Notes from the road to Promontory

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, May 16, 2019

Big Boy 4014, accompanied by 4-8-4 No. 844, steams into Granger, Wyo., not long after sunrise on May 6. For many, the 4-8-8-4's trip to Ogden was the highlight of the Golden Spike anniversary events. Robert S. McGonigal
Was last week the most extraordinary in the recent history of American railroading?

You can’t convince me otherwise, not after seeing thousands gather in Ogden on May 9 to see the ceremonial pairing of Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 No. 4014 and 4-8-4 No. 844. Not after joining perhaps 20,000 people on May 10 at Promontory Summit for the formal celebration of the driving of the last spike in 1869. And not after seeing hundreds of photos and videos from the thousands of people who jammed Interstate 80 in pursuit of the Big Boy and its mate across Wyoming and Utah. 

I can’t recall a moment when railroading captured this much national media attention, let alone electrified so many of us true believers. 

I was lucky to be a witness for much of it, courtesy of Trains magazine’s Journey to Promontory tour, which I was fortunate to host. Our expert manager was Hannah Barnes of Special Interest Tours. More than 70 of us gathered in Sacramento on May 5 for a 10-day journey that would take us 1,600 miles eastward to Omaha, mostly following the route of the first transcontinental railroad. Our group included people from not only across America, but Japan, Sweden, and the UK. We were a disparate group, but over the 10 days we became a merry band.

Now, just a few days later, I’m still processing all that we saw and learned along the Overland Route. It’s still a bit early to decide “what it all means,” but here are some thoughts after traveling the road to Promontory:

At Evanston, Wyo., participants in Trains magazine's Sacramento–Omaha 'Journey to Promontory' tour stopped at the old UP roundhouse, being beautifully restored as a multipurpose facility. Kevin P. Keefe
• Having just ridden across much of the West on Interstate 80, I have to ask: Is this the premier long-distance corridor with a railroad theme? As in, themed for Union Pacific? Since 1996, when UP absorbed Southern Pacific, the big yellow railroad has been sole proprietor of the route. It’s almost as if I-80 was designed to showcase a single railroad. Our tour visited three great stations, Sacramento, Ogden, and Omaha, and two world-class railroad museums, in Sacramento and Council Bluffs, both with deep UP connections. We stopped at huge examples of UP’s fame, including the massive Ames Monument at the original Sherman, Wyo., the beautiful restoration under way at the 28-stall Evanston roundhouse, and the eight-story Golden Spike Tower in North Platte, not to mention several restored UP depots along the way. The railroad’s freight trains often were visible out the windows of our tour buses. 

And UP motive power? You might call I-80 the Otto Jabelmann Memorial Highway. Our tour brought encounters with three Big Boys, the 4014 in Ogden, of course, but also the displayed 4004 at Holliday Park in Cheyenne and 4023 at Kenefick Park in Omaha. For good measure, you can throw in 4-6-6-4 Challenger No. 3977 in Cody Park in North Platte. Not to mention three DDA40X Centennial diesels in Ogden, North Platte, and Omaha, plus a “Big Blow” gas-turbine at Ogden. 

• The presentation at Promontory Summit, staged by Utah’s Spike 150 commission, was nearly pitch perfect, with just about everything a big crowd might expect: some decent song and dance, a stage loaded with Utah’s political elite, plenty of UP brass, some re-enactors that gave new meaning to the term “over-act,” and some nice whistling from the two replica 4-4-0s, Central Pacific Jupiter and Union Pacific 119.

Another stop on the Trains tour was the monument to the Ames brothers, who helped finance construction of the Union Pacific. It stands near the summit of UP's original line over Sherman Hill, bypassed in the early 1900s. Kevin P. Keefe
But there was more. Perhaps for the first time at an event like this, the contradictory stories of the transcontinental railroad were told. Meaning, along with tributes to glorious engineering accomplishments and the high-minded rhetoric of westward expansion, you got a ceremony that acknowledged the cost paid by the Plains Indians, as well as the dubious treatment of thousands of railroad workers, especially the Chinese. I was touched by the comments of U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, herself the child of immigrants. As she stated very clearly, May 10 would have been impossible without the 12,000 Chinese who helped the Central Pacific blast through mountains and cross deserts. 

By far the highlight of the day was the keynote speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Jon Meacham, author of 2018’s The Soul of America. Without going into details, Meacham noted the parallels between 1869 and 2019, both trying times for American unity. He acknowledged the warts of conquest — especially the financial chicanery of the CP and the UP and the Civil War roots of Lincoln’s railroad charter. “The transcontinental railroad is the story of America, for better or worse,” Meacham told the crowd. “The story is not perfect, but then neither are we.”

• There should be no doubt now that Ed Dickens, senior manager of heritage operations at UP, is the current reigning star of mainline steam. Even with all of Union Pacific’s vast resources, the on-time arrival of a fully restored 4014 is a tribute to the hard work and perseverance of Dickens and his crew at the railroad’s steam shop in Cheyenne. They were certainly feeling the pressure in the weeks leading up to 4014’s revival. 

Cast members from the musical "As One" pose on a stage in front of the Jupiter and 119 replicas during the anniversary activities at Golden Spike National Historic Park on May 10. Steve Sweeney
I don’t know Mr. Dickens, but from what I understand he’s a rather low-key guy, eager to answer questions from just about anybody and always quick to credit the other members of his team. I don’t know whether he enjoys all the limelight he’s getting now that the 4014 is back on UP’s roster of operating assets, but he might as well get used to it. As he climbed out on the 4014’s pilot beam at the Ogden ceremony, resplendent in denim overalls and gauntlet gloves, he raised an oil can to a huge crowd of railfans chanting “Ed, Ed, Ed, Ed!”

When it comes to self promotion, Union Pacific has no equal among today’s railroads, as the handling of the Golden Spike anniversary and the return of 4014 demonstrated. The preeminent UP historian Maury Klein has observed that “through all of the vicissitudes of a changing transportation landscape, the Union Pacific [has] maintained both its solvency and superiority.” After 10 days of riding, observing, and just generally soaking in all things UP, I’d have to agree.

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