CASA GRANDE — When Paul Schubert, 82, and Jerry Eighmey, 79, were children, they often played with trains and dreamed of a life riding the rails.
“I kept a toy track under my bed and pulled it out and played with it all the time,” Eighmey said.
The two men from Prescott were among those lined along the Union Pacific railroad tracks near West Main Avenue on Wednesday afternoon waiting in the sun for the historic Big Boy steam engine to roll into Casa Grande.
“It’s a special train. It’s a piece of history,” Eighmey said.
Schubert said the opportunity to see the train in motion was a “goose pimple moment.”
“I want to see it in motion and I want to see it static so we got here early to find a place as close to the tracks as possible,” he said.
The two planned their visit to Casa Grande as soon as they learned the train would pass through Arizona on its heritage tour.
Eighmey’s stepdaughter, Terri Logue, and her family live in Casa Grande.
Although Schubert and Eighmey have seen plenty of trains throughout their lives, and had taken several trips via rail, they’d never seen the Big Boy.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this train that was such a big part of history” Eighmey said.
Around the “Blue Barn” just south of the tracks in Maricopa, a large crowd gathered, with many waiting over an hour for a 15-second glimpse of the train, just as they did in regular intervals all along the Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway.
The Maricopa Police Department sent out a warning on Facebook warning people to keep a safe, 25-foot distance between themselves and the tracks, but many people wanted as close a look at history as possible. Kids of all ages were thrust on their parents’ shoulders, the local food bank used a truck lift to get a good view, and photographers lined the way to get their once-in-a-lifetime photos.
When the train zoomed past, it was met with cheers and waves. It appeared someone on the train was waving back, though it turned out he just wanted everyone to move away from the tracks.
Lynda and Ray Richardson also made a special trip to Casa Grande to see the train. Although they have been spending their winters in Casa Grande for 14 years, they usually arrive later in the season.
“We came earlier this year just to see the train,” Lynda Richardson said.
Ray Richardson, 74, grew up around trains and is a self-described train buff. His father worked as a tower operator for Pennsylvania Railroad. But he’d never seen the Big Boy.
“I love everything about steam engines,” Richardson said. “They’re so different from their modern day counterparts. They capture all the senses with smoke, sound, size. Each engine has its own personality.”
Lynda, who enjoys history, said she appreciates Big Boy’s history as a World War II-era train.
“The Big Boy is a war hero and a veteran,” she said.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first transcontinental railroad. The heritage tour is part of the celebration.
Several members of the Chandler-based Model A Restorers of Arizona drove their vintage Fords to see the train. They parked near the overpass on Main Avenue.
“The Big Boy isn’t something you can see every day,” said Lois Cook, a member of the group
Twenty-five Big Boy steam locomotives — named for their size of 132-feet in length and about 1.2 million pounds — were made for Union Pacific in the 1940s and ’50s.
“During World War II, Union Pacific operated some of the most modern and powerful steam locomotives ever built. Among them were the famous Big Boys, the largest steam locomotives in the world,” UP’s website says.
Locomotive No. 4014 is the only operating Big Boy. It was delivered to Union Pacific in 1941 and was retired in 1961 after traveling more than 1 million miles, according to the railroad’s website.
It underwent a multimillion-dollar restoration in 2013 and was returned to service to celebrate the company’s 150-year anniversary.
The train was expected to arrive in Casa Grande at about 2:45 p.m. Wednesday after passing through Maricopa. But it was delayed by nearly two hours.
Cindy and John Scott of Casa Grande arrived at their parking spot along Main Avenue at about 2:30.
“My father would have given an arm and a leg to see this train. He was such a train buff,” Cindy Scott said. “It’s so historical and there is a such romance surrounding steam engine trains that we haven’t seen since the Big Boy era.”
But the train may be a symbol of a bygone era.
Casa Grande resident Niki Felix was excited to see the train and tried to encourage her children and grandchildren to see it with her. They weren’t interested.
“I just couldn’t get them to come out and see it with me,” she said.
The train is expected to depart Casa Grande at 8 a.m. Thursday. Those who wish to see it can see it as it passes from its stop near Wilson and First streets and travels out of town.
It’s set to arrive in Tucson around 10:10 Thursday morning.
Staff Writer Joey Chenoweth contributed to this story.