“We just wish we’d had some grandkids there,” Bob and Diane Holeman observed after returning from Natchitoches on Monday, Aug. 23, where they’d been a part of the crowd to witness the whistle-stop tour of Union Pacific’s Big Boy #4014, the world’s largest steam locomotive.
Despite the sweltering heat under a nearly cloudless sky, a large crowd had gathered and waited patiently around the old Trudeau Street depot for the 3 p.m. arrival, finding shade where they could under scattered trees or in the shadows of the abandoned building which the Forest Service is hoping to renovate into a visitors center.
“Our two Texas grandsons got to see this 130-foot black giant pulling some half dozen yellow freight cars when it passed through East Texas last week. But the route doesn’t go through East Tennessee where our youngest, the most avid railroad enthusiast, lives so he’ll just hear our account with the pictures we took,” reported Diane.
The 560-ton locomotive was originally scheduled to arrive at 1 p.m. so many of the visitors had turned out early but it didn’t appear that any gave up and went home. But many did find shelter in their cars, with engines running and air conditioning on full. The crowd included many senior adults who remembered rail travel and many youngsters and youth in school uniforms simply excited about trains.
As 3 p.m. neared folks who were congregated about the depot, including the Forest Service rangers who’d been manning information tables, began to shift closer to the crossing anticipating the train’s northbound arrival. An announcement was heard over the crowd buzz that Big Boy was two miles out. People strained in hopes of hearing the track’s rumble or the sound of the whistle. Mostly they heard the sound of other excited spectators.
Then there was the familiar sound of warning bells of the railroad crossing as the traffic beams descended, police easing stragglers out of harm’s way, dividing the crowd into those on the depot side and those opposite. In a short time, there it was, first the whistle, then the rumble, then the black smoke mixed with white steam. Finally from around the bend came the bulk of the locomotive. Cell phones in camera or video mode were held aloft, it appeared, by virtually everyone out in the heat.
Then it stopped in front of the aged depot where the name “Natchitoches” is still clearly visible on the side, letting out a small billow of steam like a sigh of relief for this brief respite from a circumlocutious trek around the country. No speeches. No key to the city. Just a smiling engineer smiling and waving from his station and trying to hear shouts of other railway workers as they tended to their duties. And endless photo ops.
The American Locomotive Co. built 25 of these monsters for one of Union Pacific’s western routes. Today, seven are housed in museums while 4014 is the last that is operational. When Big Boy completes its 10-state tour, it will be back in Cheyenne WY where it began.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” admitted Diane. “But when Big Boy came into view, I felt a real excitement. I could feel the engine’s power reverberate in my bones. I took a video as it came into view that I’ll send to my grandson. And the engineer, he was dressed in overalls and a cap, just like he’s supposed to be. I meant to bring my grandfather’s conductor’s hat but I forgot. He was a conductor with the Kansas City Southern and L&A railroads. The cap has two gold buttons with one railroad on one side and the other on the opposite side.
“This brings back memories.”
(Writer’s note: The scene described above is first-hand so I can vouch for it. The facts and history of Big Boy I gathered from other Internet sources and can only hope they are correct. It makes a good story anyhow).
Photo above: The world’s largest steam locomotive, Union Pacific’s 4014, steams into Natchitoches on Aug. 23 to a waiting crowd including Diane Holeman, center, with video rolling.
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