PAOLA — With the temperature hovering near triple digits around noon on Aug. 11, the large crowd that had assembled at the Peoria Street railroad crossing in Paola was growing a bit impatient as they awaited the arrival of Union Pacific’s historic “Big Boy” steam locomotive.
Some took shelter in the shade of a nearby hill beneath a group of trees, while others remained in their air-conditioned cars. Quite a few were checking their watches and commenting on the train’s delay, which was approaching an hour.
Nine-year-old Oakley Phelps, though, never took his eyes off the tracks as he patiently waited for the arrival of the world’s largest steam engine.
“He’s loved trains ever since he was 3,” Sasha Phelps said as she watched her son peer down the tracks in anticipation. “It started with Thomas, and we worked our way up.”
Oakley, who had his phone out ready to capture video of Big Boy’s arrival, even has his own YouTube channel where he edits train videos and puts them to music.
The 9-year-old train enthusiast was one of the first to spot the puffs of steam rising above the horizon and point out the rumble of the tracks that was steadily growing.
“It’s here!” he exclaimed.
Oakley and his mother traveled all the way from Windsor, Mo., to see the historic steam locomotive, and they weren’t alone. They were joined by hundreds of people who braved the heat and traveled from near and far to see a piece of restored history.
Wayne and Charlene Varns of Drexel, Mo., attended the event along with their daughter, Kendra Wallis of Overland Park, and grandchildren Reagan Varns of Louisburg and 2-year-old Otto Wallis of Overland Park. Otto was wearing a shirt featuring Thomas the train.
Ron Konrade of Louisburg took his 4-year-old grandson Justin to see the train. Ron said his grandfather worked for the railroad and his son currently works for the railroad in Las Vegas. Ron said he still has the original electric train set he played with when he was 10 years old.
Lawrence Neugebauer brought his grandchildren James Neugebauer, 10, of Belton, Mo., and Charles Phillips, 11, of Lone Jack, Mo., to see Big Boy. Lawrence’s grandparents had a farm near Paola, and he remembers seeing trains as a kid.
Jan Thompson of Paola invited her grandchildren, 4-year-old Liam and 7-year-old Emma Thompson, to come down from Olathe to see the steam engine. The young children climbed on top of a pile of gravel to try and get a better view of the steam engine.
People crowded around Big Boy when it pulled to a stop just before the crossing, and cell phones were in full use as people shot videos or snapped selfies.
Union Pacific’s historic “Big Boy” steam locomotive No. 4014 last visited Miami County back in 2019 when it stopped in Osawatomie during a “Great Race” tour that was commemorating the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad.
This time, Paola was one of several stops on a tour designed to celebrate railroad heritage and the communities Union Pacific serves, according to a news release.
The steam engine left Union Station on the morning of Aug. 11 and headed south to Paola. It then traveled to Moran, Kan., and Parsons, Kan.
Multiple brief stops are scheduled to take place during the tour between Aug. 5 and Sept. 7.
“No. 4014 will leave the Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyo., August 5, making brief whistle-stops in communities across Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming,” the release states.
The Wyoming Steam Shop is where the steam engine was restored over a period of several years. It had previously been retired for six decades.
“Weighing in at 1.2 million pounds, the Big Boy makes a big impression in communities it visits, reminding us of bygone days and the important role the railroad continues to play in our global economy,” said Scott Moore, senior vice president — Corporate Relations and chief administrative officer.