BENSON — Looking up at Union Pacific Railroad’s massive steam locomotive Saturday as it rolled to a stop in Benson, Mike Clark was reminded of his childhood.
“I’m from Waterloo, Iowa and we used to live right by a railroad track,” he said. “When I was growing up, I used to see steam engines like this all the time. It takes me back to when I was a child, and I’m 71. We’re looking at a remarkable piece of history here today.”
An estimated 4,000 people lined Benson’s rail tracks for the arrival of Union Pacific’s historic Big Boy No. 4014. The locomotive’s 30-minute stop in Benson represents one of several it made and will be making as it tours the UP rail system in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad.
“We had zillions of people out here today,” said City of Benson Tourism Supervisor Bob Nilson. “Even with the big crowd, everything went smoothly. And more than 300 people came through the Visitor Center today (Saturday), which is a lot for us. So, the locomotive was a big draw for Benson.”
Crowds swarmed around the locomotive for photos, many carrying children on their shoulders.
“We came here from Tucson to see this,” said Brenda Carson, whose 6-year-old daughter was perched on her shoulders so she could see over the crowd. “To me, this is a thrill. I’m so glad we decided to come.”
Artist Doug Quarles, whose train murals adorn the parking lot walls of Benson’s Visitor Center and other parts of town, was among the crowd.
“I’m here to get detailed photos of the 4014 for murals and paintings I’ll be doing for my art studio on Fourth Street,” he said. “This is a very impressive locomotive, and we’re fortunate to be able to see it.”
Train enthusiasts Chris and Sarah Williams saw the 4014 when it was in downtown Tucson on Thursday. And they saw it for a second time when it came through the Mescal crossing on its westward trek to Benson Saturday morning, then followed it to Benson.
“We love trains and their history,” said Chris Williams, a machinist who is fascinated by the work that went into the locomotive’s restoration. “Benson was founded in the 1800s because of trains, and early locomotives were an important part of the town’s history.”
Delivered to Union Pacific in 1941, Big Boy was retired in 1961, having traveled more than one million, thirty-one thousand miles in its 20 years of service.
Twenty-five of the locomotives were built for Union Pacific by Alco Schenectady, with seven of them now on display in cities around the country, Nilson said.
Union Pacific reacquired No. 4014 from Rail Giants Museum in Pomona, California in 2013 and towed it to Cheyenne, Wyoming for a multi-year restoration process, brining the 1.2 million pound locomotive back to life. It was returned to service in May 2019 in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad.
No. 4014 left Cheyenne on Sept. 27 as it travels Union Pacific’s rail system through the Southwest. The locomotive will be returning to Wyoming sometime around Nov. 27. It is the world’s only operating Big Boy locomotive.
“This is very exciting for our community,” said Benson Mayor Toney King. “We have a huge crowd in Benson today because of this incredible locomotive. Everyone is coming out to see it.”
Describing the locomotive’s visit as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Benson resident Linda Stacy also commented on the large crowd.
“I haven’t seen this many people in Benson, ever!” she exclaimed. “Who knew there were this many train enthusiasts in the area?”
After its 30 minutes in Benson, the locomotive headed to Willcox for another brief stop. Some of its die-hard fans planned to follow it into Dragoon, then onto Willcox.
Jeff Hendrickson, a visitor from California, said he was in Cochise County because of the Tombstone Helldorado Days celebration.
“When my wife and I found out about this train, we decided to come to Benson to see it, and then go onto Willcox,” he said. “We’ll do Tombstone’s Helldorado scene tonight and the parade tomorrow. We both love trains, so we’re very excited about this locomotive. It’s a unique opportunity.”