by Brad Dison
On Monday, August 23, the ground shook as the World’s Largest Steam Locomotive passed through North Louisiana. Several members of my family and I drove to several spots we had scouted during the previous week to witness the passing of Big Boy 4014, what some have referred to as “the beast.”
To our surprise, people were parked on both sides of the road anywhere the train tracks were visible. A lone photographer perched himself precariously on the outer side of a bridge railing and waited with his camera ready for the split second Big Boy would cross a short trestle. I would love to see that picture. We arrived at the southernmost stop about 45 minutes before the train was due to pass. Only a handful of people were waiting, but the number of anxious people grew, cameras in hand, until we heard the first deep bellow of the steam train’s horn. Those of us who had not seen Big Boy 4014 before were stunned by the speed this 1.2 million pound locomotive was able to pull a compliment of about 14 trains cars. The ground shook. The blast of the horn was deafening. Within seconds, it was gone.
We, the large contingent of train chasers of which we joined, raced to the next pre-scouted location. There was a lot of traffic, but everyone was trying to beat the train to get more pictures. With our hearts beating quickly, we finally caught up with and overtook the train. We made it to our second location with about a minute to spare. While we waited for the train to arrive and tried to catch our breath, another train chaser told us he had followed the train since it left New Orleans earlier that morning. He said that other people had followed the train all along its route since it left Cheyenne, Wyoming. Then, the warning bells sounded and the railroad crossing bars came down. Again, we heard the deep bellows of the train’s horn. Everyone, it seemed, had equipment at the ready to capture the moment. Again, the ground shook and the blasting of the steam train’s horn was almost too much for the sense to bear. A few seconds and it was gone again.
Like drivers in the 24 hours of Le Mans, we ran back to our cars and raced towards Natchitoches. The road was even more packed than it had been just a few minutes earlier. The closer we got to the historic train depot in Natchitoches, the larger the crowds got. We had scouted a different route which we figured would have less traffic. We were right, but traffic lights stopped us from reaching the depot before the train. We parked and walked swiftly toward the depot. The size of the crowd reminded me of being at the Natchitoches Christmas Festival but the temperature did not. It was 99 degrees and the “feel like” temperature was 115. We finally got a closer look at the locomotive. Everyone in the crowd seemed to be in awe of the World War II era behemoth. The train’s engineer and other personnel must have felt like rock stars. At the smallest of movements, people snapped pictures of them. A simple wave of one of their hands and people aimed at them with phones and cameras. Finally, after many strange hissing sounds from the locomotive and a couple of loud blasts from its horn, the train slowly pulled away from the depot. All cameras were aimed at the train until it was out of sight.
Back in the car with the air conditioning blowing at full force, we raced to our next filming location. Well, we tried to race. Similar to the traffic after the fireworks at the Natchitoches Christmas Festival, we sat and waited. The occupants of two cars who were too anxious to see the locomotive at the depot to properly park their cars, parked them directly in the street. Traffic was slow until we got near the bowling alley just north of town. We were certain that the train had gotten too far ahead for us to safely catch up. We drove on anyway. In what seemed like an hour but was really only a few minutes, we reached the spot near Powhatan where the train tracks were again parallel with the highway. Crowds of people waited with cameras in hand. We were ahead of the train, but not by much. We slowed and let the locomotive catch up. We drove parallel with the train for a few miles until it became too dangerous. Cars were driving parallel to the train in both lanes of the highway with little worry of oncoming traffic. When an oncoming car approached, the left lane of traffic would quickly hit their brakes. We watched as Big Boy 4014 slowly pulled away. Until we meet again, Big Boy!
Here are some facts about Big Boy 4014:
- Big Boy 4014 was delivered to Union Pacific in December of 1941;
- It ran over 1 million miles in its 18 years of service;
- Its last run was July 21, 1959, but it officially retired in Dec. 1961, its 20th anniversary;
- Restoration began in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 2013;
- It was Converted from coal burning to oil burning;
- In May, 2019, Restoration was completed, and Big Boy returned to service;
- This is one of only 25 Big Boys built;
- Only eight survive, seven of them are on public display;
- This is the only “Big Boy” which is operational;
- The locomotive is about 133 feet long, which is about the length of a traditional diesel locomotive plus a regular size school bus plus a modern full-size sedan;
- It’s so long that the locomotive is hinged to allow it to go around curves;
- It Weighs about 1.2 million pounds;
- It weighs about the same as three modern diesel locomotives, which is equivalent to around 300 Ford F150 Pickups;
- Big Boys can reach speeds of about 80 mph but is limited to 55 mph in regular service;
- It takes nearly 1.5 miles to stop Big Boy traveling at 55 mph (never try to beat any train at a railroad crossing);
- It holds 25,000 gallons of water;
- It originally carried 56,000 lbs. of coal;
- It has a 4-8-8-4 wheel arrangement, meaning it has:
- 4 pilot wheels in front
- 8 wheels for first engine
- 8 wheels for second engine
- 4 wheels trailing to support the back of the locomotive
In 1985, another Big Boy, number 8444, passed through Natchitoches. We have just a few clues that the following footage was taken in 1984 and not yesterday: The numbers on the side of the Locomotive are 8444 and not 4014. Also, there are no SUVs in the footage, only cars from that era. People’s fascination with steam trains, especially ones this large, has not diminished. In 1985, people of all ages gathered all along the rail line to witness the train’s passing just as they did on Monday. Will our romantic notions of the steam era ever be extinguished? I certainly hope not.
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