All aboard: Inside Union Pacific's celebration of the transcontinental railroad's 150th anniversary

The railroad, built to join the eastern and western halves of the U.S., "created a new global economy."

Company: Union Pacific Railroad
Agency partners: Bader Content Studios (video production, broadcast TV outreach), Brunswick Group
Campaign: 150th anniversary
Duration: May 2017 – present

To honor the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad’s completion, Union Pacific Railroad restored a steam locomotive, the Big Boy No. 4014. The only operating model of its kind, the Big Boy traveled across the country this year on a multi-city tour that culminated in anniversary celebrations in Ogden, Utah, on May 9 and Promontory, Utah, the following day.

The transcontinental railroad - which runs from sea to shining sea, connecting the East Coast and West Coast - was completed on May 10, 1869. Union Pacific Railroad was one of the three private companies that built it.

Not without controversy, due to the conditions workers had to endure and its impact on Native Americans, it was a momentous event for the U.S., one that "created a new global economy," said Raquel Espinoza, senior director of corporate communications and media relations at Union Pacific. Overnight, the trip from New York City to San Francisco shrank from months on a ship or in a wagon to 10 days by train. 

May 10 of this year marked the transcontinental railroad’s 150th anniversary. For Union Pacific, it was an opportunity to showcase the railroad’s history and communicate how vital the railroad remains to the American economy. 

"Railroads move goods that you and I use every day: your car, the lumber you use to build your house, the cement to build roads, even the packages that get delivered to your doorstep," Espinoza said.

The goal was to take elements from the railroad’s past and marry them with its present. Union Pacific restored a steam locomotive, the Big Boy No. 4014, which journeyed across the country. The route kicked off in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and continued onwards to Ogden, Utah (making stops along the way).

On May 9, Union Pacific threw a celebration in Ogden, Utah, in which the Big Boy joined forces with another iconic locomotive, the Living Legend No. 844. On May 10, the company sponsored an event in Promontory, Utah, the location where the final spike was tapped. In a modern-day twist, the celebrations were captured on Facebook Live. 

The journey isn’t over either; it will begin again later in September, snaking through Nevada, California, Arizona, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado.

Planning for the campaign began in 2017. The first order of business was obtaining a Big Boy locomotive, and "bringing its steam engine back to life," Espinoza said. 

The Big Boy’s schedule was announced on March 14, 2019. Union Pacific began reaching out to the communities along the route to help facilitate events and celebrations around the Big Boy’s passage. The company also pitched the media, including national, trade and local publications, offering select reporters the opportunity to ride the Big Boy to fully capture the experience. 

Union Pacific tracked the Big Boy’s progress on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram so that locals and faraway fans alike could watch its progress in real-time. The company also created a Facebook group, called the Union Pacific Steam Club, in which its 36,000 members shared photos and received up-to-date notifications about the locomotive’s journey.

"It created this really neat community that helped us get a lot of momentum," Espinoza said. 

On April 10, details around the May 9 celebration, in which the Big Boy was displayed nose-to-nose with another iconic steam locomotive, the Living Legend No. 844, were announced.

As part of the campaign, Union Pacific asked enthusiasts to use the hashtag #done on social media. It also created a video explaining why #done is symbolic to this event.

More than 8,000 people attended the 150th anniversary steam meet event in person. An additional 31,000 people watched on Facebook Live. 

The activation resulted in more than 17,000 individual posts across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

The campaign generated about 1,000 earned stories across print, digital, broadcast and radio, including TV interviews on Bloomberg, CNN, Yahoo Finance, video segments on Fox News, and stories and photos in the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal.

Some of the stories did reflect elements of the railroad's controversial past. 

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