Big Boy took his time getting to North Platte, but he received a hero’s welcome when he got there.
After cooling his heels at the edge of Bailey Yard, Union Pacific’s resurrected Engine No. 4014 puffed into downtown at 3 p.m. Tuesday to begin his two-day layover en route to Omaha’s weekend Railroad Days.
Dozens of flag-waving rail fans of all ages greeted Big Boy and its special steam-engine crew as they first paused for photos at the Front Street memorial to North Platte’s 1918 U.P. depot, site of the famous World War II Canteen.
Then they slowly rolled on, belching white steam upon those hanging near the memorial fence, until coming to a stop on the southernmost track near Front and Cottonwood streets where the railroad’s most special trains have long been seen.
No. 4014, restored at Union Pacific’s Cheyenne steam shop in time for May’s 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad’s completion, will continue its eastward journey to Omaha Thursday morning.
It’ll return for its public debut Aug. 3-6 in connection with North Platte Rail Days, moved up from September to accommodate the triumphant return to the rails of U.P.’s largest-ever locomotive.
After setting out from Cheyenne Monday and staying overnight in Sidney, Big Boy chugged its way across the eastern Panhandle toward brief late-morning stops at Julesburg, Colorado, and Ogallala.
A long convoy of vehicles chased No. 4014 along U.S. Highway 30, the old Lincoln Highway, on its first Nebraska run since U.P. retired the last of the original 25 Big Boys in 1959.
They included the car of James Burns of North Platte, who followed Big Boy from Roscoe to Hershey before heading for the old depot site to watch the locomotive pull into downtown.
“It was amazing to actually see it running,” Burns said as the crowd waited for a long “regular” U.P. diesel train to clear the track for No. 4014’s arrival.
“I’ve been going to the one in Cody Park (retired Challenger No. 3977) ever since I was little. To see one of them moving is awe-inspiring.”
Big Boy had been due along Front Street at 1:30 p.m., but it paused in the main part of the yard after passing the Birdwood overpass.
When it arrived downtown, it lacked a string of freight cars Burns had seen attached farther west. But No. 4014 still pulled three of U.P.’s passenger-era armor-yellow cars behind its black tender and yellow water tanks. A modern diesel engine rode in between.
Several dozen vehicles, its occupants waiting in anticipation, filled the city parking lots on either side of the Canteen memorial. Together, they occupy the space where the 1918 depot — destination of the Canteen’s 6 million wartime service visitors — graced downtown until its November 1973 demolition.
Inside the tree-filled Canteen memorial, Valerie and Adam Marcotte of Champaign, Illinois, waited with their four children for Big Boy’s arrival.
Valerie Marcotte, who grew up in Omaha, said she and her family had come to North Platte to visit her grandmother Mary Duggan.
“We were on our way to Paxton and we heard about the train, so we had to stop,” she said.
Alan and Debbie Colglazier of Holyoke, Colorado, were just two of several northeast Colorado rail fans who staked out various locations along Big Boy’s Tuesday morning run.
“We made a decision a couple of days ago to come here,” Debbie Colglazier said. “Some friends went to Julesburg and some to Ogallala, and we decided to come here. And I love the history of this.”
As they waited, the couple unexpectedly encountered Alan Colglazier’s cousin Larry Todd of North Platte. He brought his grandchildren Luca and Ayla Acero-Todd, visiting from Miami, to see Big Boy arrive.
The great locomotive and its racket were a bit too much for Luca, 6, and Ayla, 3. But “it’s great to see how this one actually works,” their grandpa said.
“I’m very impressed,” Debbie Colglazier said. “I thought it would be a lot more beat up than it was. But they did a beautiful job fixing it up. And the steam was hot.”
April Dennis of North Platte was beaming after Big Boy came to a stop for its unofficial visit. She said she’s been a train fan over “many years of sitting for trains as we waited for the tracks to clear” at the Poplar Street crossing before its overpass was built.
“I didn’t use my earplugs, as I wanted to hear and see it, get the whole experience,” she said.