A ‘Big Boy’ adventure in the 501

Last year, we spent some fun-filled days chasing the world’s largest steam locomotive as it passed through the 501. Union Pacific celebrated the 150th anniversary of the “Great Race Across the Southwest” with a tour of the Big Boy Steam Locomotive 4014 through Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

The steam locomotive is owned and operated by Union Pacific Railroad. It was built in 1941 by the American Locomotive Company in New York. Number 4014 is the only operating Big Boy of the eight that remain in existence. It was in operation until 1959 and was then donated to the Railway Locomotive Historical Society. 

In 2013, Union Pacific reacquired the locomotive and started restoration in its repair shop in Cheyenne, Wyo. It took almost three years to restore Big Boy before the 2019 historical tour across the western and central parts of the United States. The locomotive was completely disassembled and rebuilt by Union Pacific from the frame up. The engine was removed and meticulously taken apart piece by piece. Each nut, bolt and part of the locomotive was cleaned, repaired and re-engineered to bring the locomotive back to running order.  

I started my chase of Big Boy in South Central Arkansas and chased it as it crossed Arkansas. On an early Tuesday morning, I photographed the locomotive first while it was stopped overnight at the Prescott Depot. During the day, it made brief whistle-stops at depots in Gurdon and Malvern, before stopping for the day in North Little Rock, where it was on display until Friday. 

We resumed our chase on Friday as it crossed the remainder of Arkansas. Our first planned opportunity to photo the train was as it crossed over the bridge at Palarm Creek. Downtown Conway was the next stop. A large crowd came out to see and welcome the giant locomotive.   

The next stop was at the Morrilton Depot. We caught it as it flew through Atkins. There was another whistle-stop in Russellville. Our next stop was on private land next to the Arkansas River. We barely caught a glimpse of Big Boy as it passed under the Arkansas River Bridge at Ozark.  

Our final stop on Friday evening was in Van Buren. On Saturday morning, I was able to photograph Big Boy as the sun rose over the city and Big Boy started its final embark out of Arkansas.  

It was a thrill to feel and see the 1.2 million pound, 86 feet long, 16 feet tall locomotive as it passed by. I loved seeing the steam bellowing out of the huge steam pistons and the smokestack. The sound of the steam whistle blowing and ringing brass bell as the train pulled away from the rail yard was a joy.  

I enjoyed the stories from the other chasers. Many were from other states and a few had been chasing since Big Boy started its epic journey in Cheyenne.  

My favorite rail side encounter was with an elderly man who wanted to experience an operating steam locomotive again. He told me about being in Grand Central Station as a boy during the time steam locomotion operated. He said he could still remember the sound and the sights of multiple trains arriving and departing. He told me about the coal debris that filled the air as the big engines left the station. He talked about the joy of boarding a train and the excitement of a little boy as the train started its slow departure from the station.

I had a blast talking to other photographers about their techniques for capturing their best images of the fast-moving train. I saw old photography friends, met photographers I have only known online and made new friends. All and all it was a fun time filled with history and adventure as we chased Big Boy around the state.

Linda Henderson
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