Union Pacific Big Boy 4014 is the product of another age, another time, a time seemingly so far removed from this century that it seems unlikely that this steam locomotive could run the rails again. But she does. And now has thousands of miles under her belt. Union Pacific 4014 is the largest operating steam locomotive in the world.
Never say Never
Prior to Union Pacific 4014, the last Big Boy retired, emptying the ash pan for the last time, in 1959. For decades steam enthusiasts and railfans looked longingly at the eight preserved Big Boys and thought about firing one up. But the cost was prohibitive, estimates went into millions of dollars. And besides, even if you had the money, where was the manpower, equipment and experience to get the beast running again?
2019 was the 150th anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory, Utah. It was that spike that completed the rail line joining east and west of the still young nation. It’s difficult to describe the effect on the country in 1869. It was that era’s moon landing.
Of the two railroad companies that met in that isolated place to complete the wonder of the era, one still survives. In the image above, the photographer is standing astride the boiler, or standing on top of the cab, of Union Pacific 119, the locomotive that happened to be working with the lead crew when history was made at Promontory point.
The Union Pacific Railroad was there in 1869 and is today one of the largest and most profitable railroads in the United States. And it’s the only Class 1 railroad to still keep a steam locomotive on its active roster. Well, now two steam locomotives are on the UP’s active roster. Union Pacific 844 was never retired and is now part of the 4014 / 844 pair of steam locomotives kept steam-ready by the Union Pacific.
The stars align for Big Boy 4014
So, where is the skill today to bring this massive machine back to life? It’s in Cheyenne, Wyoming at the Union Pacific steam shop. As the sole survivor of the transcontinental race of 150 years prior, Union Pacific, nearly 10 years before the event, started to plan for a big, big, “Golden Spike” celebration in 2019.
But even for Union Pacific, an estimated cost of $5,000,000 to restore a Big Boy was too much to pay for what would be, after all, just a big party. Recognizing the possibly one-time confluence of events, experience and willingness, an anonymous benefactor approached the UP with a plan: The benefactor would donate a considerable bit of the money if Union Pacific would donate the manpower, expertise and time. Who could say no?
So a plan was hatched; the wheels put in motion. Eight Big Boys had been preserved, so the first task was to pick the best candidate for rebuilding. Union Pacific owned two Big Boys, on display at Cheyenne and at a park in Omaha, their headquarters city. Both had sat outside for 60 Wyoming and Nebraska winters. One by one the other survivors were looked at and set aside as not the best candidate for restoration, until UP looked at 4014, on display in sunny southern California.
Big Boy 4014 was not only in favorable weather for 60 years, but had been well taken care of by the enthusiast group that owned her. Negotiations began between Union Pacific and the Rail Giants Museum, the group that had owned 4014 since 1963. In 2012, a deal was struck, allowing Union Pacific to bring Big Boy 4014 back home to Cheyenne. The negotiations had been secret, and when the deal was announced it was like a – very welcome – earthquake in the steam enthusiast world.
Bringing Big Boy 4014 home
In 2013 UP began to move 4014 from her museum-home in Pomona California, this meant a series of moves across a parking lot to get to an operating rail line. UP then towed 4014 “dead” to the steam shop in Cheyenne. Ahead lay 5 years of work. The road to Ogden and the 150th anniversary celebration would be a long one for 4014.
Once back safely in the steam shop at Cheyenne, the real hard work began. Not only is the Big Boy a massive 4-8-8-4 locomotive, but she is an articulated steam locomotive, with two sets of drivers and two complete engine units, sharing a boiler.
The front set of driving wheels, under the front engine, can move independently from the locomotive’s permanently attached boiler and rear engine. This allows the locomotive to better negotiate curves. It also makes for a complicated restoration and rebuild.
Despite all the excitement in the railfan world, Union Pacific kept the work, not so much a secret, rather a low-profile project. Until that is, 2018 when updates and pictures began to come out of the steam shop. Glossing over a lot of work, let’s skip right to 4014’s “first sighting” under her own power.
On April 27th, 2019, she rolled out of the big shop doors to test and tune her mighty, throaty, whistle and then rolled back in – all under her own steam. But, wait….what was that? Was that all the enthusiast community would get? It would be a few more days before lurkers would hit paydirt.
After many dollars, man hours, and much determination
One day later, May 2nd, after 5 years inside the steam shop, 4014 emerged for a full test run. It was later in the day than the steam crew would have liked, but they coaxed her out onto the main line as the sun began to set.
You can see the steam crew left nothing on the field, or in the shop… even chalking “Big Boy” on the front of the boiler as had been done for the first Big Boy locomotive all those years ago.
This was a test run, and the crew stopped and re-started their charge a couple of times to inspect the locomotive and running gear. Besides 4014 the train consisted of two tool cars, and a diesel locomotive – in dynamic braking mode to simulate a heavier train. With the test run behind them, and a passing grade from the UP Steam Team, 4014 was now ready for the first trip of her second life.
Big Boy 4014 heads to Ogden
After a proper christening in front of the historic Cheyenne depot, 4014 took her spot at the head of a matched set of nine passenger cars – joined by another steam locomotive, Union Pacific 844 and one of UP 8937, one of the railroad’s latest diesel locomotives, an EMD SD70AH.
Big Boy 4014 navigated the nearly 800 mile round trip to Ogden and the 150th Anniversary of the driving of the golden spike in fine style. Befitting the unique and historic occasion, it seemed like railfans lined the way at every town – and many remote locations too. There were tens-of-thousand of people who watched 4014 roll on by.
In Ogden, Big Boy 4014 and Union Pacific’s “Living Legend” 844, reenacted the nose-to-nose steam locomotive meet-up of 1869. It was a sight to see: History relived, albeit with much larger and more powerful steam locomotives!
That first trip was hugely successful and Union Pacific, knowing a public relations bonanza when they see one, put 4014 back on the rails for several tours of the West and Midwest. First she went back to Los Angeles to pull a fundraiser train for the Rail Giants Museum (part of the original deal). We have full details of that exciting tour.
Still on the Rails, Big Boy 4014 still Thrills
You can also read about her trip to Kansas City, and another tour which took 4014 to the Midwest. In 2021 there was a month long tour that brought the now-famous steam locomotive to New Orleans and Texas (and more). We also cover the 2022 saga: A tour that was planned for the Northwest, and then postponed and then a quick trip to Denver.
And, of course, if you want a blow-by-blow account of that first-in-60-years trip to Ogden, we have that too. Read all about it, from Cheyenne though Laramie, Evanston, to Ogden and then back to Cheyenne over the Wasatch Mountains, over Sherman Hill and back home to her stall at the Union Pacific Steam Shop.
Thanks to Union Pacific, Big Boy 4014 is now a gift to our time, proving that the ingenuity, engineering and vision that created the Big Boy in 1941 is still alive and well in America.
Railfan and model railroader. Writer and consumer of railroad news and information.