Trackside Classic: 1941 Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 Big Boy #4014 – Amazing Things Happen in Wyoming

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.