Steam locomotive “Big Boy” debuts after restoration

CHEYENNE — It’s longer than two city buses, weighs more than a Boeing 747 fully loaded with passengers, and can tow 16 Statues of Liberty over a mountain.

Big Boy steam locomotive No. 4014 rolled out of a Union Pacific restoration shop in Cheyenne over the weekend to a great debut after five years of restoration. He then headed to Utah on a year-long tour to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad.

The Big Boys hauled freight between Wyoming and Utah in the 1940s and 1950s. Of the 25 built by the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, NY, from 1941 to 1944, eight remain. Only number 4014 will be operational.

Designed for steep mountains, each Big Boy had not one but two huge engines under a 250 ton boiler capable of holding enough water to cover an area the size of a basketball court to the depth of a high shoe.

The locomotives aren’t just big, they’re so complex that steam train enthusiasts have long considered it impossible to restore one to fully operational condition, said Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains magazine.

They were the “pinnacle of steam locomotive design” in the years before diesel engines arrived as the cheapest and most efficient standard for American railroads, Wrinn said.

“It’s a big deal,” Wrinn said. “Nobody ever thought a Big Boy would be put back into service. Ever.”

Union Pacific did not specify the cost of the restoration, but Wrinn estimated at least $4 million based on similar restorations. The result will be one of six to eight steam engines still in operation on American railroads.

The last steam locomotive delivered to Union Pacific, “Living Legend” Northern No. 844, has remained in service since 1944. Big Boy No. 4014 will join the publicity work of No. 844 as a railroad version of the Goodyear Blimp , Wrinn said. .

The locomotives will tour the Union Pacific system throughout 2019 in honor of the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad. They will be in Ogden, Utah, this week for an event featuring UP and Utah officials and a descendant of one of the Chinese workers who helped build the railroad.

Few train engineers these days know what it’s like to drive a steam locomotive, although retired Union Pacific engineer Mickey Cox once had a brief turn at the wheel of the 844.

The cab had no air conditioning behind the big coal boiler and got dirty, Cox recalled of his jaunt that included driving through a tunnel between Cheyenne and Laramie.

“Everyone in the cabin is, you know, covered in soot by the time you walk through the tunnel on these things. And it is very hot. The moment you come out at the end of the tunnel, you’re welcome to see the light of day,” said Cox, whose father and grandfather worked in Wyoming’s railroad industry. “It would have been hard work at the time, I’m sure.”

Converted to burn fuel oil instead of coal, the Big Boy #4014 will be less dirty, but even fewer people alive today know the experience of driving it. Big Boy #4014 was retired in late 1961 and no Big Boy engine has been run since 1962.

Retired Union Pacific employee Jim Ehernberger remembers the Big Boys well. He joined the railway aged 16 in 1953.

“You could definitely tell when a Big Boy left town. The ground was vibrating a bit more than with the other types of locomotives. They were very, very powerful,” Ehernberger said.

Union Pacific towed Big Boy #4014 to Cheyenne in 2014 after acquiring it from a museum in Pomona, California.

“They had to completely strip the locomotive down to the frame and shell,” Wrinn said. “It was a huge undertaking.”

Jose P. Rogers