On the road with Big Boy No. 4014: Of people, public relations, and the future

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Big Boy No. 4014 began the last lap on its Midwestern tour Tuesday with a trip from West Chicago, Ill., to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As it has been since leaving Cheyenne on July 8, every move of the locomotive has been followed by thousands. At some display locations, the number of people who came out to see the world’s largest operating steam locomotive has been staggering: 12,000 in Duluth, Minn., 20,000 in West Chicago. And thousands more trackside at rural grade crossings, in small towns, and at factories.


Particularly gratifying is the reaction of people watching the train pass. It has attracted people from all walks of life. The businessman, the mother and her children, the retired railroaders, the teenagers. Male and female. People of all races. It has made no difference. And in the end, it has brought great joy. In suburban Chicago, at Elmhurst, Ill., last Friday, those packing both platforms of the Metra station broke into applause as tail car Kenefick passed. It wasn’t the only place that happened, either.


The tour proves once more that the public has an appreciation for railroading and railroad history, and that the sam locomotive is still a powerful public relations tool. The presence of an exhibit car to bring the story to current in the trainset was the right move for Union Pacific. Is it too much to take No. 4014’s superstar charism and perhaps think about making it the centerpiece of an expanded railroad display in say Chicago or Kansas City to showcase the industry’s history and its important role in the U.S. economy today? A Chicago Railroad Fair 21st century style? Or perhaps such thinking and talk can go toward a 200th anniversary celebration of American railroading in 2027? UP, American railroading, let’s not waste Big Boy’s public relations potential.


Steam locomotives speak to us if we’re willing to listen. They have their stories to tell. I think No. 4014 is speaking as a gentle giant, reawakened after a slumber of six decades. No. 4014 can speak to a time when western mainline railroading was a critical part of the biggest war effort in the nation’s history. It also speaks to the genius of human-kind, as my friend, photographer David Plowden reminds me. To gaze upon Big Boy at speed is to view an amazing machine. But it is also to witness ingenuity in rods, and rivets, in flues and fireboxes. It’s a breathtaking glimpse into how people working together solve problems.


A big part of the success of Big Boy’s tour has been the chance to see it running. But an equally important part of the tour has been the crew and their interactions with the public. They’ve been tireless in their efforts to run a safe and efficient locomotive. And they’ve been attentive to their fans, whether they’re veteran rail enthusiasts or curious kids. No question has been too trivial to answer. They’ve stood in broiling heat turned away no one. Justifiably proud, they’ve represented their incredible project and company well and given No. 4014 a prolific voice.


As No. 4014 makes its way back to Cheyenne over the next week, I can only imagine how many kids saw this giant and were impressed. I can only think that the crew that has sewn seeds of imagination and fired the railroad spirit in kids and teenagers. One day, they’ll be the railroaders and the enthusiasts that we all want to see coming along from one generation to the next.  And if that’s No. 4014’s legacy, then the time, sweat, and money invested to bring it back to life shall not have been spent in vain.

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