Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs made his mark on Mount Vernon. Many in town made their mark on him, too. Wirfs and his mother, Sarah, took The Gazette on a tour of his hometown, revisiting scenes around what essentially is the one square mile where he grew up. This story is a little about what can hold you back. This is mostly about what moves you forward.

Kind of a big deal: Largest steam locomotive ever built 'Big Boy' making Cedar Rapids stop

 

One small word keeps coming up among those anticipating this week’s historic visitor to Eastern Iowa.

“This is obviously kind of a big deal,” said Darren Ferreter.

“This is a big deal,” echoed Nick Tharalson.

Ferreter and Tharalson are railroad enthusiasts, often referred to as railfans. Railfans from the Midwest and beyond have spent two weeks chasing the largest steam locomotive ever built through Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The engine, Union Pacific’s Big Boy number 4014, will spend Tuesday night in Cedar Rapids on the last leg of its midsummer tour.

Union Pacific’s Big Boy and its train -
where and when
Depart Clinton  1:30 p.m. Tues.
Toronto Street crossing in Wheatland 2:45 p.m. Tues.
Cedar Rapids freight yard off Edgewood Road SW 5:15 p.m. Tues. - 9 a.m. Wed.
Belle Plaine’s Ninth Avenue crossing 10:15 a.m. Wed.
Marshalltown 11:30 a.m. Wed.
Des Moines arrival 3:30 p.m. Wed.

 

How big is Big Boy? To pull long freight trains over the Continental Divide in Wyoming without adding extra engines called for what is essentially two steam engines — 16 drive wheels altogether — fed by a single gigantic boiler. With its tender carrying fuel and water, the engine is 132 feet long and weighs more than 1.2 million pounds.

 
 

Built in 1941 between Ogden, Utah, and Cheyenne, Wyo., 4014 and 24 fellow Big Boys operated until 1961. Displaced by more efficient diesel locomotives, 4014 was one of eight Big Boys donated for display in cities from Pennsylvania to California.

Seeking a spectacular way to mark the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, Omaha-based Union Pacific pulled 4014 from a park in Pomona, Calif., in 2013 and towed it to Cheyenne, where it underwent a five-year restoration to operating condition.

“Union Pacific’s history is intertwined with America’s history, and we wanted to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion in a big way,” said UP spokesperson Raquel Espinoza. “It’s really a living, breathing piece of history that really brings people together.”

The painstaking, expensive restoration — many major components had to be hand-fabricated — realizes every railfan’s dream.

“It was an unlikely bet, that’s for sure,” said Andy Brown of Moscow. Brown, 61, is president of the Cedar Rapids Area Railfan Association. The happy unlikelihood of Big Boy’s trip through Eastern Iowa dominated conversation at the group’s monthly meeting July 15.

“Who would dream?” said Phil Borleske. “It hadn’t turned a wheel in more than 50 years.”

 
 

“It certainly takes some special expertise to know how to operate a steam engine, but to rebuild one takes some serious know-how,” Espinoza said. “We had a small team that did a terrific job.”

“I suppose with the 150th anniversary, it sort of made sense to do something sort of outlandish,” said Ferreter, of Ely.

Ferreter’s business — he designs and builds custom model railroads — grew from a lifelong fascination with trains and railroads. Cedar Rapids’ historic status as something of a regional railroad hub meant plenty of trains, which means an active local railfan community.

“Because we have an active railroad community, a railfan community, we’re probably a little more aware,” said Ferreter. “What’s happening now is, we’re getting the younger guys who maybe don’t come and sit around with the dinosaurs. They shoot and post videos to YouTube.”

 
 

Borleske, of Vinton, rode behind Big Boy in May, when it pulled excursion trains to anniversary ceremonies in Utah, site of the driving of the Golden Spike. Through connections with an Omaha railfan group, Borleske has worked as a volunteer guide aboard UP’s steam trains — the railroad owns and operates two somewhat smaller locomotives — for two years.

“There were thousands of people” along the tracks, Borleske said. “They shut down the four-lane highway” through some Utah towns.

Big Boy-sized crowds can mean complications. Steam trains typically draw motorcades of railfans intent on shooting photos and video, often at the expense of highway etiquette and safety.

“Highway 30 is going to be absolutely nuts,” said Ferreter.

“There’s going to be a conga line of cars chasing it,” said Tharalson. “You don’t want to be a part of that.”

“We urge people to be safe whenever they come out to see our stream engines, but the Big Boy has really attracted some pretty big crowds,” Espinoza said. “People need to take some extra precautions.”

A woman in Colorado was killed last July when she was struck by one of the UP’s steam engines. The woman was trespassing on railroad property when she was struck, apparently while trying to take a selfie of herself and the approaching train.

“That is something that should not be done near the track,” said Espinoza, noting railroad equipment overhangs the edges of the track by about three feet on each side. “People who want to take selfies should do that from a fair distance from the tracks.”

 

With no public access to railroad property and prospects for a traffic-snarling motorcade, local railfans advise simply picking out a good spot along the tracks to wait for Big Boy.

“Pick a spot,” said Borleske. “There’s going to be so many people following, you’re not going to be able to keep up.”

“I’ve got some spots picked out, but I’m not telling,” Tharalson said.

The Train’s Route

Departing Chicago Tuesday morning after a weekend of display, Union Pacific’s Big Boy and its train are scheduled to depart Clinton about 1:30 p.m. after a 45-minute service stop. Another service stop is scheduled for 2:45 p.m. at the Toronto Street crossing in Wheatland.

On Tuesday, Big Boy will travel west on the UP’s line from Clinton through DeWitt, Wheatland, Lowden, Clarence, Stanwood, Lisbon, and Mount Vernon.

The train is scheduled to arrive at UP’s Cedar Rapids freight yard off Edgewood Road SW about 5:15 p.m. The freight yard is off-limits to the public.

The train is scheduled to leave Cedar Rapids Wednesday, heading west about 9 a.m. Service stops are set for 10:15 at Belle Plaine’s Ninth Avenue crossing and at 11:30 in Marshalltown, with a 3:30 p.m. arrival in Des Moines.

West from Cedar Rapids, Wednesday’s route passes through Fairfax, Norway, Watkins, Blairstown, Luzerne, Belle Plaine, Chelsea and Tama. Follow the train’s location at up.com/forms/steam-trace.cfm and on Twitter @UP_Steam.

Stay Safe

 

The UP asks spectators to observe some basic safety rules around the tracks:

• Remember, trains can’t stop quickly to avoid people or vehicles on the tracks.

• A train’s distance and speed can be deceiving.

• The average train overhangs the track by at least three feet — take extra precaution and stand back at least 25 feet.

• Railroad tracks, trestles, yards and right of way are private property.

• Never assume tracks are abandoned or inactive — always expect a train.

Cedar Rapids Railfan Association

Founded in 1971, the Cedar Rapids Railfan Association meets the third Monday of every month at 7 p.m. at St. Andrew Lutheran Church. 4420 Center Point Rd. NE. A $5 donation is collected at each meeting for room rental and to fund a new digital projector to view members’ train photos. For more information and to receive the club’s email newsletter, email Darren Ferreter at geu30cg@aol.com.