Once upon a time, there was a sound that echoed in our towns and across the prairies and through high mountain passes. It was a screeching, haunting sound that if heard up close would make you cover your ears. But heard from a distance, it formed a melody that was America.
And it was a constant reminder that there were machines of incredible power that could board whisk you away to amazing and exotic locations like Butte, Montana or Holly, Colorado, or places as alien as New York or LA.
They were huge smoke belching, fire and steam driven monsters called the Steam Engine. For many years these machines carried the commerce and families that make up America. Many of our ancestors rode the rails. Some out of choice, others in chains. Some were whisked away from family and friends by the steam engine to board ships for distant battlefields. And in some cases, they returned in flag draped boxes, carried home by the same engines that took them away.
The Steam Engine helped to forge our nation. Big and beautiful, they were power and majesty, hope and heartache, good times and tears wrapped in Bethlehem Steel.
But, they’re relics of another age and time. Today, the steam engine is a rarity. There’s people alive today who have probably never seen one outside the movies or as some metal beast in a park someplace, home now to pigeons and mice.
So, when the Union Pacific Big Boy: Engine 4014 came to Greeley, Colorado over the weekend, I was one of many who turned out to greet it.
I really didn’t expect to see all the people I did. I drove down 10th street towards the Model Railroad Museum at the 10th street crossing. My first warning should have been that traffic was heavier than I expected. As I came up to 8th Street, I had a clear view of the crowd. The entire street was choked by hundreds of people waiting patiently for the arrival of the train. A fair chunk of Greeley, Colorado had turned out for the event.
I’d hoped to park nearby, but instead parked near the courthouse and walked four blocks in.
The entire event was had a carnival like atmosphere to it. People walked around drinking soda and the warm sweet smell of fresh kettle corn washed over the crowd. Children had balloons and the sound of voices filled the air. I figure there must have been at least three thousand people waiting to greet the train as it arrived and that was just on my side of the street. Across the track, there was a similar crowd.
I’d wanted to get some good pictures of the train and there was no way, no how, I was going to do so while standing with the pack.
I started walking down the tracks, past 9th street and finally a little past 8th street. Here were the serious train people. These were the ones who had ridden the rails or in the case of one gentleman, had worked for the railroads. We all stood and waited.
The engine was supposed to arrive at 9:30 AM, but in the tradition of trains everywhere, it was late. Twice massive diesels rumbled through. I used them as practice for my camera shots and to try to get my exposures just right.
We stood in the hot July sun, waiting.
Some folks had an app on their phones and they kept us advised of Big Boy’s location. It was referred to simply as a “Special.”
“It’s in Brighton,” Someone said.
More talking and waiting. The Sun beat down on me and I was wishing I’d brought a canteen.
“It’s in Gilcrest, ” we were told about twenty minutes later.
“Warning lights changed to yellow,” the rail worked said. “That means it coming.”
He was referring to what almost looked like stoplights but faced the train tracks. They helped to warn train engineers of traffic ahead.
“Getting closer,” someone said. That put it about 10 miles out. I checked my shots one more time.
Another eternity seemed to drag by.
“It’s in La Salle.”
Less than two miles away. In the distance, we could hear it coming. Truthfully, I don’t recall if it was the sound of steam whistle to the regular horn on a locomotive. but there it was We were getting excited now. From faraway there was rumble like a small earthquake approaching. I zoomed in as much as I could. I wanted to get a picture as it arrived.
And then there it was. I’d expected to see it belching smoke, but there was very little of that. I learned later the 4019 had been converted to use diesel fuel instead of coal.
I started hitting the shudder button. I’d picked my location so the engine would pass within 20 feet of me. Looking through the viewfinder, I saw this wall of sculptured metal hurtling towards me. I’ve stood and directed M-1 tanks in the middle of the desert and I never felt any apprehension. But somehow those machines seemed like match box toys compared to this thing coming at me. The whistle screamed out it’s warning and the sound washed over me.
I snapped away while ever instinct yelled “get out of the way.” The intellect in me said you’re “perfectly safe. It will pass you by.”
It was hard not to feel fright as it rumbled towards me. It came even with me and the wind of it’s passing shook me. The whole world was filled with the sound of it’s wheels. Then the whistle screamed again and pain exploded in my ears. I dropped the camera (luckily, I had the strap around my neck) and put my hands over my ears.
The pain passed, I grabbed the camera and tried getting a few more shots.
Then with a rumble of metal and a screech of steel, the train came to a stop.
I crossed the tracks and walked back down towards the museum. The crowd had surged forward to see this wonder from another age. The engine had arrived pulling several passenger cars. There were people in them, and I overheard someone say the cheap seats started at almost seven hundred dollars for the ride from Denver to Cheyenne.
The carnival atmosphere had intensified even more. Drones hovered overhead and people talked excitedly. Most unexpected were several Star Wars Stormtroopers and a girl dressed up as Princess Leia. It seems Disney was doing a little promotion of the Star Wars TV shows and kids of all ages were getting their pictures taken with them.
I walked through, taking pictures and listening the to the hum of voices.
But some folks seemed oddly quiet. I wondered what they were thinking of as they looked at the engine. Did they think of meeting relatives as they arrived on the train or having tearful good byes made at the nearby rail station. I wondered how many soldiers had ridden away on one of these or how many coffins arrived on them.
But in some cases, like me, the steam engine represented a bookend in our lives. I remember well the steam engines that had thundered through my home town, the noise of their passing drowning out the teacher and their rumbling causing the hanging lights to swing back and forth a little. The rumbling 4014 engine was a little older than me, but not by much.
It had been built in 1941, one of twenty five such engines. It hauled freight and passengers till 1961 and was retired. It had traveled over a million miles in it’s years of service.
Today, only a handful of the Big Boy engines remain. The majority were cut up in scrapyards and the rest consigned to parks and museums. Engine 4014 was in a museum until 2013 when Union Pacific reacquired it. It was moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming where it underwent a multi-year resurrection.
And here it was, sitting in front of me like something from a dream. Allowing people to touch a piece of the past that built the future.
I can only hope that it continues to do that for years to come.