The Circus that Wasn't and the Memories that Were

Posted by Dave Crosby
on Friday, May 24, 2019

“You’re nuts!” “You couldn’t pay me to go out there!” “It was nice knowing you.”

These are a few of the warnings I received prior to heading west for the triumphant return of Union Pacific “Big Boy” 4014.  I knew I would be just one among thousands of other people making the same pilgrimage.  Even with dire forecasts of mass chaos and hysteria, this was 2019 and an engine no one ever thought would run again was due to lead a train from Cheyenne to Ogden. 

To me (and countless others) this was a must-see.  Period.  Just like the return of N&W 611 a few years ago, the whole situation went against every notion of modern-day railroad operating philosophy.  Also, like the 611’s return to steam four years ago, no one can honestly say how long this resurrection will last.  The specter of Precision Scheduled Railroading casts a long shadow over the Union Pacific.  The powers that be in Omaha could still say “enough is enough” and mothball their steam program at any time.   Keenly aware of that scenario, I made my plans, booked hotels and with a mindset of “Embrace the Circus” I arrived in Cheyenne bracing for near Armageddon as if waiting for a bomb to go off.

Then: Nothing.

Well I shouldn’t say “nothing”.  A lot of people DID come to Wyoming.  Cheyenne looked not unlike the final scene in “Field of Dreams” and the phrase “If you (re)build it, they will come” frequently crossed my mind.  However, the complete gridlock, armed combat and wailing and gnashing of teeth never materialized.  It was if a cartoon villain fired a pistol, only to have a flag with the word “BANG” on it pop out from the barrel much to everyone’s relief. 

Just about every location I visited was filled with downright friendly people.  Some shooting videos and pictures while others were just there to take it all in.  Die hard railfans, local residents mixed with seasoned railroad employees in relative harmony.  By and large, people respected each other’s space even helping others get an unobstructed view or image by loaning step stools or pickup truck beds.  When the inevitable stray fan made it into the scene, the photographers I encountered were respectful, even friendly towards the interloper. 

Caravans were orderly and courteous when arriving and departing photo locations.  There were occasional backups getting on and off the interstate via local roads simply not designed for that influx of vehicles, but they were usually short in duration and contributed to an overall sense of comradery that I haven’t witnessed on a train chase before.  Much to my surprise I was able to catch the special in three or four different locations each day.  Only on the last leg of the trip, through the scenic Echo and Weber Canyons, did traffic really get bogged down.  Even that debacle was met with an attitude of nonchalance by most.

To be honest, mingling with the throngs of spectators was a half the fun.  I’ve met people I would not otherwise have encountered and made a few new friends in the process.  Meeting veteran Union Pacific employees - including a precious few who experienced the Big Boys in regular service – will remain the highlight of my adventure. Perhaps the memory I’ll value most took place while standing near the famed Colorado & Southern bridge near Cheyenne’s west end as part of a crowd waiting for the 4014’s first test run.  Spending several minutes causally shooting the breeze with an older gentleman only to realize it’s Jim Ehrenberger - a retired Union Pacific Dispatcher who photographed the 4000’s in service – was akin to standing alongside Jimi Hendrix during a soundcheck for the Beatles.

There was a sense that we were all part of history in a way.  Maybe that’s why the entire chase was all so well mannered.  Maybe it was the thinner air in the high plains.  Maybe everyone was just in a good mood at the same time. 

After a week at home reflecting on the experience, I still cannot explain it.       

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