Trains, Missions and Canoes: A Unique National Park Foundation Adventure in Texas

In recent years I’ve had the great opportunity to explore more of America’s Best Idea, the National Parks. I thought I was making pretty good progress through the parks until very recently when I learned that there are actually more than 400 sites protected and administered by the National Park Service in every corner of the country. That’s an incredible legacy to leave future generations, but ultimately it is only part of the remarkable efforts conducted by the Service, the National Park Foundation and their partners in the preservation of not just historical and natural resources, but the very essence of what it means to be American.

What is the National Park Foundation?

It’s somewhat unusual for a Federal agency to have an affiliated nonprofit partner, but of course the National Parks aren’t your average resource. The National Park Foundation (NPF) was chartered by Congress in 1967 to help the National Park Service achieve certain goals that law restricts them to achieve. Namely, the NPF has the ability to not only raise private funds for the benefit of the NPS, but to then use those monies in ways that no government agency would ever be able to. They very much exist in partnership, coordinating efforts that not only help preserve the 419 sites around the country, but also in creating new ways for people to access them. They are also able to enter into certain strategic partnerships to further these goals, which is how I found myself in Texas a few weeks ago.

Union Pacific and the Big Boy

Just as the National Park Service has a long and vaunted history, so does one of the country’s most durable companies – Union Pacific. Created by Congress and approved by Lincoln in 1862, Union Pacific was originally part of the First Transcontinental Railroad project and their lines were the first Overland Route across the country. Over the years they have grown, absorbed other companies and today Union Pacific is one of the world’s largest transportation companies, operating 8,500 locomotives over 32,100 route-miles in the United States. One of those trains though is a little more special than the others, the Big Boy No. 4014.

Twenty-five Big Boys were built exclusively for Union Pacific Railroad, the first of which was delivered in 1941. The locomotives were 132 feet long and weighed 1.2 million pounds. Today only eight of these beautiful locomotives exist and of those only one is operational and it was on Big Boy No. 4014 that I found myself traveling on a very special excursion.

The Big Boy No. 4014 was delivered to Union Pacific in 1941 and was retired in 1961 having traveled 1,031,205 miles in its 20 years of service. Union Pacific reacquired No. 4014 from the RailGiants Museum in California and in 2013 began the long and intensely complicated process of restoring this old giant. Over five years, the locomotive was completely disassembled, some new parts fabricated, repairs conducted and in May 2019 it moved under its own power for the first time in more than 59 years and instantly became the world’s largest operational steam locomotive. Union Pacific will use the Big Boy for a number of special events and celebrations in the coming years, but it all started this year with the commemoration of the 150 years since the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which is how I found myself onboard this piece of American history.

It was a slightly grey morning in San Antonio as we approached the Big Boy. Not for the first time that day I was shocked by the massive crowd gathered just to see the giant locomotive for themselves. Transportation tends to elicit a certain type of fanaticism, and that’s especially true for those interested in trains. But the crowd was so much more expansive than just some train enthusiasts, there were families, school groups and just curious passersby all assembled to see something that hadn’t happened for nearly 60 years as the Big Boy puffed its way through the heart of the city.

Grand Canyon Arizona

Union Pacific has long been an important partner in the preservation of our natural resources, starting many decades before they became a key partner of both the National Park Foundation and Service. The story of the National Parks is intertwined with that of Union Pacific, and the company greatly contributed to the creation and expansion of the North American model of conservation itself. It was the train company that first provided access to what are now the shining jewels of the Service: Yellowstone, Zion and the Grand Canyon just to name a few. They created package trips for those first intrepid tourists, complete with luxurious railroad hotels at each park. The company’s commitment to our National Parks continues into the modern era in any number of important ways. Union Pacific was the first NPF corporate partner to support the establishment of the Pullman National Monument with a $1 million grant and they are committed to enabling youth access to our natural resources through the Open OutDoors for Kids program, among other initiatives.

I visited the Big Boy as a guest of the National Park Foundation and Union Pacific and, along with some other writers, I was provided with a once in a lifetime opportunity to not just climb inside this historic train, but to be a passenger as she puffed her away across Texas to Houston. To be clear, this was a very unique opportunity and (sadly) the Big Boy is not available for people to ride as passengers. Since that is the case, I won’t go into too many details except to say that the day was one that I know I’ll never forget. When it was remodeled, it wasn’t only the mechanics of the train that were brought back to life, but the interiors as well. Painstaking work went into creating the epic 1950s and 60s décor and layouts, making it feel as if Don Draper had just boarded for his trip across the country. What also impressed me were the crowds that lined the tracks along the way. I had no idea how much interest there would be in just seeing this last remnant of an era long gone, but even in the smallest of towns hundreds of people sat patiently for the Big Boy’s arrival, a once in a lifetime experience for them as well. By the end of the day I learned a lot not only about Union Pacific, but how they work with the National Park Foundation – just the beginning of my education that weekend.

History and Nature in Texas

Before leaving San Antonio, I had the opportunity to visit a lesser-known but amazing spot, the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this very special collection preserves four of the five Spanish frontier missions around San Antonio. These outposts formed an important part of the Spanish colonization system starting in the 17th century. While remarkably quiet in comparison to the nearby Alamo, I was much more impressed by these tranquil remnants of an empire long past its prime. What’s even more amazing to consider is that they’ve been used continuously ever since their founding. The churches at the missions are still active and welcome their congregations every Sunday.

Once in Houston, I had yet another opportunity to visit a not-so-well-known part of the National Park Service, Big Thicket National Preserve. Although I had never heard of it before, I really should have as I quickly learned. This heavily forested region in Southeast Texas is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and is routinely called America’s Ark. It’s an enormous place and each area is shockingly different from the other. I started off my exploration of the Preserve by grabbing a canoe and paddling along the Neches River. The only thing breaking the mirror-like water was my own oar as I enjoyed some much needed time communing with nature. Along the way I enjoyed just being out there and taking advantage of the resource, spotting any number of birds and other creatures as I went. The highlight of the paddle though was finding myself in the middle of an expansive freshwater swamp forest, the likes of which I’d never before experienced. It was a singularly special moment, one that I’ll never forget and one that ultimately puts into context everything I love about the National Park System and why these amazing spots must always be protected. 

Although my love for the National Park System is not new, it has been greatly deepened in recent months as I visit more parks and learn how to better appreciate everything the country has to offer. Part of that education has been discovering the incredible work conducted by the National Park Foundation, a remarkable organization with the enviable goal of helping to preserve our collective resources not just for us, but for future generations as well.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

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