July 23 found me on a mission that I was called to fulfill.
No, the Almighty had not appeared at the foot of my bed in the middle of the night to summon me on a quest to search for the Holy Grail.
It was something much simpler. It was the voice of the Union Pacific Railroad summoning me to Altoona to see the world’s largest steam engine. The title given to the engine is simply Big Boy.
Big Boy is also known as Union Pacific Engine No. 4014.
From the information presented by Union Pacific Railroad, it is 132 feet long, weighs 1.2 million pounds and has hinged frames to allow such a long engine to negotiate curves in the tracks.
The engine is supported by 24 wheels arranged in a 4-8-8-4 pattern and carries a total of 56,000 pounds of coal to power the train.
The 4014 was originally delivered to Union Pacific in December 1941 and was retired in December 1961. The Union Pacific website states that in the locomotive’s 20 years of service it traveled a total of 1,031,205 miles.
So why was I called? I grew up in a railroad town at the very end of the steam era.
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Marshfield had a SOO Line Depot on the north side of town and a Chicago Northwestern Depot at the south end. When I was 3 years old, my Uncle Bill passed away and my Aunt Bea would come get me in the afternoons to take me off my Mom’s hands. We would go to the train depots and watch the trains come and go.
There was a song when I was growing up called “Down By The Station” which had this line: “Down by the station, Early in the morning, See my favorite engine, Ready to tow.”
I was usually at the station, with my aunt, not in the morning but in the afternoons when the trains would come through. They called to me. However, when I had the opportunity to answer that call I failed. An engineer on a steam engine asked my 4-year-old self if I would like a short ride. I clung to my aunt in great fear and said no. It is one of my life’s greatest regrets.
Later my family would pick up my grandparents in Babcock, Wisconsin, as they rode the train from Chicago to Babcock and back again. The new streamlined diesels were in vogue and the passenger cars old, though comfortable, shined the way only steel and aluminum can. I never did ride a steam train anywhere until a few years ago, when our family took the Empire Builder, an Amtrak Train, to Glacier Park and back.
Big Boy is far from the steam engines I knew as a kid. The steam engines through Marshfield were but average size typically the “Hudson” type which was used in central and northern Wisconsin for passenger and light freight work. Big Boy was built for much different service. Its specialty was heavy freight trains and high-speed passenger trains. It spent most of its service years in the Wasatch Mountain Range of Utah and in Idaho.
It was built at a time when things were built in America. it was a testament to the American labor movement, the willingness of Americans to invest in infrastructure, to join the country by rail. Indeed Big Boy was in Altoona to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. Big Boy’s use of coal, the creation of steam and the mysteries of the conversion of steam energy to raw power is something to behold.
Today’s modern railroad locomotives are brightly painted metal shells over a large diesel engine with all the romance of an over-the-road diesel truck. I know progress has to be made, but a diesel horn will never replace a steam whistle.
At times I am still a small boy growing up in Marshfield in the 1950s. Time passes, Marshfield has changed. The Chicago Northwest Railroad Depot is gone, the tracks removed. The SOO Line has become the Canadian National; I am still haunted by steam whistles in the night. In some ways, we are never meant to grow up.