OSAWATOMIE — Excited onlookers hold up their phones and children scurry onto their parents’ shoulders as the first sign of steam rises above the horizon and a train whistle blares in the distance.
“Here it comes,” a mother exclaims as she positions her children into the best viewing position.
An American flag draped from an Osawatomie fire truck greets Union Pacific’s historic “Big Boy” steam locomotive No. 4014 as it slowly glides by the spectators.
A loud hiss of steam can be heard as the massive train comes to a stop just shy of the Main Street crossing in Osawatomie.
It was a special moment that many of the spectators had been waiting several hours to see Sunday, Nov. 17.
Earlier that afternoon, the nearby Missouri Pacific Depot Museum had become a gathering place for those wanting to learn a little history while waiting to see “Big Boy.”
Museum volunteers Ted Hunter and Margaret Hays, among others, had their hands full greeting visitors and talking about Osawatomie’s rich railroad history.
One group of visitors was from the education department at the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, Mo. They said they have a “Big Boy” on display at their museum, but they had never seen one in action until Sunday.
Dave and Julie Haloftis also traveled from St. Louis, Mo., to see “Big Boy” in person, and they were taking their time inside the museum checking out each exhibit. The couple said they were at Union Station in Kansas City, Mo., that morning and then traveled to Osawatomie to see a local stop. They planned the trip after missing the train’s earlier Chicago loop.
The historic steam locomotive is touring the Union Pacific system throughout 2019 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. Osawatomie is just one of many stops on the schedule, and when it pulled out of town Sunday, “Big Boy” was on its way to Union Station to be put on display before departing for Lawrence on Tuesday, Nov. 19.
Although many people traveled from outside the area for the Osawatomie visit, there were plenty of local community members present as well. Perhaps none had a better seat than Osawatomie native and longtime Missouri Pacific/Union Pacific locomotive engineer Owen Harbison, who was part of the crew that took the Big Boy steam engine from Coffeyville to Union Station on Sunday, Nov. 17.
During the stop in Osawatomie, Owen took some pictures with his parents, Dean and Camella Harbison, along with other family members.
“It was great that my parents could be there with me,” Owen said.
Dean still operates Dean’s Jewelers in Osawatomie, where for years he maintained and sold railroaders’ pocket watches, which used to be required for railroad work.
“I was a railroad watch inspector from 1959 until they stopped using them,” Dean said.
Owen said he has great respect for the engineers and firemen who operated the great steam engines of the past, as well as the current crew who dismantled the 4014 piece by piece and then rebuilt it and made it into a fine running machine again.
“The engines won’t be remembered as obsolete, but awesome machines,” Owen said.
It was also a special day for longtime Osawatomie resident Sandra Holloman, whose husband Kenneth worked as a railroad brakeman for many years. He passed away two years ago, and his name is listed among others on a wall of honor inside the museum.
Former Osawatomie police chief and new codes official David Ellis had been considering donating his replica Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4005 model steam engine to the museum for a while, and he decided Sunday was the perfect time. Hunter was excited to accept the train, which Ellis purchased when he was a teenager in 1972.
After a stop of about 30 minutes, members of the “Big Boy” crew posed for a few final photos and then climbed back inside the steam locomotive to head out of town.
Several spectators climbed the hill leading up to the Derrick Jensen Overpass to wave one last goodbye, and “Big Boy” crew members were more than happy to wave back.