People started arriving hours ahead of time anticipating that a large crowd would eventually take over the 11th Avenue railroad crossing in Baldwin on July 23.
They were right. By the time I arrived, hundreds of people had taken every available parking spot on and off the streets within five square blocks of the crossing. Kids on their bikes, moms pushing strollers, sons on their father's shoulders, elders in their lawn chairs, families on blankets, travellers, tourists, locals, everyone wanted a glimpse of history. It had the feeling of a launch at Cape Kennedy.
The crowd was excited, really excited. There was a definite buzz and it grew anxious as the clocked ticked past 9:30 a.m. then 9:45. Ironic that in this spotlight moment, a train should be running late.
Speculation spread through the masses like wisps of wind through a wheat field.
What was happening, what was the delay, no one knew, but no one was leaving that was for sure.
Several folks wandered quietly over to the tracks and placed pennies on the rails. A little curiosity and a chance to take home a souvenir to accompany their story of the big day years from now.
The crowd grew and now sprawled more than 25 yards wide on either side of the tracks. Young and old alike walked casually down the middle of the tracks as if unaware of the approaching giant.
A small group of officials wearing bright green safety vests sporting the Union Pacific (UP) logo patiently answered endless questions, happy to be the center of attention.
The sky was remarkably clear, a light blue washed out by the sun. It was warm but not uncomfortable, pretty much perfect conditions for viewing a legend.
This was a remarkable moment, one about to be forged into the memories of hundreds of children by a piece of historic steel and steam that once tied two oceans together and united an idea as big as time. This was a spectacular learning opportunity, one from which questions could follow for weeks, maybe even inspire a new hobby or better yet a career in a fabled industry.
Then came the sound we were all waiting to hear, that whistle. Folks closest to the tracks pushed back while everyone else surged forward straining to get their first look at the Big Boy as it rounded the curve and slowly rolled toward the crossing billowing dark smoke from its stack and snorting steam from its sides.
It was a sound surround experience as the largest steam locomotive ever built rolled to a stop, whistle blowing, everyone else lip syncing.
This really is one of those experiences where you had to be there to fully appreciate the reality of the moment.
The Big Boy steam locomotive No. 4014 was one of 25 originally built for the Union Pacific Railroad. Only eight remain and No. 4014 is the only one operational today. It was originally delivered to the railroad in 1941 and traveled 1,031,205 miles during its 20 years of service. The refit of No. 4014 took two years of meticulous work by the Union Pacific Steam Team.
The Big Boy measures 132 feet long and weighs in at 1.2 million pounds. According to the information circulated by UP, the Big Boy is "hinged," or articulated, to allow them to negotiate curves. They had a 4-8-8-4 wheel arrangement, which meant they had four wheels on the leading set of "pilot" wheels which guided the engine, eight drivers, another set of eight drivers, and four wheels following which supported the rear of the locomotive."
As part of The Big Boy No. 4014's Great Race Across the Midwest, it made a stop at the 11th Avenue Crossing in Baldwin Tuesday, July 23, on its way to Altoona, Wis.
As soon as the behemoth rolled to a stop, it was instantly engulfed in a sea of people. The engineer in his overalls was all smiles, a superstar leaning out of his window answering questions and signing autographs. It was a literal clash of centuries with hundreds of smartphones snapping photos dwarfed against the coal black Big Boy in the background.
The larger than life locomotive was a salute to the Industrial Revolution, a time when men were just beginning to believe nothing was impossible. There was no problem we couldn't solve, no machine we couldn't build. It was a time of immense imagination realized by relentless determination.
I kept wondering about those pennies and what a story they would tell about what happened here at 11th Ave. on July 23, 2019.
For every kid who grew up with a Lionel Train running in a circle beneath the Christmas tree or on a layout on top of a pool or ping pong table, the Big Boy was a dream come true. From the look of things at 11th Avenue, a whole new generation of dreams was about to leave the station.
To learn more about The Great Race Across the Midwest visit: https://www.up.com/heritage/steam/schedule/index.htm, and to learn more about the Big Boy legacy, visit: https://www.up.com/heritage/steam/4014/.