They came because they had to, said Mary Smith, Phillipsburg.
Like so many others making the pilgrimage Thursday morning to see the world’s biggest steam locomotive, Smith and her husband, Don, drove down early, braving a bitter, windy chill. They stood with the growing crowd at 9th and Milner streets to await arrival of the 1.2 ton Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014.
“Don said ‘This is like seeing the eclipse, we can’t just stay at home,’” Mary laughed.
Scheduled to pull in at 1:45 p.m., the Big Boy was on live track coming from Salina, its route alongside Old Highway 40, creating bumper-to-bumper traffic from Victoria to Hays.
A bundled-up crowd had been spilling onto the tracks since 1 p.m. around Allen Street, where the 4014 arrived about an hour late, stopping a couple hundred yards east of the intersection. With phone cameras ready and kids riding on shoulders, the crowd tramped right up to the big black engine through ankle-high grass and stickers to get a close-up look.
Amber Steward, Topeka, a junior at FHSU majoring in psychology, brought along her boyfriend, Tyler Rathbun, Minneapolis, a senior in music education. They were meeting family, including her dad, Scott Steward.
“My dad is huge into trains,” Steward said. “They’re coming from Topeka to chase the trains here.”
Rex Kaiser drove from Quinter, and was reminded of his grandpa, George Kaiser, Park, who retired from the railroad in the 1950s.
“My grandpa worked for Union Pacific back in the old days,” Kaiser said. “They’d go out in storms and blizzards in pump cars and check the tracks. It would have been what we’re seeing today.”
Greg Vanderree, Coldwater, drove 129 miles with his dog “Snow.”
“This was the closest the train was going to be to me,” Vanderree said. “I love these trains and this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal to see.”
He commented to Karen Horst and her husband, Garald, from Arnold, Neb., “You don’t want to get caught in the steam cloud, it’s hot.”
Traveling across the United States to commemorate the transcontinental railroad’s 150th anniversary, the Big Boy is drawing crowds everywhere it goes, said a UP employee laying out hose beside the track before the train arrived. The historic train draws water from municipal water hydrants all along the way, stopping each night to top off its 25,000 gallons of water and 6,000 gallons of fuel.
“We’re getting water ready to put back in the water tankers,” he said, declining to give his name. A part of the steam crew of 10 people from Cheyenne, Wyo., he’s been traveling with the train since Sept. 27, the latest and longest leg of 4014’s travels, which began in May. Previously a diesel electrician in North Platte, Neb., his colleague with him Thursday was a boilermaker.
“It’s a highly sought after position,” he said of the steam crew. “We should get home Nov. 26.”
Depending on a city’s water pressure, filling No. 4014’s water tank can take 30 minutes or all night. The fuel is used motor oil, he said, nodding to the Big Boy’s fuel tanker parked on 9th Street.
“Back in the day, it burned coal, but it’s easier for us to transport oil than coal, logistically,” he said. “Coal produces embers and stuff and that potentially can start fires.”
Dean Anderson, who drives the fuel truck, said he’s the only contractor on the 4014 steam crew, an employee of Wayne Transports Inc., Rosemount, Minn.
“We’ve been on the road now for months,” Anderson said. “I’m going home as soon as we’re done with this trip.”
No. 4014 normally runs about 50 miles an hour, he said, but it’s often forced down to 15.
“All the people on the tracks,” Anderson explained. “Sometimes we have to walk the train into town to get people off the tracks.”
An engineer and fireman ride in the cab, keeping an eye out for all possibilities.
“People are putting pennies on the track,” Anderson said. “If the train hits one wrong, it can come out like a bullet.”
Driving up to find a parking spot, John Bird, Hays, said he grew up on a farm west of town, seeing the UP trains and counting the cars.
“I couldn’t miss this,” he said, recalling passenger trains at the downtown UP train depot, since torn down.
“I left for the Marine Corps from the railroad depot here in Hays, that was in 1971,” Bird said. “In those days it was nothing to take the train to Topeka or Kansas City and come back the same day.”
Driving an hour from Garfield, south of Hays, Nancy Kirkwood had the day off with her husband, Aaron.
“My dad had a Lionel train set and every Christmas he’d put it up and run it,” Kirkwood said.
Rocky Slagle, Derby, with his wife, Marianne, had camped over at Ellis.
“When I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in Holiday Park there was a Big Boy,” Slagle said. “I grew up playing on it. You’d just get up inside the cab like you’re running it. There were gauges and knobs.”
Rebecca Befort, Hays, was there with her friend, Kathleen Windholz, Ellis, both Fort Hays students. Befort was encouraged to come by her grandparents, Don and Sharon Befort.
“My grandparents told me it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Befort said. “They remembered the train coming through Hays when they were kids.”
There beside the tracks with a camera around her neck, Ashley Lamb, Otis, came with her fiancé, Ben Blair. He took the day off as a farmhand. Blair held their toddler, Thea, bundled up in a snow suit.
“Today’s my birthday,” said Lamb. “If we don’t do anything else this is the one thing I want to do.”
At Thursday afternoon’s standing-room-only presentation at the Hays Public Library, Ben Jones, UP director of public affairs in Kansas, told the crowd that No. 4014 was in service for 20 years from 1941 to 1961.
“None of the crew members are going to be able to make it over, they are tying down the train and doing all the maintenance,” he said. “Get water, oil it, grease it, and they’re up against hours of service.”
Designed to pull freight up steep inclines up north, No. 4014 was one of 25 Big Boys built exclusively for UP. It was retired, then UP took ownership again in 2013 from a museum in California, restoring it for the 150th.
“Knock on wood, we haven’t had any issues with it,” Jones said “That just shows you how well made things were in 1941.”
This last leg of No. 4014’s seven-month tour has traversed California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and now Kansas. Friday it was headed for Sharon Springs and Limon, Colo., then ultimately Cheyenne, where it will permanently stay.
“It is truly a piece of history,” Jones said. “Union Pacific’s history is rich, it goes back to Abraham Lincoln signing the Rail Pacific Act back in 1862. When your company is created by the president, you have a special place in United States history … also all the communities along the way.”
Friday morning, Hays and the Big Boy woke to a blanket of snow, with wet, fluffy snowflakes continuing to fall at departure time, nearly 9 a.m.
Leaving Hays at full steam, whistle blowing, No. 4014’s last moments in town stirred delighted mentions from the small crowd lining the tracks of Polar Express.