My family volunteered to help with Ogden’s Golden Spike Sesquicentennial, the celebration of a century and a half since the completion of the first North American transcontinental railway. What a great party. Of course, as Standard-Examiner columnist Mark Saal noted, given all the hype and celebration, many people probably have train fatigue at this point. One group certainly doesn’t: foamers. It was my daughter’s job to keep a certain distance between them and the visiting Big Boy 4014 Steam Engine.
Foamers, you could well imagine, might serve a role in fire prevention or perhaps putting that shaving cream-thick head on a mug of 19th-century style sarsaparilla. Nope. Some people call themselves as “foamers” because their enthusiasm for trains becomes so intense that they will foam at the mouth when observing a train. If they catch a glimpse of a train like Big Boy, the largest and most powerful steam locomotive in the world restored to operational capabilities, then all bets are off as to how much foaming will occur.
Even simple train enthusiasts (or “rail fans” or “rail buffs” or “railway enthusiasts” or “trainspotters” or “ferroequinologists” — and you can find plenty of discussion about the differences between those definitions in online communities) got excited about Big Boy coming to Ogden. A number of people from both the university and industry told me they got up extremely early or camped out the night before to see Big Boy come through Echo Canyon. Some paid $5,000 to ride the train from Wyoming. One fan looked absolutely giddy talking about the experience. Another told me that a wave of emotion came over them when they heard the whistle from a mile away as the train approached. My wife met enthusiasts from China and Australia. One fan told my daughter and her friend that the technology of the train changed America — a simple enough statement but the obvious excitement of the person spoke volumes about what it meant to them.
Of course, people can get pretty excited about all manner of things, including technology. My father-in-law never lost his excitement when he saw an airplane. You can find communities of “rocket boys” traveling the country in campers angling for the best spot to see a launch to space. With trains like Big Boy, the size and historical significance can create a sense of awe, nostalgia and community.
Originally, people reserved the word ‘awe’ to describe that feeling of reverential respect, fear, and wonder for often vast natural things. Thomas Jefferson described the Natural Bridge in Virginia as “sublime” in awestruck language, and anyone seeing Niagara Falls used similar language to describe that discovery in the wilderness. Yet, with the advent of technological innovation during the 18th century, many of Jefferson’s peers waxed poetically to describe man-made objects, like intricate clocks and water-powered milling equipment.
Authors Luke Fernandez and Susan Matt note that people seek “awe” but no longer find it as readily from technology — that we, in fact, have become entitled, assuming rapid technological innovation. Technology enthusiasts, obviously, beg to differ, and do so often knowing very intricate details of particular technology as well as its historical significance.
The fact is that the transcontinental railroad did change this country. Ordered by Abraham Lincoln and completed under Ulysses S. Grant, the railroad united this country physically and emotionally only a few years after the last rifle shot of the Civil War. It proved what a united and strong people could attain.
Many feel some nostalgia for this 1869 joining of the nation. The celebration took special note of the participation of not only the leaders of the day, but the unnamed workers, especially the Irish, Chinese, and people of Utah. Big Boy itself was put in service during World War II when the nation rallied around a common cause of defeating fascism. Currently, many in our nation, just as in other times like the Civil and Vietnam Wars, look for unity. Nostalgia has been shown to benefit people when feeling personally ill-at-ease. It can act as a salve in the face of change while they move, inevitably, to the future.
On the morning of May 12, I joined hundreds in downtown Ogden to see Big Boy return home. Surrounded in steam, the giant crankshafts visibly moved the engine’s 24 wheels forward. The train’s bell clanged through the billowing white cloud, working like a catalyst, reminding me of what Americans, both technologically and politically, can do together.