the golden age of the railroad, after all, virtually every major city and town in the United States was connected by a passenger railroad. And in those days, a city’s train station might have served as the social center of the community: it was where the mail of the day arrived, where telegraphers sent and received messages from around the world, where loved ones shared goodbyes tearful tears and happy embraces of reunion. , where marching bands escorted parades of fighters as they left to take part in two world wars in as many generations – and where they returned home, alive and dead.

Perhaps the appeal of the Big Boy 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 efficiency and graceful. Or perhaps gazing at steam locomotives like the Union Pacific 4014 simply reminds us of the wonders of childhood, long dulled by the seemingly endless demands of adult life.

Either way, personification seems to come naturally from these rhythmically moving, steam-breathing machines—machines that will likely outlive most of the people who designed, built, maintained, operated, and marveled at them.

My day in Texas ended at an old South Pacific rail yard about 25 miles north of College Station, where, as usual, a large crowd had gathered to watch the impressive train roll into town. . Traffic on nearby roads slowed to a crawl as motorists craned their necks to see the locomotive.

Big Boy let out a cloud of steam as he slowed to a stop just before a freeway overpass. A few dozen spectators climbed the concrete embankment of the viaduct to take pictures. Shortly after, a local policeman arrived on the scene. Seemingly annoyed by the rumbling traffic jams in the otherwise calm city, he began shouting orders for the crowd to disperse.

It quickly became apparent, however, that diehard train enthusiasts had no intention of complying. A gentleman turned to the officer and appealed for mercy: the crowd was not blocking traffic or doing anything illegal, he argued. Other band members nodded and echoed the same message. Sensing that the group of onlookers was going nowhere, the officer gave up and returned to his patrol car in defeat. A cheer rose from the crowd before they turned their attention back to the star of the show.

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Newsrust - US Top News: In pursuit of a powerful relic of yesteryear: Union Pacific 4014
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