Giant 1940s steam locomotive Big Boy crisscrosses Texas
It’s big. And strong.
In addition, it spits steam.
“It’s the smell,” says railroad fanatic Sam Sargent of a 1940s train engine known as the Union Pacific Big Boy, the world’s largest, fastest steam locomotive. heaviest and most powerful ever built. “It’s exciting to see such an amazing machine. But it’s the smell of steam that comes back to you.”
This juggernaut is so magnetic that crowds gathered along the tracks — and at every one of its stops — for 4014, the only operating Big Boy, as it rolled through Texas earlier in August.
Sargent, chief strategy officer for Austin Transit Partnership and Cap Metro, raced to Mexia and Hearne to catch the rare sight with his father, Ben Sargent, a former American political cartoonist, also a self-proclaimed “train nerd.”
“You smell hot valve oil,” Ben says. “It’s such a sensory thing. Railroad author Lucius Beebe once wrote, ‘For a brief moment in eternity, a machine both useful and beautiful.'”
Valve oil in their blood
The Sargents, father and son, have been fascinated by trains all their lives.
“I like to say it started when I was delivered by the Fort Worth and Denver company surgeon in Amarillo,” Ben, 72, jokes. “My dad was into trains. Amarillo has always been a railroad town. The Rock Island tracks were half a block from our house. It was also a big railroad town in Santa Fe. I was attracted.”
After:Texas History: Delve into the historic Medina River with this in-depth guide
In his youth, Ben traveled a lot by train. He regularly took the train to Fort Worth to see his grandmother, and he visited California and Chicago by train.
“A switchman lived next door,” he said. “He showed me around a steam locomotive. I played with train sets. I still do – with HO scale model railroading.” The HO model train system uses a 1:87 scale.
As Ben grew older, passenger trains began to fall into disuse.
“But Amarillo never really slowed down because of the Burlington Coal Road,” he says.
For his part, 35-year-old Sam took an early Amtrak school trip to Taylor. Later, he regularly rode the restored 786 Southern Pacific steamer operated by the Austin Steam Train Association in the Hill Country – his father is a longtime volunteer for the nonprofit. In college, Sam spent two spring breaks on long Amtrak trips.
After:Texas History: Lady Bird Johnson Gets Her Ride at the LBJ Library
“I had another advantage,” Sam says. “I grew up in South Austin half a mile from the tracks, so I heard them all the time. You don’t hear them so much anymore, because they established quiet areas.”
His particular interest in public transport dates back to his first trip to Washington, DC, the former hometown of his mother, Diane Holloway, the former American television critic.
Sam: “I just fell for it.”
Ben: “So much, that when we walked up to the Smithsonian, Sam was like, ‘Oh yeah, you go up to Foggy Bottom, then change to Metro Center.’ He had already plotted it. I knew then that he was a train guy.”
Historic trains in the Hill Country
Ben and Sam were somewhat prepared for the sights, sounds, and smells of a Big Boy, as the family has been actively working on trains, and especially steamboats, since Sam was a small child.
For 32 years, Ben volunteered for the Austin Steam Train Association, which was founded in 1989. In 1990, the non-profit organization removed from static display the 786 Southern Pacific ocean liner which had languished for decades. years in downtown Brush Square.
Raising $800,000, the group returned the engine to service, first as far as Georgetown. Then in 1992 the group established its most popular round trip, the Hill Country Flyer, from Cedar Park to Burnet and back. In 1999 they switched to a diesel engine as the 786 needed to be rebuilt.
“It goes on,” Ben said. “It’s costing us $2 million.”
Teams of volunteers take 25,000 people to the Hill Country each year. The Bertram Flyer is a 3 hour alternative to the Burnet day trip. All use the Cap Metro-owned tracks first built to bring the granite, which was used to build the Capitol, to Austin in the 1880s.
“We have a beer train, a wine train, and a superhero train,” Ben says. “But the one that really gets people excited is the Christmas-themed North Pole Flyer in December.”
The non-profit organization employs a small paid team of mechanics and office workers, but the team that organizes the excursions is made up of volunteers.
“It’s the only federally-licensed volunteer crew I know that operates that many trains,” Ben says. “And make a line there with commuter and freight trains on the same tracks. It’s a real railway.”
Originally built with narrow-gauge tracks, this line is known for the megalithic granite boulders of Granite Mountain near Burnet that litter its right-of-way.
“These blocks destined for the Capitol — and then later the Galveston Seawall and various piers — fell down and were too heavy at 60 to 70 tons to retrieve,” Ben said. “There is a bridge over Brush Creek in Cedar Park that includes such a steep incline that the engine needed a running start to get up the other side. At one point all the cars fell into the creek , leaving the engine and the caboose.”
“That’s where you can see the most boulders,” Sam says. “It’s now a city park and trail. But there’s a lot of granite left on Granite Mountain.”
A “Big Boy” Steam Engine Visits Texas
Between 1941 and 1944, American Locomotive Company built 25 Big Boys to haul freight over the western mountains. Eight survive. All except 4014 remain silent in static display.
The 4014 works because Union Pacific acquired it in 2014 and moved it to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where master mechanics restore and repair steam engines. For decades, 4014 was on display at the Fairplex RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona, California. It took $16 million to bring it back into service.
“It’s just a huge engine,” Ben says. “It’s the only one that uses the 4-8-8-4 wheel arrangement. You have four sets of front wheels, two sets of eight drive wheels each and four wheels for the rear (fire) truck. It’s 135 feet long and weighs 600 tons.For comparison, our engine weighs 143 tons.
“It’s not just huge, it tells the story of the end of steam,” Sam says of the 4014. “The biggest, most powerful steam engine ever to come to exactly the sad end of steam .”
Both father and son learned of the Big Boy’s visit on social media. They wanted to see it up close, but also down the track. An old roadside park just north of Mexia gave them this second visual advantage.
Along the way, they saw over-enthusiastic train fanatics standing on the tracks or on the gauge to catch a glimpse. “That would get you kicked out of our group,” Ben said.
During the 4014’s stopover in Mexia proper, a town that was a bustling small town during the oil boom of the 1920s, a large crowd thronged to approach.
“It was great to see how many people wanted to see it,” Sam says.
In Hearne, the next stop, even more people gathered in what is widely known as a railroad town.
“All the freaks on the train were at Hearne,” Sam says.
After its Texas tour, 4014 headed to New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City and Denver.
Why did all those Texans need to see him in person?
Sam: “The fact that the crowds included so many different people of all ages speaks to his enduring sensory appeal.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture, and history of Austin and Texas. He can be contacted at [email protected]
Texas history, delivered to your inbox
Sign up for Think, Texas, a newsletter sent every Tuesday, at profile.statesman.com/newsletters/manage. And if the weekly email isn’t enough, there’s more. Follow Michael Barnes on Twitter: @outandabout. Missing a column? View the Think, Texas archives at statesman.com/news/austin-history.