Having Big Boy 4014, Union Pacific's massive 1940s-era steam locomotive, blast through Fort Lupton and Brighton is becoming an annual experience.
This is the third year straight the rail company has sent the historic engine down the line between Cheyenne and Denver, with fans lining the train tracks along the way to catch a glimpse or take a picture.
”I'm videotaping Big Boy for my YouTube channel. I've seen him numerous times, and it is still an experience that blows you away,” said Brighton resident Eric Abramovitz.
But this year, for the first time, Union Pacific opted to keep the engine at Denver's Union Station for a couple of days.
Big Boy left Cheyenne on July 28, traveling south through several towns with spectators lining the tracks along the way.
Big Boy pulled into Union Station on Friday for display, with crowds awaiting its arrival to take video and photos. They also got the chance to tour the inside of the restored rail cars, including an educational rail car set up like a museum featuring the history of trains, Union Pacific and its rail infrastructure.
The train headed back to Cheyenne on July 30, but this time on a passenger trip. Passengers were allowed to buy a ticket and ride in a rail car pulled by the big engine, with the proceeds benefiting the rail company's Union Pacific Museum.
Roger Wisehart Jr. and Roger Wisehart Sr. drove from Longmont to see Big Boy at Union Sation. The elder Wisehart has a history with one of the train's cousins.
“I helped move the Big Boy 4005 at the Forney Museum of Transportation,” he said.
“This is my first time seeing Big Boy, and it's exciting,” Wisehart Jr. said.
Twenty-five Big Boy locomotives were built for Union Pacific to haul heavy freight during World War II. It was delivered to Union Pacific in December 1941. The frame is hinged to navigate curves traveling through the rigged mountains of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
Big Boy No. 4014 traveled about a million miles in 20 years of its service and retired in December 1961 at the Rail Giants Museum in Pomona, California. Union Pacific inherited it and relocated it back to Cheyenne for years of major restoration.
Seven Big Boys are on public display around the country, but No. 4014 is the world’s only functioning Big Boy.
They brought it back to the tracks on May 8, 2019, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion.
The return of steam
Ed Dickens is the Heritage Operation manager and the engineer driving Big Boy. He has been an engineer for about 35 years. Dickens said it was easy for him to go from driving a modern locomotive to a steam engine because he worked on steam locomotives as a young man.
“It was really interesting in my career, I had a really good background on the steam locomotive, which helped me to learn the diesels,” Dickens said. "So as my career progressed, I had an opportunity to join this crew back in 2004."
It is an eight-member team that services and rebuilds Big Boy. In 2014 they took the locomotive entirely apart.
"In two and a half years, we put it back together again, with lots of new parts they built because you can no longer find parts for locomotive built in 1941,” Dickens said.
It is part of the story of why people are so fascinated with the locomotive, he said. Experts promised them that the Big Boy would impossible to restore, he said.
“It would never run again, it's too big and heavy, it won't go anywhere," Dickens said he was told. "They said 'You can't do anything with it.' In 30 years, they said you'll never see a Big Boy."
But Dickens said Union Pacific Railroad decided to restore the locomotive anyway.
“Everybody was very skeptical– even rail fan groups were very skeptical, saying we'd never do it," Dickens said.
It's one of the reasons people get so excited about it now, he said.
“There's a lot of firsts with this locomotive because we have taken it many, many places already. We have about 14,000 miles on it since we rebuilt it,” Dickens said.
One of those firsts was this year, with crews bringing the Big Boy locomotive to Denver's Union Station for the first time. When Big Boy started its tour in Denver, Colorado, it would stop a mile and a half up from the Union Pacific terminal, but it never made it to Union Station.
Dickens said it's an exciting day for Big Boy to travel on the Denver and Rio Grande track.
“There haven't been steam locomotives on the Denver and Rio Grande since 1956, on that part of the track,” he said. “Having this crowd of train enthusiasts on this historical day, it's fun to be a part of it with all of us that are running the locomotive.”
Big Boy has two crews monitoring it regularly, a standard maintenance crew of eight and a heritage fleet crew of 20 that takes care of the special passenger cars.
“We have our media colleagues, our public affairs colleagues. So we're a big family, a lot of people behind this massive railroad infrastructure with people in Omaha and people locally,” Dickens said. “It is a group effort to get all of this done.”
And it's worth it, he said. People may take rail for granted, but seeing something like Big Boy in operation is special.
"Day in and day out, we run trains all the time," Dickens said. "You see Union Pacific trains traveling all over the place. So this kind of operation is out of the ordinary and extraordinary. We get to do remarkable things. Everybody gets to be involved in that."
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