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Renovated 'Big Boy' Locomotive Chugs Its Way Through West Texas

By Carlos Morales

As you might guess, the ‘Big Boy’ locomotive is, well, pretty big. It weighs in at 1.2 million pounds. The matte-black engine looks like it belongs to a train set you’d see beneath a Christmas tree.

As the 78-year-old engine chugs its way through sprawling Texas landscapes, its steam billows into the air behind it and crowds of onlookers line up to catch a glimpse of the rustic steam engine.

“Steam trains are such a sensory experience," Alan Irby said, as he set up his tripod to take photos and video of the locomotive. “The sounds, the smells, the smell of the steam — just everything about it. It’s kind of old-fashioned and kind of romantic in a way, and it just kind of excited the little boy in me.”

Irby made the roughly 6-hour drive from Pflugerville to see ‘Big Boy 4014 in person. And he plans on following the train to at least five different Texas stops.

There were only 25 Big Boy steam locomotives ever built for Union Pacific in 1941. Once dubbed revolutionary by industry folk, they hauled freight all across the mountain states in the mid-century. Union Pacific renovated this one to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Big Boy 4014 is now the largest operational steam engine in the country.

“It’s pretty cool to see something restored, that they took the time to do it,” Janet Walker said.

Walker and her family made the nearly 3-hour drive from Odessa to see the imposing locomotive up close. She says her husband’s a train enthusiast and has a model of this very engine at their home on a bookshelf.

“It’s cool that they’ve done this and let people come out and see it,” Walker said.

There are a lot of spectators here early on this chilly November morning; they've lined their cars up on both sides of the road. Some are standing in the beds of their trucks to get a better view. And others — like Walker and her family — are going to keep up with the train as it heads to its next few stops. 

“It’s just kind of a fun thing to do on a weekend," Walker said.

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As it makes its way across the Southwest, this Big Boy is running on a different kind of fuel than it did in the 40s and 50s. It was converted to burn oil instead of coal.

After sitting idle overnight in Alpine, Big Boy is getting ready to take off and
Margaux Jones is eagerly waiting to snap a picture of its departure. Jones is from Colorado, visiting her family in Alpine.

For her, especially with the backdrop of the Chihuahuan Desert, this moment is a window into a time and place long gone. 

“With the rock, the mountains and the desert," Jones said. "It’s like old West, old Wild Wild West, right?!"

Big Boy 4014 will continue on to San Antonio, Houston and then to Arkansas and Oklahoma before its final stop in Wyoming, where the Big Boy locomotives first made their name. 

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.