By J.J. Lamb

Anticipation began months before “Big Boy,” the largest operating steam locomotive in the world, arrived in Tucson, then steamed through Vail on October 19th. Even before it could be seen, a distant vibration and rumbling, humming sound could be heard by the hundreds that greeted 4014 as it steamed through Rita Ranch and Vail. The wait was worth it; the crowd was in awe as the mighty locomotive steamed by.

The restoration of Big Boy 4014 was a herculean task taken on by the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) and a team of UPRR skilled employees. In 2013, a non-operational 4014 was purchased by the UPRR and moved to their headquarters in Cheyenne, Wyoming for restoration. Almost all replacement parts had to be crafted from scratch. The sense of pride felt by those whose work brought Big Boy back to life, to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, is well-deserved.

This anniversary is a time to honor the work of ordinary people accomplishing the extraordinary. Over 150 years ago surveyors and engineers risked and sometimes lost their lives to identify a route across an uncharted landscape that their work would change forever.  In 1862, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Railroad Act. Entrepreneurs gambled their fortunes as they joined the government’s vision to link east to west and firmly establish the United States. To incentivize the financially risky business venture, the government encouraged speed over caution through funding mechanisms it established.  The logistics of supplying materials to the work sites was a monumental feat.

The workforce recruited, to complete the first transcontinental rail line, reached nearly thirty thousand. Many workers were recruited from China by the Central Pacific Railroad. The Union Pacific recruited mostly Irish immigrants. Laborers included former Confederate and Union soldiers who filled out the ranks. Together the workers, mostly Chinese and Irish, took on the back breaking, relentless work of building the rail line by hand. Many lost their lives. A specially cast and engraved golden spike joined the line at Promontory, Utah. On one side it reads, “May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world.” The top of the spike was simply engraved, “The Last Spike.” The historic 1869 photograph excluded the Chinese workers. Their contribution was honored in a reenactment photograph in 2019.

In 1880, the establishment of Vail’s siding, on the southern transcontinental rail line that was being constructed at that time, connected what would become known as “The Town Between the Tracks” to the story of the railroad and the national priorities that shaped the United States.

Learn more about Big Boy 4014 and the 150 Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railway at:

See Big Boy passing through Vail at:  courtesy Gerald Lamb  courtesy Dennis Farris  courtesy Rob Nimitz

About author View all posts Author website

J.J. Lamb