BENSON — Thousands of visitors, many of them history buffs and train enthusiasts, are expected to crowd Benson Saturday morning for the arrival of a massive Union Pacific Railroad steam locomotive.
Union Pacific’s historic Big Boy No. 4014 is touring the UP rail system to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Delivered to Union Pacific in December 1941, Big Boy 4014 was retired in 1961, having traveled more than 1.031 million miles in its 20 years of service.
“Twenty-five Big Boy locomotives were built exclusively for Union Pacific Alco Schenectady, with seven of them now on display in cities around the country,” said Bob Nilson, tourism supervisor for the City of Benson.
Hailed as “1.2 million pounds of awesome machinery,” Big Boy 4014 was brought back to life after Union Pacific reacquired the locomotive from Rail Giants Museum in Pomona, California, in 2013 and towed it to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to begin a multi-year restoration process.
It was returned to service in May 2019 for the 150th anniversary of the first U.S. Transcontinental Railroad.
In a trek that has been dubbed “The Great Race Across the Southwest,” No. 4014 left Cheyenne on Sept. 27 and headed west to Utah, southwest into Nevada, looped into Southern California, and is then traveling east into Arizona with stops in Tucson, Benson, Willcox and Bowie before moving on to New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, returning to Wyoming sometime around Nov. 27.
“No. 4014 is the world’s only operating Big Boy locomotive,” Nilson said. “These locomotives were 132 feet long and, because of their length, the frames were hinged, or articulated so they could negotiate curves. Because they are so long, they were designed with a 4-8-8-4 wheel arrangement,” said Nilson, who noted that most locomotives have 2-8-2 or 4-6-4 wheel arrangements.
Nilson expects to see a large crowd in Benson on Saturday when No. 4014 rolls into town at 8:45 a.m. The locomotive will be coming from Tucson and, upon leaving Benson at 9:15, is headed to Willcox for its next stop.
“When the 844 steam locomotive visited Benson in 2012, we had over 3,000 people here, and I’m expecting even more people on Saturday,” Nilson said. “This is a very exciting, historic opportunity for people of all ages. I have no idea when Union Pacific will be sending this locomotive out on tour again, so for many, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Benson’s railroad connection
Founded in 1880 when Southern Pacific Railroad came through, Benson was established as the transportation hub of Southern Arizona, connecting the mining towns of Tombstone, Charleston, Contention City and Fairbank.
Nestled in picturesque San Pedro Valley against a backdrop of distant mountain ranges, Benson is 45 miles southeast of Tucson at the intersections of state routes 80 and 90, a location that gives the town its “Gateway to Cochise County” bragging rights.
“Long after the mining boom in Tombstone and Bisbee went away, Southern Pacific Railroad continued to serve this area,” said Bob Nilson, tourism supervisor for the City of Benson. “Union Pacific bought the line in 1997 and Benson continues to serve as an important transportation hub with deep, historic ties to the railroad.”
Today, tourists are fascinated with Benson’s special connection with the railroad.
It’s a connection that earned the town special recognition in 2012 when Union Pacific awarded Benson membership in its Train Town USA registry, representing the first town in the railroad’s western region to receive the designation.
The Benson Visitor Center — which is where Nilson works — is in a building modeled after a train depot that once sat along the town’s tracks. Located at 249 E. Fourth St. in the heart of Benson’s historic downtown, the depot’s design emulates many of the architectural features found in the original depot built over a century ago.
Logos featuring different rail companies that have rolled through Benson during its 140-year history with the railroad are mounted on the parking lot walls of the visitor center. Murals depicting Benson’s historic connection with the railroad — created by artist Doug Quarles — are painted between each of the logos.
The visitor center is full of informative brochures about local and state attractions. The friendly staff answer questions and provide guests with information about destinations they may be interested in visiting.
Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
“We urge travelers to stop by the visitor center and be part of the whole train experience,” said Benson Mayor Toney King. “Bob and his staff do a fantastic job of helping visitors with questions they have about different destinations in Benson and Cochise County.”