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!

Union Pacific’s Steam Shop, Cheyenne, Wy

One of the holy sites to steam locomotives in the United States is the Union Pacific Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming. This is a building where Union Pacific’s legacy steam locomotives are stored and maintained (and in one case fully restored).

It’s most notable locomotive is the FEF-3 4-8-4 Northern locomotive #844 know to many fans across the world as the “Living Legend”. 844 is notable because it had never been retired since she was built in December of 1944. UP had keep 844 running as an ambassador for the company. As the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad neared, (where the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met at Promontory Summit in Utah) Union Pacific had plans, big plans!

They chose the ambitious task of restoring to full operation one of the largest examples of a steam locomotive ever built, the 4-8-8-4 Wasatch type, known to rail fans as the Big Boy. 25 of these massive locomotives were built for the Union Pacific to tackle the the grades between Cheyenne, Wy and Ogden, Ut. There are eight Big Boys still in existence, all on static display, until now.

The steam crew looked at all of the existing Big Boys and decided that #4014, which was on display in the RailGiants Museum in Pomona, California, was the best candidate for restoration. 4014 had been retired in December of 1961 after logging 1,031,205 miles while in service.

The Big Boy was moved, by rail, from California to the Steam Shop in Cheyenne. From 2016 to 2019, 4014 was restored at the Steam Shop and had her first “maiden” run after six decades on May 4, 2019.

So here I stood on the walkway of Highway 180, which spans the tracks and yard in Cheyenne, looking down at the Steam Shop, hoping to get a glimpse of the recently restored monster. Three and a half bay doors were open. In one stood the Living Legend herself, 844!

What’s behind Door Number 3?

I later returned to find that the last bay door was fully opened, revealing the tender of Big Boy 4014! Well her backside will have to do.

Outside of the bay door where 4014 was stabled, there was an extra tender coupled to a UP EMD #4015. It looked like some crew members where making some adjustment to the tender. I didn’t know it at the time but this was a sign that 4014 was soon to be on the move. Two days later, 4014 and it diesel/electric helper an SD70M #4015 indeed were on the move as the crew took the Big Boy out on an unannounced test run from Cheyenne to Denver on July 8 and 9th. This was a test run for the month-long, multi-state tour that 4014 would begin on August 5.

It was hard to believe that I was so close to seeing 4014 in action but had no idea until after the fact, that the Big Boy was strutting out on the mainline. “Ugg!” As Charlie Brown would say.

The tender of 4014. The man in the foreground is 4014’s engineer and director of the Steam Program, Ed Dickens. This feels like a bit of a paparazzi shot. Oh, not for Ed but 4014!
Cheyenne is a trainspotter’s paradise with 80 trains passing through every day like this eastbound freight.

Union Pacific No. 844

If Southern Pacific’s Queen of Steam is 4449 then Union Pacific’s Royalty must be 844.

The FEF class (4-8-4) No. 844 is known as “The Living Legend”. This class of passenger locomotive is a legend for it’s design and motive power but I want to stress the word “Living” because 844 is the only steam locomotive that has never been dropped from UP’s roster, making it the only steam locomotive, owned by a Class I railroad, that has never been retired.

The FEF-3 was designed to be a high speed passenger locomotive and 844 pulled such Union Pacific passenger services as the Overland Limited, Los Angeles Limited, Portland Rose, and Challenger. 844 really had three phases of life. First as a passenger locomotive, secondly, as diesels replaced steam on passenger routes, 844 hauled freight in 1957.

At the end of the age of steam, when steam was being replaced by diesel, Union Pacific had the foresight to preserve one of it’s classic locomotives and 844 entered into her third life as an ambassador to one of the world’s largest railroads: Union Pacific.

I was 10 years old when I first encounter Union Pacific 8444, as she was known then, at the offical opening of the California State Railroad Museum in 1981. She had to be renumbered because there was a diesel locomotive given the road number 844. For the event, two of the most emblematic survivors of the Northern class (wheel arrangement 4-8-4) were in attendance. Southern Pacific’s GS-4 4449, newly repainted in her Daylight livery and Union Pacific’s 8444. On the tracks outside the museum, which paralleled the Sacramento River, these two Superstars of Steam came pilot to pilot. What a sight to see!

844 is not as streamlined as 4449 but the 844’s steam deflectors, also know as “elephant ears”, gives this 4-8-4 a very unique appearance. The steam deflectors help to loft steam exhaust from the chimney or smoke stack to improve the engineer’s visibility and also to keep the exhaust out of the cab.

It was an echo of the famous photograph taken at the uniting of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869. 4449 represented the Central Pacific, later Southern Pacific and 8444 represent, and still does, Union Pacific.

Union Pacific’s steam ambassador has been all across Union Pacific’s rail network. She is a locomotive that brings people to the tracks to see her in action. One annal excursion is Cheyenne Frontier Days from Denver to Cheyenne. In May, 2019, 844 played second fiddle on the inaugural run of the recently restored Big Boy 4014 from Cheyenne to Ogden, Ut to commemorate the 150 Anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Of course the Big Boy was on point as the lone example of the largest locomotive in operation.

At the ceremony, 844 and 4014 came pilot to pilot, echoing the the famous photograph taken 150 before when Central Pacific’s engine “Jupiter” and Union Pacific’s engine No. 119 came pilot to pilot on May 10, 1869.

The Union Pacific Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming . This is about as close as I got to seeing the “Air force 1” of Union Pacific: FEF-3 #844 on a visit in the October of 2017. The only sign of steam is the UP yellow tender outside one of the bay doors.

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.



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.