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English engineer’s final wish, to go out with a train, is granted

David Gillies told his family he wanted his ashes to go through Big Boy No. 4014's firebox. Union Pacific agreed to fulfill the man's dying wish. Photo: Colby Walker, KSL Newsradio

OGDEN — A crowd of people gathered to celebrate the historic moment when East met West and the first transcontinental railroad was finished 150 years ago this week included a special guest on the train who technically didn’t live to see the moment.

Several thousand people crowded into Ogden’s Union Station Thursday for a Union Pacific celebration marking the anniversary. Because the railroad line no longer directly connects to Promontory Summit, where the Golden Spike was driven to connect the railroad on May 10, 1869, Union Pacific brought restored trains to Ogden to re-enact the moment there ahead of today’s celebrations at Golden Spike National Historic Monument.

The crowd held phones and cameras aloft as Big Boy No. 4014 and Engine 844, two 1940s era engines, chugged into place for the ceremony. They cheered when the engines blared their horns.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert spoke, as did Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz, who honored the laborers, many of them Chinese and Irish immigrants, who worked 12-hour days in sometimes dangerous conditions, building the railroad by hand.

But the guest of honor wasn’t technically present in the normal sense. Among the many train enthusiasts and history lovers and even just plain curious in the crowd was a British family who traveled to Utah to fulfill the dying wish of a train engineer.

David Gillies told his family he wanted his ashes to go through the firebox of Big Boy No. 4014. Union Pacific agreed, so his daughter traveled to Utah for the ceremony with her father’s ashes. During the ceremony, Gov. Herbert held the box and promised to fulfill that wish.

The trains involved in Thursday’s festivities may not have been around in 1869, but they have a historic heritage all their own. The so-called “Big Boy,” no. 4014, was one of 25 Big Boy engines built exclusively for Union Pacific. At 132 feet long, Big Boy engines have “hinged” or articulated frames to help them maneuver curves. No. 4014 was delivered in December 1941 and retired in December 1961, after having traveled over a million miles in twenty years of service.

Engine 844, “The Living Legend,” was the last steam locomotive built for Union Pacific. It was delivered in 1944 and served as a high-speed passenger train. It was saved from being scrapped in 1960, and placed into special service instead.