When the Union Pacific’s historic Big Boy steam engine arrived Wednesday morning in Manhattan, it was about an hour late. But the anxious crowds were forgiving, and as the whistle finally sounded in the distance, cheers broke out.
The No. 4014 steam engine, one of eight of its kind left and the only one still in operation, roared into town and stopped for a little over half an hour Wednesday morning at the South Manhattan Avenue rail crossing. There, children who had never seen such a black behemoth and older citizens who remember the bygone era of steam locomotives crowded around the Big Boy.
Michelle Whitney said her sons, Jack, 3, and Arthur, 1, love trains, so she had to dress them up in the engineer costumes to come see the train.
“They love to watch even the freight trains go by, so I wanted to let them experience (the steam train) and see the steam and how big the train is, compared to how small they are,” she said.
Officials couldn’t quite estimate the size of the crowd, as hundreds of people stretched for a couple of miles along the tracks south of Manhattan. Edward Hoover, a Wamego train enthusiast and volunteer with the Central Branch Railroad in Waterville, kept watch for the train but also cleared the track of onlookers, because even at slow speeds, the 1.25 million-pound train was still dangerous.
As the engine pulled in, Union Pacific workers greased the train while steam turned into water and poured down the wheels, some of which were about as tall as an average person. Meanwhile, Ed Dickens, who heads the company’s Heritage Operations, leaned out to watch the crowds while eating a quick lunch — a cup of mac and cheese.
Dickens personally oversaw the multi-year restoration of Big Boy No. 4014, which was retired in 1961, and returned the steam engine to service in May as part of Union Pacific’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. He’ll wrap up the six-month tour of the Southwest later this month and return the train to the company’s steam engine headquarters in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Glenn Manning, an employee for Union Pacific, waited for the train with a handheld radio near the rail crossing Wednesday morning, but he wasn’t in Manhattan on official business. He swiped a radio from the company headquarters in Omaha, and took a vacation day to return to his hometown and alma mater to see his company’s historic train.
“This was a chance to come back,” Manning said. “I also have a lot of family coming to see it.”
Mike Hubka, a social studies teacher at Riley County Grade School, said he organized a field trip for the school’s 7th and 8th graders to come see the train, as it was living history.
“I hope they have an appreciation for travel today and what it used to take,” Hubka said. “You can see how much it takes to get something this size to move. It took a long time for the tracks to be laid, and a lot of time and engineering to make the train.”
While Hubka discusses the Transcontinental Railroad in his classes, he said nothing beats seeing history like the steam engine in person.
“This is something you don’t see every day, so it’s an opportunity for our kids to see living history,” he said.