Texas History: Giant 1940s steam locomotive, Big Boy, steams around Texas
It is big. And loud.
Furthermore, it belches steam.
"It's the smell," says railroad fanatic Sam Sargent about a 1940s train engine known as the Union Pacific Big Boy, the largest, heaviest and most powerful steam locomotive ever built. "It is exciting to see such a stunning piece of machinery. But it's the smell of steam that comes back to you."
So magnetic is this behemoth, crowds gathered along the tracks — and at every of one of its stops — for the 4014, the only operating Big Boy, as it roared through Texas earlier in August.
Sargent, director of strategy for Austin Transit Partnership and Cap Metro, raced up to Mexia and Hearne to catch the rare sight with his father, Ben Sargent, former American-Statesman political cartoonist, also a self-described "train nerd."
"You smell the hot valve oil," Ben says. "It such a sensory thing. Railroad author Lucius Beebe once wrote, 'For one brief moment in eternity, a machine at once both useful and beautiful.'"
Valve oil in their blood
The Sargents, father and son, have been fascinated by trains all their lives.
"I like to say it started when I was delivered by the Fort Worth and Denver company surgeon in Amarillo," Ben, 72, jokes. "My father was interested in trains. Amarillo has always been a rail town. The Rock Island tracks were half a block from our house. It was also a big Santa Fe Railway town. I got pulled in."
As a youth, Ben traveled on trains quite a bit. He regularly took the train to Fort Worth to see his grandmother, and he visited California and Chicago by rail.
"A switchman lived next door," he says. "He showed me around a steam locomotive. I played with train sets. Still do — with HO Scale model railroading." The HO system of model trains uses a 1:87 scale.
As Ben grew older, passenger trains began to fall by the wayside.
"But Amarillo never really slowed down because of the Burlington coal route," he says.
For his part, Sam, 35, took an early school trip by Amtrak to Taylor. He later regularly rode the restored 786 Southern Pacific steamer operated by the Austin Steam Train Association in the Hill Country — his father is a longtime volunteer for the nonprofit. In college, Sam spent two spring breaks on extended Amtrak trips.
"I had another advantage," Sam says. "I grew up in South Austin a half mile from the tracks, so I was hearing them all the time. You don't hear them so much anymore, because they established quiet zones."
His specific interest in mass transit can be dated to his first trip to Washington, D.C., the former hometown of his mother, Diane Holloway, the former American-Statesman television critic.
Sam: "I just fell for it."
Ben: "So much so, that when we headed to the Smithsonian, Sam said: 'Oh yeah, you get on at Foggy Bottom, then change at Metro Center.' He had already mapped it out. I knew at that point he was a train guy."
Historic trains in the Hill Country
Ben and Sam were somewhat prepared for the sights, sounds and smells of a Big Boy, because the family has actively been working on trains, and especially steamers, since Sam was a small child.
For 32 years, Ben has volunteered for the Austin Steam Train Association, which was founded in 1989. In 1990, the nonprofit took the 786 Southern Pacific steamer that had languished for years in Brush Square downtown out of static display.
Raising $800,000, the group restored the engine to service, first up to Georgetown. Then in 1992, the group established its most popular round trip, the Hill Country Flyer, from Cedar Park to Burnet and back. In 1999, they switched to a diesel engine because the 786 needed rebuilding.
"It's still going on," Ben says. "It is costing us $2 million."
Volunteer crews take 25,000 people a year into the Hill Country each year. The Bertram Flyer is a 3-hour alternative to the Burnet day trip. All of them use the tracks, owned by Cap Metro, first built to bring granite, which was used to build the Capitol, to Austin in the 1880s.
"We have a beer train, a wine train and a superhero train," Ben says. "But the one people get really excited about is the Christmas-themed North Pole Flyer in December."
The nonprofit employs a small paid staff of mechanics and office workers, but the crew that runs the excursions is made up of volunteers.
"It's the only federally licensed volunteer crew I know of running so many trains," Ben says. "And doing on it a line with commuter and freight trains on the same tracks. It's a real railroad."
Originally built with narrow-gauge tracks, this line is known for the megalithic granite blocks from Granite Mountain near Burnet that are strewn along its right of way.
"Those blocks meant for the Capitol — then later the Galveston Seawall and various jetties — fell off and were too heavy at 60 to 70 tons to pick back up," Ben says. "There's one bridge over Brush Creek in Cedar Park that includes such a steep incline that the engine needed a running start to get up to the other side. At one point, all the cars tumbled into the creek, leaving the engine and caboose."
"That's where you can see the most blocks," Sam says. "It's now a city park and a trail. But there's plenty of granite left on Granite Mountain."
A 'Big Boy' steam engine visits Texas
Between 1941 and 1944, American Locomotive Company built 25 Big Boys to haul freight over the mountains of the West. Eight survive. All but the 4014 stand mutely in static display.
The 4014 operates because Union Pacific acquired it in 2014 and transferred it to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where master mechanics restore and repair steam engines. For decades, the 4014 had been displayed at the Fairplex RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona, California. It took $16 million to bring it back into service.
"It's just an enormous engine," Ben says. "It's the only one that uses the 4-8-8-4 wheel arrangement. You've got four sets of leading wheels, two sets of eight each driving wheels, and four wheels for the trailing (fire) truck. It is 135 feet long and weighs 600 tons. By way of comparison, our engine comes in at 143 tons."
"It's not only enormous, it tells the story of the end of steam," Sam says of the 4014. "The largest and most powerful steam engine ever arrived exactly at the sad end of steam."
Father and son learned about the Big Boy's visit from social media. They wanted to see it up close, but also coming down the track. A former roadside park just north of Mexia allowed them that second visual advantage.
Along the way, they witnessed overenthusiastic train fanatics standing on the rails or the gauge to catch a glimpse. "That would get you fired from our group," Ben says.
During the 4014's stop in Mexia proper, a town that was a rough small city during a 1920s oil boom, a big crowd pressed forward to be near it.
"It was neat to see how many people wanted to see it," Sam says.
In Hearne, the next stop, even more people gathered in what is widely known as a railroad town.
"All the train nerds were in Hearne," Sam says.
After its tour of Texas, the 4014 headed to New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City and Denver.
Why did all these Texans need to see it in person?
Sam: "The fact that the crowds included so many different kind of people of all ages speaks to its durable sensory attraction."
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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