Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - November 29, 2019

600 tons of moving history

A big piece of history paused in Manhattan a week ago Wednesday. Husband Art and I went to see it, and were surprised when hundreds of others - curious onlookers, history buffs and kids excited to be out of school - were also there.

The visit could be traced back more than a century and a half when the settling of the West was hampered by long and difficult travel between these lands and the settled states in the East. A railroad seemed to be the answer, but Congressional disagreements delayed the project for decades. The secession of the Southern States that led to the Civil War opened the door. Without Southern opposition, Congress settled on the shorter northern route.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the act that led to the Transcontinental Railroad. But work didn�t begin in earnest until after the war. Building from California in the west and Iowa in the east, the two met in Utah on May 10, 1869. The mountains had been the most difficult part. Sherman Hill was the highest point at a mile and a half above sea level. It was between Cheyenne, Wyoming and Ogden, Utah.

In the 1940s, the Union Pacific Railroad asked American Locomotive to build a couple dozen huge engines to better handle that section of the line. A worker at the plant chalked the name "Big Boy" on one of the steam engines, and the name stuck.

By 1962, all Big Boys were retired, replaced by the diesel-electric engine. But the railroad decided the 150th anniversary of the completion of the overland route would be a good time to give one Big Boy a new lease on life.

No. 4014 thundered into Manhattan well behind schedule. The crowds in Topeka had been reluctant to see it go. I had staked out a spot on the north side of the railroad crossing and Art went to the south side.

Ed Hoover, a railroad aficionado and history re-enactor, wore striped overalls and a cap bearing a "Union Pacific 4014" logo. He said the railroad enlisted his help to monitor the crowds because his loud voice provided a walking PA system - a system he made good use of by telling the crowd details about the engine and warning them to stay 25 feet away from the tracks.

"This engine is a monster and the steam that comes out of it is hot," he said. "The wheels alone are about six feet high."

Union Pacific employee Glenn Manning was on vacation, but had driven to Manhattan from Omaha to visit family and help out. He kept us posted on the train's progress.

Before we could see the engine, we heard its whistle and felt the rumbling beneath our feet. As it neared, I could see it was indeed massive, and its loud whistle, clanging bell and spewing steam were as impressive as I had imagined.

The Big Boy is longer than two city buses, weighs more than a Boeing 747 and is the largest steam-powered locomotive in operation today. It was pulling some historical cars as well as covered hoppers, apparently having been chosen to do some real work on its pass through Kansas. Trucks today transport much of the country's goods, but the railroads are vital and more efficient in moving bulk commodities, such as wheat, or containers that arrive at sea ports.

Commissioned in 1941, 4014 had traveled more than one million miles before retirement in 1961. Restoration began six years ago. This trip began in Cheyenne, where it headed west over Sherman Hill to Utah. Then it was on to Nevada and California, east through Arizona, New Mexico and southern Texas, and north through Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas City, before heading toward home in Cheyenne through Kansas and Colorado.

My experience with trains is limited to family trips to California and Ohio and short runs on steam trains near Baldwin City, Kansas, Laona, Wisconsin, Strasburg, Pennsylvania and Wales. I'm not versed in the mechanics of trains, but they always spell "adventure" to me.

In contrast, Art worked for the railroad in Wisconsin and he, his father and grandfather were also mail messengers. Their job was to transport mail from the post office to the trains and back. So Art enjoyed describing what we were seeing.

Big Boy has an "articulated" (hinged) frame that allows the engine to better negotiate curves. The tender - the car behind the engine - holds 25,000 gallons of water for the boiler and originally held 56,000 pounds of coal. But the coal area was replaced by a tank because the boiler was converted to run on fuel oil. One of the crew told Art the engine uses seven gallons of fuel oil for each mile traveled! The engineer was Ed Dickens, who was also in charge of the restoration.

Art had alerted friends Susan and Kay about Big Boy�s visit and was a bit disappointed they hadn�t come. Susan said later:

... I had forgotten the train! I raced outside to hang up some laundry and heard the train whistle. We ran to the car and raced over Scenic Hill Drive hill. When we turned west, we began to see people with phones and cameras lining the tracks and realized we hadn't missed it.

Big Boy was in town about 45 minutes and, just as in Topeka, the crowd didn't want to see it go. As it pulled out, many followed, slowly peeling away from the tracks and then waving until the train disappeared.

Meanwhile, Susan and Kay raced west along the highway.

We pulled off on top of the airport bridge and looked east just as the steam blew up and the train headed our way. The engine was moving pretty fast by then, but I waved at the engineer.

And then it was gone.

But for a brief moment, Big Boy�s 600 tons of moving history had transported us to a time now long past.

Top-left: Union Pacific's 4014 Big Boy from the railroad's website; top-right: the 4014 locomotive arriving in Manhattan; bottom-left: Engineer Ed Dickens in the blue shirt is at the engine's controls while spectators snap photos; bottom-middle: UP employee Glenn Manning chats with bystanders before the engine arrives; bottom-right: one of the younger train fans welcomes the huge locomotive to Manhattan.

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