Everyone was gathered around the rail crossing waiting. People of all ages were parked in chairs or just standing around. The weather was still, the heat of the day being held back by the thin blanket of clouds. Everyone was anxiously waiting to see what would happen. The train was stopped further up the tracks, it’s journey temporarily halted.
Then we heard them, the local news helicopters, the beat of the blades against the thick summer air unmistakable. This was a bit of history after all and they had to capture the moment for those who wouldn’t be able to see it in person. Hovering like dragonflies they also waited.
We could see it before we heard it, the smoke billowing from the smokestack, the headlight very bright even during the middle of the day, far down the tracks. A roar went up from the crowd as everyone saw it coming, the thing we had all gathered to see.
Then it was upon us, steam whistle blowing, belching smoke and steam as it thundered past us. The roar of the whistle was deafening and the million pounds of metal being driven forward by fire, pistons, and steam made the ground shake. We could feel it deep down in our bones, such a visceral experience, and one I hadn’t expected.
But as quickly as it had come it was gone. Everyone started leaving the spot where we had all experienced this little bit of history together, happy from the sight, sounds, and feel of it all. There was definitely an excitement in the air even bigger than what had been there before the train arrived. We had all been witness to the passing of this great machine and we all knew we were privileged to have been able to see it.
Big Boy #4014 was on it’s way to a weekend stop in West Chicago. It was built in 1941, one of 25 of the largest steam locomotives ever built. It was retired from service in 1961. Union Pacific purchased it from a railroad preservation group and set to work restoring it two years ago. Today’s journey was a part of the culmination of that work and I feel very lucky to have been able to see it.