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Denver’s Big Boy

The roughly 100 hundred miles that separates Denver, Co, and Cheyenne, Wy is the currently epicenter of Union Pacific’s monster steam locomotive the Big Boys, not because they routinely ran between these two cities but because three of the eight existing Big Boys can be found along Highway 25 in the cities of Denver and Cheyenne.

Cheyenne was the operational headquarters for the 4-8-8-4, freight locomotives that were designed to tackle the Wasatch Mountains between Cheyenne and Ogden, Ut. These were the largest steam locomotives ever built.

Overall, 25 Big Boys were made, currently two are found in Cheyenne and one in Denver. No. 4004 can be seen on display in Holiday Park in Cheyenne. Local residents petitioned Union Pacific to donate a Big Boy to the city of Cheyenne when they saw the rapid disappearance of stream locomotives from the rails in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Big Boy 4004 at Holiday Park in Cheyenne.

Big Boy No. 4005 had a much more colorful history than 4004. 4005 was only one of two Big Boys that were converted from coal to oil (more on that other converted Big Boy later). 4005 tallied up 1,043,624 road miles in a 20 year career. The giant is also the only Big Boy to ever be involved in a major accident. On April 27, 1953, 4005 hit an opened siding at 50 miles per hour causing the train to derail and the Big Boy fell on it’s left side (the damage is still visible today). The engineer, fireman, head-end brakemen were all killed in the wreck. The locomotive was later repaired in Cheyenne and returned to service.

The 4005 is now on display in Denver’s Forney Museum of Transportation in northern Denver. This is where I returned, this time with Steve, to do a few field sketches of the Big Boy (the featured sketch and the sketch below of 4005’s tender.)

The other Big Boy that was converted to burning oil is perhaps the most famous Big Boy: Union Pacific’s 4014. 4014 is the largest operational steam locomotive in the world. It was on display for many years in California and was shipped, by rail, to the steam shop in Cheyenne and fully restored to working order.

Union Pacific 4014 has proven to be the most illusive Big Boy for me. You would think the largest operational steam locomotive in the world would be easier to see! I have seen the Steam Shop in Cheyenne and the doors have always been closed, hiding 4014 and the Living Legend No. 844. A west coast steam tour was planned for this summer but was cancelled because UP’s rails are crowded with freight traffic to ease the supply chain issues. Yet another opportunity missed to see 4014 under steam.

This is the closest I have come to seeing 4014: it’s tender. This was at the steam shop and little did I know that they were preparing to go out on the rails for an unannounced test run as a warm up for it’s 2021 summer steam tour. So close yet so far away!
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Southern Pacific’s Cab Forward

Southern Pacific’s signature, and most iconic locomotive was the 256 AC (Numbers 4000 to 4294) cab forward locomotives.

These were some of the largest and most unique locomotives in the United States. The AC-12 class is less than ten feet shorter than the largest steam locomotives ever built: Union Pacific’s “Big Boy”. The AC-12 locomotive and tender weighed more than a Boeing 747 and an Airbus A380, combined.

The reason the cab forwards were unique is that, as the name implies, the crew cab was in the front of the locomotive, like a modern diesel-electric locomotive, instead of the cab being in back, near the tender.

Having the cab in front gave the engineer and fireman unequalled views of the track ahead. But the real reason for the innovations was to conquers the steep grades of Sacramento’s Mountain Subdivision over the Donner Pass. This massive locomotives operated between Roseville, Ca and Sparks, Nv where a powerful locomotive was needed to tackle the steep grades and have the tractive effort to haul long freight trains over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A locomotive of this size emits of lots of steam exhaust because a 4-8-8-2 was essentially two locomotives in one.

The Donner Pass route had 40 miles of snow sheds and 39 tunnels. This meant that in a standard locomotive, the crew could suffer from asphyxiation from the steam exhaust. By putting the cab forward, the exhaust stack was behind the crew and they avoided the caustic smoke, steam, and heat that these powerful locomotives emitted.

The cab forward proved to be a very successful locomotive for SP, with 256 of these engines used on it’s rail over the period of 50 years. The railroad had the largest fleet of articulated “Malleys” in the world. As a comparison, Union Pacific fleet contained 25 Big Boy locomotives.

In the 1950s, as diesel replaced steam, cab forwards spend the rest of there working life away from the mountains on the Coast Line and the Western Division. One of the last places cab forwards worked on Southern Pacific rail was the Cal-P line between Oakland and Roseville. 1958 was the last year a cab forward rode the rails, nine of these locomotives were taken out of service on September 24, 1958.

Out of the 256 cab forwards that were built, only one survives. The AC-12 number 4294 which is also the last steam locomotive that Southern Pacific ever purchased. 4294 was in service on March 19, 1944 and was taken off the the roster on March 5, 1956. She was only in service for 12 years.

While the other cab forwards were scrapped, 4294 was put in storage and then was put on static display on October 19, 1958, in front of the Sacramento train station. When the California State Rail Road Museum was opened, 4294 became the centerpiece amongst it’s collection of locomotives and rolling stock.

I was at the museum with my father in 1981 for the official opening of the museum. SouthernPacific’s GS-4 4449 and Union Pacific’s 844 (then numbered 8444) where in attendance and I will never forget when the two locomotive stood, pilot to pilot, on the track outside of the museum!

The massive running gear of the AC-12, Cab Forward. 4294 is the only surviving example of this locomotive.

The last time I have visited the museum was in November of 2017 where I did an aborted field sketch of the cab forward. There was something about the proportions of the locomotive that I did not get right. I had planned to return to the California State Rail Museum in the early Spring of 2020 but the cases of Covid-19 were growing at an alarming rate in the state and the museum eventually closed it’s doors for an indeterminate time.

So if I could not sketch the AC-12, at least I could sketch it from an image, which really is the next best thing.

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Union Pacific’s Big Boys

Union Pacific Railroad created the largest steam engines in the world to tackle the Sherman Grade from Cheyenne to Ogden, Utah. The articulated 4-8-8-4, if stood on end, would be as tall as a 12 story building and the engine and tender weighed 1,250,000 lbs. 

Of the 25 “Big Boys” built between 1941 to 1944, only eight of them remain, the rest were scrapped. Seven of them are on static display, and one of them, No. 4014, is being restored to working order in Cheyenne, Wyoming at Union Pacific’s Steam Shop. Of the seven on display, I would be seeing and sketching two of them: No. 4004 in Holliday Park in Cheyenne and No. 4005 at the Forney Museum of Transportation in Denver, Colorado.

The Forney Museum of Transportation is only 30 minutes from DEN, so I picked up my Grand Cherokee (I was in the true west after all) and headed to northeastern Denver.

The museum was full of vintage motorcycles, automobiles, aircraft, and bicycles but I made a B-line to the largest single piece in their collection: the impressively massive UP No. 4005.

Up close and personal with a true beast of the era of steam.

The Big Boy doesn’t get many points for style, it was function over form for this freight locomotive. It is not a beautiful engine like the streamlined passenger express engine, SP No. 4449, the steam engine I followed on excursions with my father. But what the Big Boys lacks in style, they made up with pure power and size. The Big Boy is essentially two engines in one, capable of hauling long freight trains over steep grades.

No. 4005 also bears the dubious distinction of being the only Big Boy involved in an accident. In 1953, the engine jumped a track switch at 50 mile per hour while it was hauling a 62 car consist. The engine pitched to her left side killing the engineer and fireman. The engine received massive damage but was repaired at Union Pacific’s Cheyenne facility.

The second Big Boy was No. 4004 in Cheyenne’s Holliday Park. Cheyenne actually has two of these massive engines. No. 4014 is currently being restored to working order in UP’s Steam Shop.

Union Pacific’s Steam Shop, where they are currently restoring Big Boy No. 4014 to working order. I tried to sign up for a tour but it was sold out a month in advance.

I remember my father telling me about the Big Boy on display in a park in Cheyenne and I have always wanted to see one. Once I checked in at the Historic Plains Hotel, across the square from the impressive train depot, I headed down the street to Holliday Park where Big Boy No. 4004 has been on static display since Union Pacific donated the engine to the city of Cheyenne in 1963.

The driving train and and two and the 16 driving wheels of No. 4004 in Cheyenne.

This is one massive engine! Union Pacific always goes big and the Big Boy is the tops in steam power.

A sketch from one of my photographs for Big Boy No. 4004 in Holliday Park, Cheyenne, Wy.

 

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The Oregon Trail

This summer, while I was halfway through reading The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck, I was determined to travel the route of the Oregon Trail on my October break. But unlike the Buck brothers, I would not be traveling in a covered wagon pulled by three mules but using the horsepower of a rented car. 

Yes , I wanted to start in St. Louis, Missouri, the traditional “jumping off” point and drive the over 2,000 miles to Portland, Oregon. But how could I pass through Wyoming and not visit our nation’s first National Park? And how could I be so close to Cheyenne and not see one of only eight Union Pacific “Big Boys” in existence, the largest steam engine in the world? And then there was Carhenge and who wouldn’t want to visit Carhenge?

So many destinations keep pulling me off the Oregon Trail l that I decided to have my griddle cake and eat it too. Instead of doing the whole trail, I decided to do the most scenic section, from California Hill in western Nebraska to Independence Rock in central Wyoming. The sights along this section where eagerly awaited by the pioneers of the 19th century. Courthouse Rock. Chimney Rock, Scottsbluff, Fort Laramie. Independence Rock. And I planned to see and sketch them all!

Now before any great or important undertaking, I first make a sketch. In this case, a stylistic map (not even close to scale). These sketches help me visualize my trip. I am a planner but I believe that organized chaos is my creed. I want to be open to the seemingly random coincidences of life on the road. The people you meet and the unexpected gems you encounter while heading off the main trail.

The map is headed with a my favorite quote by N. Scott Momaday from the PBS series, The West:

It’s a landscape that had to be seen to be believed. And I would say, on occasion, it may have to be believed in order to be seen.