Tom Clyde: A big day for a Big Boy in Echo
A long time ago, in June of 1983, I got up at an unreasonable hour and drove to Salt Lake to watch the implosion of the Newhouse Hotel. It was a pretty building; 12 stories tall, which was still among the taller buildings in Salt Lake at the time. It was old, somewhat decrepit, and seismically unstable. It wouldn’t have taken much of an earthquake to hurl piles of bricks to the sidewalk below. While it probably could have been brought up to code, the City didn’t require it, and the owners concluded they would blow it up instead. There’s a lovely parking lot there now.
With a loud “boom” on a crystal clear Sunday morning, the old hotel fell into itself. It sent out a cloud of dust that was probably filled with all kinds of bad stuff — nobody seemed to care back then — and a crowd of several thousand people was sent scattering, running for the shelter of their cars. As the dust cloud came over us, I remember a guy next to me saying, “well, here it is, not quite 7 o’clock on Sunday morning, and the most interesting thing that’s going to happen all week is already over.” The whole event was over in seconds. But it was time and effort well spent.
I had the same sense watching the “whistle stop” of the Union Pacific’s Big Boy steam locomotive in Echo on Wednesday. I got up early to drive over there in a pounding rain. I felt like I needed to get there early to figure out where best to watch it. I got there a few minutes ahead of the rush. I’m terrible at estimating crowds, but I’d guess there were a couple of thousand people in Echo, and who knows how many more parked on the shoulder of the freeway in each direction. There was a dog from every village—rail geeks who had come from hundreds of miles away, school kids from Coalville, lots of people from Park City, history buffs and lovers of old machinery.
My friends and I decided the best view of the locomotive in action would be from the curve where the Park City spur used to connect to the main line. We watched next to a guy who was there with his four or five year old son. The kid was in a Union Pacific hat, and knew more about trains that I ever will. It was pure magic for him.
After taking our photos of the train in action, we followed it into downtown Echo where it stood still for all of about 15 minutes. Then with a blast of the whistle from the Big Boy and a second steam locomotive in the train, there was a big puff of steam and it continued on its way to Ogden. Two long freight trains had come through that morning, one before the Big Boy and one after, and nobody cared about them. The Big Boy hasn’t made the run through Echo Canyon under its own power since something like 1956. You don’t see that every day.
It had been retired to a museum somewhere in California. The Union Pacific bought it back several years ago, and towed it to Cheyenne where they did a restoration to make it rail-worthy again. It weighs something like 1.2 million pounds, so they had to be sure the brakes worked before launching it down the steep grade to Ogden.
This was the biggest of the steam locomotives the railroad operated, and one of the last left in service. The engineering that went into building it is impressive. The whole concept of the transcontinental railroad is even more amazing. It was in the planning stages in the 1850s, but was delayed by the Civil War. When the war ended in 1865, construction began. It was completed in only 4 years. When you look at how long it’s taken to re-pave Prospector Avenue, building a railroad from Omaha to Sacramento is an astounding accomplishment.
Stephen Ambrose’s “Nothing Like it in the World” is a great overview of the construction. For a shovel-by-shovel level of detail, David Haward Bain’s “Empire Express” is a fascinating read (700 pages of small print). Ambrose gives the corruption involved a pass. Bain goes into more detail on it than we really need to know. The important thing is what got built in a matter of 4 years, and what it meant to the creation of modern America.
So it was a big day in Echo, a town that doesn’t have big days more than once or twice a decade. The Big Boy will start the return trip from Ogden to Cheyenne on Sunday, passing through Echo again, but without a stop. I’d still recommend going over just to watch it in action. With any luck, a 4-year-old in a Union Pacific cap will narrate it for you.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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I must admit that, although I have felt much love wherever I hung my hat during this life, I never felt more at home in a new cultural environment than on my first trip down that coastline.