Over the weekend of July 27th, the city of West Chicago, Illinois played host to the largest steam locomotive in North America. The locomotive, nicknamed “Big Boy,” was built in 1941 for the Union Pacific Railroad. It was retired from active service in 1959 with the discontinuation of steam service on American railroads and turned into a display piece in Pomona, California.

In 2012, the Union Pacific railroad announced the plan to acquire one of the eight surviving locomotives of its type on display and to restore it as part of the Union Pacific Heritage Fleet, which operates the only activate steam locomotive repair shop owned by a major railroad in the United States. After being removed from its display and an arduous five-year restoration process, the locomotive was officially placed in service as an excursion train in May of this year.

At the beginning of July, the locomotive began the leg of a much larger month-long journey that is currently underway, taking the behemoth of a locomotive across the Midwest states of Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois before begins its return journey to Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The locomotive arrived in West Chicago on Friday, July 26th where it began the tedious process of switching and preparing it for display for massive crowds of observers to come to see the locomotive in person.

To the surprise of some, the area around the locomotive was packed. Thousands of people lined the sidewalks and streets surrounding the display with their families in tow in an effort to see the steam train.

As evidenced by the hundreds of amateur records of the train’s tour on YouTube and social media, the crowds that this locomotive was drawing were enormous. Every place the train stopped was accompanied by hundreds of spectators. Most of them are too young to have ever seen a steam locomotive before. In West Chicago, the train station where it was on display congested foot and vehicle traffic for half a mile around the location as people desperately searched for parking and walking space.

It was a surprisingly edifying experience to see in person. Here was a train, of all things, drawing massive crowds, photographers and people of all shapes and sizes to see something they’ve never seen before. It struck me just how weirdly uniting and enthralling the experience was.

At 78 years old, the brittle metal and complicated mechanisms that operate such a locomotive make rebuilding it all but impossible for anyone not willing to pour millions of dollars into such a project.

Here was a massive technological accomplishment, resurrected for the first time in decades and adorned in American flags bringing out entire families. In an age when the Betsy Ross flag gets called racist and people take it seriously, you’d think something so adorned in casual patriotism would be considered somewhat controversial.

At the very least you’d think some climate change group would protest using a locomotive so large that requires three separate oil tenders to function. It would’ve been a slightly amusing (if grotesque) sight to see a half dozen activists glue themselves to a parked steam locomotive as we saw in last week’s climate protest in Washington DC.

There’s something quite joyful about being able to enjoy such a pure experience in the current year. There’s no controversy to be found. Instead, thousands of people quietly came out to celebrate hard work, achievement, ingenuity and American technological might just so that they can say they saw the Big Boy.

It’s a great reminder that, at the end of the day, everyday people are decent and that they can come together to celebrate the good things in life.


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