The world’s largest steam engine is making its way across the country, attracting crowds in cities and small towns wherever it goes. Currently chugga-chugga-choo-chooing across the Midwest, the hulking black engine is spreading old-fashioned analog delight across America’s heartland and leaving wholesome local news stories in its wake. The steam engine’s name is Big Boy, and he is a very big boy.
The occasion for Big Boy’s restoration was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the 1,900-mile Transcontinental Railroad in Promontory Summit, Utah. Big Boy steamed into Ogden, Utah, for the festivities in May, and then continued his journey. He is currently on a leg that Union Pacific is calling “The Great Race Across the Midwest.” (You can track his progress on this interactive map.)
Big Boy generates tremendous puffs of thick black smoke and white steam as he puffs along the tracks. He also produces impressive quantities of charming reactions from awed observers. He’s so big and trainy that he tends to reduce onlookers and writers to expressions of childlike wonder.
“Your heartbeat goes up, it’s exhilarating.” —Roger Libra, Minnesota
“I wish my mother was here to see it.” —Regina Smith, Illinois
“We never thought we’d see this day.” —one Wyoming fan
“I’ve been wanting to see one actually running for all my life.” —Rick McClellan, Wisconsin
“As I stated in my Facebook post, it was a big adrenaline rush.”—my dad, in an email that included three video attachments
Big Boy is 132 feet long and weighs more than a million pounds. That is a lot of feet and pounds! His steam whistle bellows TOOOOOOT TOOOOOOOOOT! Many of the countless Big Boy fan videos on YouTube capture that robust steam whistle as he chugs along the tracks. (“The soul within 4014’s soundoff is hard to beat,” one poster enthused.) ALCO produced 25 Big Boy engines starting in the early 1940s, but only eight are still in existence, and only one—the Big Boy, No. 4014—is in operation.* Union Pacific acquired the retired engine from a museum in 2013 and spent the past several years restoring it. The engine had previously had been out of commission for six decades, which makes his journey this summer a very big deal to “railfans,” or train buffs.
Big Boy is a tremendous hit wherever he goes. In West Chicago, Illinois, Union Pacific estimated that 45,000 people came to see the behemoth; town officials had initially planned for fewer than 10,000. Suburban Chicago’s Daily Herald reported that some small communities along Big Boy’s path have seen their populations triple as he rolls through town. “Thousands turned out to view the engine, whether it was children on their way to Sunday school or travelers from across the continent and around the globe,” Trains magazine reported of the western leg of Big Boy’s journey this summer. The magazine added that the engine received a “hero’s welcome” in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
The vibe at official Big Boy viewings is one of communal awe and delight. Big Boy prompts strangers to talk to strangers. “As my mom and I were getting our first glimpses, a man walking past said to us, ‘There’s Big Boy!’ ” Amanda Zeigler, a friend in Chicago who made the Big Boy pilgrimage last weekend, told me. “Big Boy demands recognition and exclamation.”
Big Boy is currently crossing Iowa, where he will be on display in Des Moines on Thursday and then making his way to Omaha, Nebraska, by the weekend. The train’s journey is a reminder of the majesty of American infrastructure, and of the power of old-fashioned spectacle to bring communities together. But perhaps that’s putting it too grandly. In the end, Big Boy is mostly a reminder that huge trains are awesome.
Correction, July 31, 2019: This post originally misidentified the manufacturer of the Big Boy engines.