The huge gray metal object stands 27 feet tall on an oversize flatbed with 144 wheels, weighs 431,000 pounds and is hauled by a lumbering beast of a truck that looks like something out of a Stephen King novel.

All this week it's been roaming the darkened roads of Harford County, drawing crowds of gawkers for its nocturnal procession to the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania. Last evening, it made the delicate crossing of Deer Creek on Route 136, which was reinforced in advance to bear the crushing weight.

The object of this attention is an enormous transformer - a device that increases the voltage of nuclear-generated power before it is sent out into the electric power grid that supplies Maryland and nearby states.

The hulking machinery bears a price tag of about $5 million, but the cost of transporting the transformer from its birthplace in South Korea to its destination is $5.6 million, according to officials of Exelon Corp., owner and operator of the Peach Bottom plant in Delta, Pa., just over the state line. Its journey has taken it from a Hyundai Heavy Industries plant in the Korean city of Ulsan, through the Panama Canal to the Port of Philadelphia. From there it was taken by barge to Havre de Grace, where its overland journey began late Monday with a smooth crossing of Interstate 95.

Tuesday night found it resting on a side road off Route 155 west of Havre de Grace. On the highway, road crews were setting up a detour as they prepared to close 155. All around were the flashing yellow lights of highway trucks and red and blue of police escort vehicles.

The night's objective: to move the transformer another 4 miles west on its 27-mile, eight-day overland journey - most of it along Maryland roads.

It's an effort that requires the co-operation of Exelon officials, heavy-hauling specialists, utility workers, highway engineers, police and others. The move has been months in the planning, with practically every step choreographed.

Shortly after 10 p.m., Jim Radamicki, project leader for the heavy haul contractor Barnhart Rigging, gathered several dozen of the 50-75 workers involved for the nightly safety briefing.

"This is a rolling construction project, keep that in mind. Treat it like a construction site the whole way," he told the virtually all-male crew. "Slow but steady progress, that's the key to this move."

The procession of vehicles, including the transformer and two "prime movers" - the oversize trucks used to haul it - was scheduled to begin at 11 p.m. Exelon's permit allowed it to close the road until 5 a.m. but company officials were hoping to wrap up that night's leg of the trip much earlier. The previous night they reached the transformer's pre-selected resting spot at 1:30 a.m.

"This effort was planned very conservatively to go approximately 5 miles a night," said Exelon senior project manager Steven Moorhead.

Tuesday night's move was expected to be the least difficult of the transformer's journey across Maryland. The route included no major bridge crossings and relatively level ground - certainly nothing as complex as the crossings of Deer Creek on Thursday and Broad Creek in northern Harford Saturday.

Before the transformer could get on the road, utility crews fanned out to prepare the route - in some cases taking down overhead wires that hung too low to allow the tall structure to pass underneath. At other locations, crews placed steel plates over points in the highway that crossed underground gas lines. Rachelle Benson, community outreach manager for Exelon, said there would be some temporary late-night outages but that utilities had warned customers what to expect.

Calling the shots for the move was Radamicki, a 26-year veteran of one of the oldest occupations known to man: the movement of extremely heavy objects.

"It started with the Egyptians building pyramids, and the craft has been finely tuned with hydraulics and electronics to make things a lot safer and easier," he said. "The basics are very similar."

As the crew made final preparations for the move, several onlookers gathered despite the late hour and remote location. Barton Hamilton, who lives nearby, came out with his 12-year-old daughter, Crystal. He said he wanted her to get the chance to see the transformer moved - just as he saw the equipment it will replace being moved up the same road during the Peach Bottom plant's construction in the 1970s.

Crystal said she planned to sleep in and tell her friends all about the experience the next day.

About 11:20 p.m., the prime mover hauling the transformer started belching smoke and lurching forward from its resting spot on a side street. The words "good to go" crackled over Radamicki's radio as truck and cargo turned onto the state highway. The towering unit, which cannot be transported on its side because of the risk of damage, cleared the overhead power lines with a few feet to spare and began moving west.

The transformer joined a procession of utility trucks, traffic safety vehicles and heavy equipment including a spare prime mover, with grillwork soaring about 9 feet above the pavement. The vehicles, including the pickup truck driven by Moorhead, set a pace of about 3-5 mph, as fast as a loaded prime mover can go.

"With a little bit of luck, this is as exciting as it's going to be," he said.

As the parade continued west, the transformer passed several houses where families gathered on their front lawns to take in the spectacle.

With no obstructions or delays, the trip to the next staging area near the Route 22 intersection took less than an hour, and by 12:18 a.m. Wednesday, the prime mover was in position to back its load into a small parking lot by a fire pond in Churchville.

Jason Koenig, the Hyundai representative who sold the unit to Exelon, had traveled there from Champaign, Ill., to watch the intricate maneuver and take pictures.

"This is such a major move. This has got to be one of Hyundai's biggest moves in the United States," he said. "This is the tallest transformer Hyundai has ever manufactured."

The move is the first of several Exelon will make as part of an $87 million program to replace the original transformers installed at Peach Bottom. Another six are expected to be delivered between now and 2014. Moorhead said the experience gained this time around should prepare the company to transport as many as three at a time during future moves.

As the Barnhart workers moved the last of their heavy vehicles into the tiny parking lot about 12:45 a.m., Moorhead expressed relief that nothing unexpected had occurred.

"Everybody knew their job and did it well," he said.

From across the street, David Baur of Forest Hill watched the crew steer the equipment and pronounced it "fantastic."

"I can't think of a better thing to do with my time now that I'm retired," he said.

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