Going West: Spike150 and Chasing the Big Boy

The week of May 10th 2019 was possibly one of the most monumental occasions for North American railfans in recent years. Based around the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, events centered around a historic gathering at Promontory Summit, Utah – the location where the final Golden Spike was driven. Tied into this celebration, the Union Pacific Railroad unveiled it’s 5-year long project; the restoration of the world famous Big Boy locomotive, breaking it in with a run across Wyoming, to Ogden, UT, in time for the nearby celebrations.

We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to capture this massive event, so on May 9th, we headed west!

Spike150 Celebrations

On May 10th, roughly 15,000 railfans descended on the isolated hills of Promontory Summit. Now designated as a National Park, the site is home to working replicas of the two locomotives which took part in the golden spike celebrations. Although the transcontinental railroad is still very much in use, this segment was bypassed in favor of a more direct route in 1902, allowing a small segment to be rebuilt as part of the park. We couldn’t help but observe that the relaid segment, along with the wye to turn the power and access the maintenance shops, would make for an excellent small space model railroad! See this Google Maps link for an overhead view of the site.

Despite arriving with plenty of time, we were unable to capture the positioning of the locomotives due to the sheer volume of traffic entering the site. We were however able to explore the vast selection of displays and re-enactments taking place, again inspiring modeling possibilities, including a fully functioning railroaders camp, complete with volunteers in period dress, with some even cooking up era-appropriate meals over an open fire!

The 20 minute re-enactment of the ceremony took place at the exact time of the original (beginning at 12.06pm). As noted by the commentators, the weather was much like it was on that day in 1869; a pleasant 72 degrees with mostly clear skies. To watch the ceremony, follow this link to our Youtube video of the event.

We returned the following morning to a more moderate crowd, and were able to capture the steam locomotives in action, as they were positioned for day two of the event.

 The Return of a Legend

On Saturday, May 11th, Ogden Union Station was a buzz of activity. Closed to passenger traffic in 1997 when Amtrak’s Pioneer was discontinued, the station is now a museum complex with a strong emphasis on rail history. One of the main exhibits is a stunning HO scale layout, known as the Wattis-Dumke Model Railroad. This massive display snakes around an impressive selection of mountains, deserts, and valleys, depicting the Pacific Railroad route between Wyoming and California during the 1870s and 1950s. Outside the complex, the museum houses a large collection of historic locomotives and rolling stock, including examples of the famous Union Pacific Gas Turbine, the massive DDA40X, and the legendary FEF steam locomotive.

These exhibits were only supplementary to the main attraction today however, as the station track was host to the Union Pacific business train, headed by the UP’s Living Legend, FEF #844, and the newly restored Big Boy, #4014. Having completed a press event representing the meet at Promontory two days earlier, the locomotives and train were on public display, awaiting the return trip towards Cheyenne scheduled to begin the following morning.

Early on the morning of May 12th, the consist departed Ogden for the first leg of it’s journey. We were unsure of whether we would have much success in chasing it after our experience at Promontory, but nevertheless, we would try. Our first stop took us to the edge of the busy UP freight yard in South Ogden, where the museum lead connected to the mainline. A smaller than expected crowd had gathered here, and before long we were treated to the unmistakable sound of #4014’s whistle and an impressive show from both locomotives, as they entered the mainline, working hard to build up speed.

Our second stop in Weber Canyon was less successful, as we had miscalculated which track the train would be appearing on. Even so, hearing the sound of a 4-8-8-4 and a 4-8-4 attacking the grade made this stop more than worthwhile. As we continued, we found ourselves stuck in the chase traffic as we attempted to get ahead. Fortunately we eventually managed to make our way to the front, and were able to capture the consist in much better light as it approached it’s first stop in the town of Morgan. We’d use the two stops at Morgan and Echo as chances to get ahead and scout out new locations.

After more successful stops on the approach to Echo, and at Castle Rock, we arrived into Evanston in time for one final shot of the train’s arrival. Flanked by fans and local residents, the #4014 received a hero’s welcome as it completed the first run of it’s return trip, which was also it’s first ever public excursion. Once the consist was backed into the yard, we had a final chance to see the locomotives up close, this time with less crowds, and were able to truly examine the craftsmanship which went not only into the design of the locomotives, but into the freshly completed restoration.

We returned trackside the following morning to capture the Big Boy and FEF once more before making our way back east, well and truly inspired by the magnificence of western steam railroading.

To experience the Big Boy’s chase, check out the video on our Youtube channel! More photos and live videos of both events can additionally be found on our Facebook Page.