Welcome Back, Big Boy

I love trains.

I’m not a “foamer” (a term used by some for die-hard train enthusiasts). I can’t tell you what all the parts and pieces do or differences between one train line and the next but I can tell you how they make me feel. There’s something about the sight and sound that taps into a child-like wonder. That goes for just about all trains – but extra for anything historic.

So, of course, any time Union Pacific sends one of their vintage locomotives on a tour, I am interested.

Big Boy in November of 2019, near Sallisaw OK

Big Boy No. 4014 is Union Pacific’s showpiece. Originally, there were 25 of these behemoths on the rails. 4014 entered service in 1941 and retired after twenty years of service – at which time it was relegated to display at a museum in California. In 2013, UP got it back and started rebuilding it. It returned to service in 2019 as part of the rail company’s celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad. It came through Oklahoma that year and I chased it from Sallisaw to Coffeyville, KS. It was Mom’s birthday – November 16. Although she was in the hospital after her back surgery, she insisted that I go chase it. I did then – and I did this year, too.

I took the day off on August 12 and drove up to the Kansas border; I wanted to meet Big Boy as it crossed into the Sooner State. It was taking the original MKT line through Oklahoma, the first railroad laid in Indian Territory circa 1870. A gravel road sits right atop the border between states; it was the perfect spot to start my day.

When I heard that magnificent whistle in the distance, I was one of just a handful of people at that crossing. An older lady whose land abutted the rail line, a young man from Washington state that had been following the train since Cheyenne, WY, and my friend Larry from Missouri who I’d met years ago at a Route 66 neon lighting ceremony in Carthage. The train sped by and my smile could not be wider.

Big Boy is the largest operating steam locomotive in the world; it’s longer than two city buses and weighs more than a Boeing 747. It’s easy to forget that until it barrels right past you. It is humbling and exciting – and something I want to experience over and over again. From the Kansas border, I drove down to the tiny town of Bluejacket to witness it pass by a small rural crossing with no arms/bells.

South of Bluejacket

4014’s first stop of the day was in Vinita. Everywhere this train stops, there’s a huge crowd – and Vinita continued that tradition. Once again, I bumped into someone I knew – Jerry McClanahan, Route 66 artist and creator of the EZ-66 Guide. We chat for a bit as we waited for the train to finish its visit and cross that old highway, continuing south to Pryor and points beyond.

People from around northeast Oklahoma come out to see Big Boy in person

Although the giant locomotive stopped again in Pryor, I kept driving. I had a spot already picked out for my next photograph in Chouteau with an old grain elevator as a backdrop. As I figured, I wasn’t the only person to have this idea. Among the many others that gathered near Main Street to see the train roll by, a group of photographer friends from Tulsa were set up exactly where I’d planned to be. Great minds! It was nice to visit with friendly faces for a bit; one of them brought shears to trim back the tall weeds in front of the tracks and another guy brought a ladder to get just the angle he wanted! It made the 100 degree heat a little more bearable.

4014 rolling through Chouteau, OK

The train’s next stop was in Wagoner – the site of the first heritage locomotive I went to see, Union Pacific’s #844 in 2010. Alas, I was desperately hungry and didn’t have time to grab food and keep up with my shooting schedule down the track. That changed, though, when an overpass north of town was basically empty. I pulled over, got out of the car, and walked over just in time to get an amazing photograph of the great iron horse passing beneath me. The stop was short enough that I could indeed get a quick bite before heading south.

UP 4014 passes beneath Highway 69 on the north edge of Wagoner, OK

My friend Nic, who joined me on the last two steam train chases through Oklahoma, met up with me in Muskogee. We captured 4014 crossing the Arkansas River as we stood on the historic truss bridge that once carried the Jefferson Highway right alongside the track.

Crossing the Arkansas River into Muskogee

The rest of the afternoon passed much too quickly. We stopped again near Oktaha and again at Lake Eufala, each time set up among small groups of passionate rail fans. Nic himself loves seeking out old trainyards as he catalogues monikers and learns the history behind decades-old art that adorns box cars. I always learn a ton from him whenever we’re together; he’s the one that told me about the significance of the MKT line that Big Boy was taking through Oklahoma in the first place. We hadn’t seen each other since late 2019.

South of Crowder, we achieved the goal I always have when chasing a train: pacing the locomotive. There’s nothing like seeing it operate at speed, the wheels turning and the other mechanicals doing their thing to move this 600 ton monster down the track. It’s a marvel of mechanical engineering.

The day’s excursion ended in McAlester. Aside from the heat, it was perfect. I got to spend some time with my friend and see some faces I hadn’t seen in a long time. There were several moments when my thoughts returned to my mother. The world has changed so much since the last time Union Pacific 4014 came through – more than I would’ve thought possible. But the world keeps turning – as do the wheels on this historic train.

Stopped for the day in McAlester, OK

See you next time, Big Boy.

3 thoughts on “Welcome Back, Big Boy

  1. “Welcome back Big Boy” story and video. Thank you Rhys!! Great article and photos. Well done. Love your passion for all things historical, especially old RT 66.

  2. Thanks so much for the videos!! Hearing that sound of Big Boys whistles put tears in my eyes and a smile on my face..I felt I was right there with you chasing that monster of a train!!

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