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Tracking a locomotive that's highly a-steamed

The first time I heard about it, I could hardly wait for its coming. No, not the next presidential election, though that’s a close second.

Rather, Big Boy, Engine No. 4014, the largest steam engine ever built. To celebrate Union Pacific’s 150th anniversary, the locomotive is pulling classic yellow Union Pacific cars across the country. Weighing more than three diesel engines, if human, Big Boy might be a sumo wrestler.

Parked in West Chicago over a late July weekend, Big Boy drew a crowd the Rolling Stones would envy. On Tuesday morning, Big Boy began his odyssey back to Wyoming where, until 1959, he hauled coal cars. Scheduled to leave at 8:00 a.m., he would roll through Geneva maybe ten minutes later. Where to watch?

Gawkers would surely pack the station’s platform, so what about the park district’s Sunset pool and gym? Plenty of parking, unfettered train track access. Yes!

I drive over a few minutes before 8:00 to find about two thousand other train buffs already lining the tracks. If the parking spot I find were any farther away, I’d be nosing in next to a Stairmaster.

I weave among stroller babies, toddlers, teens, millennials, adults, and seniors—a baseball game or circus crowd. When crossing bells clang, an expectant cry goes up—but it’s only the Elburn Metra passing eastward. One or two enthusiasts waiting on the north side of the tracks bravely—and stupidly—hop over the rails, scared they might miss Big Boy. My wife, Tia, told me to perch on the south side, the outbound side; I poo-poo-ed the suggestion, but now see its merit.

I ask a bearded man in shorts, polo, and sandals why he came. Bob Kershner not only wanted to see the train, but “feel it.” We reminisce. I recall when a boy standing on a station platform of a tiny northern Wisconsin town late at night as a locomotive, volcanic steam and smoke erupting, chugged to a stop and let off my father, up from Chicago. Bob remembers the noses of black locomotives sticking out of Aurora’s roundhouse.

Bob’s wife, on the internet, informs us Big Boy is still in West Chicago.

“What brings so many here?” I ask Bob.

“There’s a magnet to the machine. I grew up at Mooseheart, and we used to go to an Elgin train club to see their layouts.” We then compare boyhood Lionel layouts like NRA enthusiasts compare first weaponry.

A freight train rumbles toward us from the west. More north side trackers scramble south, the diesel’s horn blasting them, furious.

“The train is moving,” Bob’s wife reports around 9:00.

“Maybe we’ll see it before we’re as old as the machine,” Bob quips.

Ten minutes later, a slow, wheezing container train ambles eastward, another threat to north siders’ view. Simultaneously, gray smoke billows up in the east. A minute later, the last of the freight lumbering past, Big Boy barrels by, its horn warning, WHOOO—WHOOOOO.

Cameras click and videos record the black behemoth, clouds of white steam belching from between piston-driven steel wheels pulling a coal car big as a gymnasium, diesel engine, baggage car, passenger cars, and lounge car with observation deck, all finally fading west.

I sit for twenty minutes in the parking lot waiting to leave. Later I learn that northsiders at the Geneva station missed Big Boy, the container train blinding them. Sad, yes. But it’ll make for a good story.

• Rick Holinger lives in Geneva, teaches at Marmion Academy, and facilitates Geneva library’s writing workshop. A collection of his columns, “Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences,” is forthcoming. Contact him at

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