In 2014, we reported how Union Pacific had reacquired one of the eight surviving ALCO built ‘Big Boys’ – the world’s largest steam locomotives – from a museum in California, with the intention of returning it to working order.
Some may have been sceptical, but UP have been true to their word, and at an auspicious moment!
Yes, 600 tons of Big Boy no 4014 is back on the rails, and wowing the crowds as she leads Union Pacific’s celebrations of the sesquicentennial of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, the Overland Route, in 1869.
A brief recap. The Big Boy has two sets of cylinders and two sets of eight driving wheels, with the front set articulated and the rear mounted on the rigid frame. Its purpose was to allow a single locomotive to haul the heaviest UP trains between Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Ogden, Utah, where the UP then met the Southern Pacific, across the steep grades of Wyoming and Utah.
The driving wheels are just 68 inch in diameter – this is an engine designed for slogging along with 4,000 ton freights at 30mph, not cruising at 80 with a streamliner – and the whole machine is a daunting 133 feet long – twice the length of a modern diesel. The tender holds 28 tons of coal and 24,000 gallons of water. The firebox is 20 feet by 8 feet – the size needed to produce the steam needed from low quality Wyoming coal
25 Big Boys were built by ALCO at Schenectady, New York, between 1941 and 1944; the last was retired in 1959 as UP moved to diesel, and, uniquely, gas turbine power. Eight are preserved, with 4014 spending 50 years basking in the sunshine of southern California until the UP reacquired her in 2014.
War gave an impetus to the development of the class, of course
4014 was escorted back home to UP’s steam workshops in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 2014 by UP diesel no 4014 (of course – and now to be renumbered), and serious restoration work began in 2016. This included conversion to oil (rather than coal) firing)
UP are remaining tight-lipped about the cost, but the amount and quality of the work they have achieved is impressive indeed. Here are some of the people who made it happen.
4014 is now making her way westwards, towards Ogden, Utah, for the formal sesquicentennial celebrations with whistle stops at the larger towns en route. Details here. Track her movements here. She’s being accompanied by one of UP’s other steam locomotives, the 4-8-4 no 844, known as the Living Legend to railfans, as she was the last steam loco built for UP and the only one in the US that was never withdrawn from service.
UP has announced that 4014 will be touring the UP system throughout 2019, so get ready for more jams on I-80 across the plains.
Wyoming has seen nothing like it for 60 years, after all.
Nice article. Kudos and commendations to all those folks who had the passion and foresight to ensure this piece of history was brought back to life, so future generations will be able to enjoy it. Jim.
Amazing. To re-find the knowledge required to restore and operate this beast is mighty impressing.
There’s another stop on the motorcycle trip west to visit Eugene OR 🙂
I should really retire this year….
What a great thing! I love that it is back on the rails.
I have mixed feelings about the switch from coal to oil. Oil is certainly much, much cleaner burning and eliminates the nasty, dirty job of shoveling coal into that massive firebox. But it is with some guilt I say I miss seeing the massive black plume of smoke that comes out of one of these old locos. But the loss of originality is better than the human and environmental costs of the old way.
+1 but the infrastructure for the coal is gone too. No more tender loading towers spaced across the landscape. No more water towers for that matter, but they can pull auxiliary water tanks. That doesn’t work with coal.
“but the infrastructure for the coal is gone too”
An excellent point. I guess just the way our 1967 Dodges will have big electric motors in place of the 383/Torqueflite in 2030 or so because there are no gas stations left.
UP converted its now second-biggest steamer. 4-6-6-4 Challenger 3985, to avoid setting lineside grass fires from coal cinders. 3985 was also to tour nationally and oil fuel is more available. The 4-8-4 UP844 was converted to oil in the 1950s for longer range between fuel stops, as a high speed passenger engine.
Big Boy actually has the 3985’s oil tender on this trip, the conversion of its own, near-identical tender not yet finished.
The Eagle Lake and West Branch Railroad of Maine operated two steam Locomotives that were converted from coal to oil to haul pulp wood back in the late 20’s and early 30’s. The are still right where they were abandoned in 1933, miles and miles from anything. A Google search brings up pictures and more info.
If the engine is being run correctly most of the exhaust plume should just be water vapor, so that won’t change. The dramatic thick black clouds are usually either showing off for the fans, or a problem with the firing.
What you do lose with an oil conversion is the great aroma of coal smoke.
Just a FYI, nobody could shovel coal fast enough to feed a firebox that size. Big boys had mechanical stokers, a kind of steam driven screw bevel that fed coal from the tender to the firebox. Even though I’ll probably never see it, I’m delighted that it’s back in steam. I wonder if the new build “Tornado” steam loco in Britain was responsible for giving them the inspiration to restore it.
Union Pacific could have rested on their laurels. They already had the 844 for the Golden Spike celebration. They already had the then-largest operable UP steam locomotive, the 4-6-6-4 Challenger 3985. That UP decided to buy back and restore a Big Boy is remarkable and commendable, like their preservation of Diesel locomotive 4141, safely stored in Air Force One livery in waiting as a memorial to our 41st President, George H. W. Bush
Big Boy sure looked proud as he cruised across Wyoming to Ogden. UT. And don:t call him “She,” unlike other cherished steam locomotives. He’s BIG BOY.
There was a ceremony at Cheyenne Union Station last Saturday at 9:30am, followed by departure of the consist at 10am. Of course I was there for the event and it was quite a show. A day or two earlier the 4014 took a test run towards Greeley and I believe it did encounter some issues but recovered for the big event.
The UP steam fleet is maintained and stored at the Cheyenne roundhouse and adjacent maintenance shop – just south of the station. The facility is periodically open for public tours and I absolutely take advantage of the opportunity. Cheyenne has a “Depot Days” event almost every year and that presents a sure time for visitors to see the locomotives up close. Depot Days will not happen in 2019 due to the touring of the 4014.
UP is an admirable corporate citizen and is greatly respected in Wyoming.
This is a truly remarkable feat, and a very satisfying one, as I became a bit obsessed with Big Boys as a kid. UP gets a big thumbs up from me, and I’m hoping it finds its way to Eugene, as 844 did some years ago ( I didn’t shoot it) and their superb E9 set:
I watched some of the videos starting with its first movement under its own power, but thanks for this tribute.
I too am a Big Boy fan and love seeing it back on the tracks.
You wrote: “UP are remaining tight-lipped about the cost, but the amount and quality of the work they have achieved is impressive indeed.” Since UP was already running a steam locomotive the cost of refurbishment was probably less than it would have been is they had started from scratch but it still had to be enormous.
Cotton Belt #819 is in my home town and I am somewhat familiar with the efforts needed to maintain it. Lots and lots of money and man hours are involved. Some of the labor is done by volunteers but not much really. I understand that they stopped taking it on PR excursions because of insurance issues. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Louis_Southwestern_819
Yes, the effort is massive. There was a relatively light duty steam locomotive that was run as an excursion train by the Indiana Transportation Museum until a federal inspection mandated an extensive overhaul around 2002 or 2003. The work was being done by volunteers and as of 2018 it was still unfinished.
A gigantic wrench was thrown into the plan when the museum was unceremoniously kicked out of its longtime home in the park of a neighboring city (Noblesville, Indiana). I’m sure it was just pure coincidence that the city and another to its south wanted to turn the tracks between Noblesville and Indianapolis into a recreational trail.
The locomotive was moved down to Louisville, as I understand things, with the promise that restoration/refurbishment will continue.
Dang, it’s a shame that ‘Rails-to-Trails’ can’t, somehow, coexist with train preservation. I can understand devotees on both sides but, in the end, it will likely be the former that eventually wins out over the latter.
In that regard, there’s a very cool bicycle train at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in PA, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (CVSR) where you can bike along the (unpaved) trail and, for $5, load your bike at one of nine stops and ride back.
This is great to see. Having seen a Big Boy on static display in St Louis, and knowing it was not financially feasible to resurrect, seeing this is terrific.
Thank you BP!
Truly impressive, and hats off to UP for putting their hands int heir pockets to fund this.
Is the oil carried in the previous coal storage int he tender, or elsewhere?
Yes, as part of a conversion, the oil tank is installed in the former coal bunker. In this case, they are temporarily using the tender from engine 3985 which was converted to oil years ago.
The 3900s were smaller than the Big Boys but the tenders are nearly identical.
I believe 4-8-4 no 844, Living Legend, pulled the Denver Cheyenne tribute train for Frontier Days for years.
Very cool to watch leave Denver Union Station.
Took the nephews down to the tracks in Denver to watch 844 pass by from CO Springs to Cheyenne ten years ago or so. We heard it coming long before it got there and it passed us going about 40mph–we were standing about 20 feet away–massive and insanely loud. It reminded me of Oppenheimer’s quoting of the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It was awesome.
The annual Denver Post train from Denver to Cheyenne on the first Saturday of Frontier Days is no longer; last year was the last year.
I got a ride on it one time – on the deadhead to position the consist at Denver Union Station for the Saturday trip.
The Denver Post is no longer viable. Somehow the steam locomotives and the Heritage Fleet of passenger cars still are.
Yesterday, in the York, England depot, I saw a “Flying Scotsman” excursion train and it appeared to be burning coal. Is that correct?
Yes. All British steam locos are, and always have been, coal fired
There have been a few oil burner in Britain but they have never been common.
What a beast. The 1940’s were the highpoint of a number of technologies – steam trains, propellor aircraft, battleships – that faded away soon after. It’s always thrilling to see these ‘final versions’ at the apex of their development, just before they became virtually obsolete.
Hope to get over to the US in 2020 to see 4014 in action.
Fantastic stuff. UP must have some serious rail romantics upstairs, because it’s doubtful the great PR this must generate could ever justify the millions spent (and to do it in that timeframe, it would indeed be quite a few millions).
Can’t help but join the slight wistfulness about the coal, in my case only for the magnificent dirty smell. (Oil was only used here when steam was being retired, in smaller workhorse locos – and it stinks like an old mechanic’s boiler suit!)
Was there a reason, Big Paws, why multiple large locos were not originally employed, instead of creating these fearsome monsters?
Labor costs were a big reason. Each steam locomotive required a crew of 2 or 3 to operate. This was one of the advantages that Diesel locomotives had, as multiple units could be controlled by one crew.
I’m from Council Bluffs, IA, the eastern terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad and home to the Union Pacific museum (housed in our old Carnegie library). I see a Big Boy almost daily, displayed on I-80 just over the Missouri river. We also have a sister loco to the 844 at a separate rail museum (RailsWest, a converted Rock Island depot). In other words, seeing massive old steamers is not uncommon around here. Nonetheless, seeing a Big Boy running is a huge, huge treat. As noted above, the UP is an excellent corporate citizen, and deserves much credit for maintaining the Heritage Shops and the Heritage Fleet in general.
I’ve seen the Allegheny at the Henry Ford Museum, and it is quite a sight…but it isn’t running 😉
This is without a doubt the Big Kahuna of steam locomotives. Back in its heyday trains were at times so heavy that TWO Big Boys were necessary to maintain speed on inclines. It takes THREE or more diesel locomotives to come anywhere close to the pulling power of just ONE. YouTube has all the evidence.
“Biggest” when regarding steam locomotives can be a slippery slope. Physically the Big Boy is the largest but not the most powerful or the heaviest. The Chesapeake & Ohio’s Alleghenies had higher drawbar horsepower (7,498 vs. 6,300 for the Big Boy), and were heavier (778,000 lbs. vs. 762,000lbs) and therefore win the crown.