'It's beyond miraculous': Union Pacific's historic Big Boy No. 4014 steam locomotive coming to West Chicago
Cole Helfrich was just 3, but he remembers the smell of burning coal and creosote when his father took him to a small West Chicago rail yard to admire the steam locomotives.
It's been more than six decades, but the Wheaton resident still recalls it vividly: the roundhouse, the railway turntable, the heat of the day. He remembers hearing the whistle and standing beside one engine's enormous 7-foot driving wheels.
But the smells are what trigger the deepest memories of his introduction to the train subculture.
This week, Helfrich's fandom will come full circle when the world's largest steam locomotive -- the newly restored Big Boy No. 4014 -- powers through the suburbs and stops at the same West Chicago site where it all began.
It's the opportunity of a lifetime for train enthusiasts, most of whom never imagined they'd see a Big Boy run again. But after being out of commission for 60 years, the historic Union Pacific locomotive has been brought back to life and is drawing fans from across the country, and the world.
"This is a dream for all of us," Helfrich said. "It's beyond miraculous."
The Big Boy
At a length of 133 feet and weighing 1.2 million pounds, the Big Boy No. 4014 is larger than a sedan, a school bus and a diesel locomotive combined.
The steam engine was among 25 of its kind built for Union Pacific in the 1940s to haul heavy tonnage and handle steep terrain, railroad spokeswoman Kristen South said. It traveled more than 1 million miles over the next two decades, typically operating between Ogden, Utah, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, before making its last run in 1959.
A Big Boy has a 4-8-8-4 wheel arrangement, meaning there are four "pilot" wheels at the front, a set of eight drivers on each engine, and four wheels to support the rear. Because of its size, the frame is "hinged," or articulated, to allow the steam engine to navigate curves.
"The way it moves is different from any other historic locomotive," South said. "You can feel the locomotive coming. You can hear the whistle; it has a distinctive sound."
The 4014 is one of eight Big Boy locomotives still in existence; the others are on display. Bartlett resident Matt Vida has made it his goal to see them all -- he has only one left -- but says he never thought he'd see one "alive and operating."
"It's just a legend in the railroad world," he said. "It's like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles of trains."
Like Helfrich, Vida's interest was passed down from his father, who brought the family to a model train show at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in 1994. They left with a model Big Boy.
The following year, the family saw its first Big Boy in person (No. 4005) when they went on vacation to Denver. A few years later, they made it to Pomona, California, where they saw No. 4014 on display.
The steam engine was acquired by Union Pacific in 2013 and moved to Wyoming, where crews took it apart, salvaged whatever pieces they could and rebuilt the other parts from scratch, South said. When the restoration wrapped up, the 4014 completed its first run in 60 years in May to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad's completion.
The locomotive now is on its "Great Race Across the Midwest," making stops in Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. Some people are following the train through its journey, South said. Others have traveled from across the nation or around the world to watch it in action.
"I've seen adults in tears over it, they're just so excited," South said. "It's truly an experience."
A family trip to the Illinois Railway Museum a few years back was all the inspiration Dave Zeman needed to start photographing trains.
The hobby has led the 18-year-old Arlington Heights resident to parts of the state and country he never would have otherwise visited. It's given him a whole new group of friends and mentors.
But why trains? Zeman never really has a direct answer, though he thinks there's something fascinating about the stories they tell.
"The trains in the U.S. and frankly everywhere else around the world are deeply rooted in history. They're kind of time machines," he said. "The (4014) is kind of the train that every rail fan has been waiting for most in the past 50 years."
The locomotive is passing through the suburbs and arriving Friday afternoon at the Larry S. Provo Training Center at 335 Spencer St. in West Chicago. A new multimedia walk-through exhibit, called Experience the Union Pacific Train Car, will be open Saturday through Monday, showing the evolution of trains.
The Illinois Railway Museum, the West Chicago City Museum and other groups will have displays during the weekend, South said. The locomotive is scheduled to leave July 30 for Des Moines, Iowa.
West Chicago officials are preparing for an estimated 2,000 people to visit the train each day, said Bethany Bayci, special events coordinator.
Helfrich plans to visit the locomotive over the weekend but says he'll witness the real magic as it's pulling into town.
In the 1940s, his late father would stand along the tracks in Wheaton and watch the Big Boys pass on their way to Omaha from upstate New York, where they were built. When the 4014 runs along the same tracks this week, Helfrich intends to be in the same spot his dad stood all those years ago, feeling what he felt, seeing what he saw.
"Hear the whistle blow. See it move and do what it does," Helfrich said. "You don't want to miss it running. It'll shake you right up."
If you goWhat: Union Pacific's Big Boy No. 4014 steam locomotive and the Experience the Union Pacific Rail Car
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Larry S. Provo Training Center, 335 Spencer St., West Chicago
Getting there: For those traveling from out of town, taking the Metra is advised. Parking is available at the West Chicago Metra Depot, 508 Main St., a roughly 10-minute walk from the training center.
Info: www.westchicago.org or www.up.com.