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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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California Zephyr Train #5: Denver to Colfax

My return journey was a beautiful but a somber one.

I spent much of my time in my roomette with short trips to the dining and observation car.

Taking the train back gave me the chance to reflect on the almost 47 years of my brother’s life. I lost myself in the landscapes and continued to sketch during our brief “Sketch Breaks”. Sketching provided the focus and “in the moment” experience my soul needed. Sketcher therapy I suppose.

One other activity that kept my mind busy was train birding. I created a list of all the birds seen from the train, without binoculars. I tallied 43 species as well as six mammals including elk and bighorn sheep. A highlight was having an adult bald eagle keeping pace with the Zephyr while we followed the Colorado River in Utah.

In Reno, the Zephyr pauses for a little longer than most stops because there is a crew change. This is when the engineer is replaced by a fresh one. During this time I sketched the profile of the locomotive on point, a General Electric P42DC, built in April of 1997. In an uncanny instance of coincidence, the locomotive number is 74, my brother was born in 1974. This seems to be the perfect locomotive to lead me back home to my mother.

1974 was the year of my brother’s birth. It was also the number of the locomotive on point that would take me back to my mother.
A quick sketch of my Sleeping Car entrance during a sketch break at Glenwood Springs. My sleeping car was just behind the locomotives. I added watercolor once I was back in my roomette.
I had spent time during the last year sketching the existing Southern Pacific water towers. So I knew the form well. I was surprised to see from my Superlunar perch, an existing water tower as we pulled out of Truckee to climb Donner Pass. I have been to Truckee many times but I had never seen this tower. I returned later to capture the water tower. There are 15 surviving examples in California. I have seen about five.

In Truckee, I called my mom to let her know that California Zephyr Number 5 was running on time. This was going to be the first time I had seen my mom since learning if my brother’s passing. I suppose that I could have booked a last minute fight from the Mile High City to be there much sooner but the pace, the landscape, and the rocking lullaby of the Zephyr seemed to be the right choice for taking me back to California.

At this point I was on the route of the first Transcontinental Railroad. And I would need the strength of those who built it to face the reality, once I stepped off the Zephyr at one of the Central Pacific’s rail camps that was later renamed Colfax.

The anticipation mounted as we ascended down the western flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, each mile bringing me closer to my mother.

In past train journeys, one of my favorites scenes is when a train pulls into a station and looking out the window, I see someone alight from the train, search the platform for that familiar face, and then the embrace. I don’t always know the relationship contained in that embrace but it is a story on that reunion of love, in the the stage of the train depot.

What would the observer on the second story of the Superlunar have thought of the man departing the train and embracing someone, clearly his mother, in the middle of the street in Colfax?

I know what I would have though, and I did.

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Post 400: A Zephyr Deferred

Zephyr: (n) a gentle wind from the west.

Last spring break I booked a roomette on the California Zephyr, a 2,438 mile journey from Emeryville, Ca to Chicago, Il. This route passes through such cities as Sacramento, Truckee, Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, and Chicago. It is one of the most scenic routes on the AMTRAK network.

Last spring I was going to travel the entire route but then Covid 19 happened and I had to cancel the trip. I knew that this rail dream was deferred and at first chance I would rebook this trip because I have always wanted to travel by rail through the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains.

The opportunity came in spring break of 2021. Instead of traveling the whole route, I booked a round trip with a roomette from Colfax, Ca (near my mom’s house) to Denver, Co. This stretch includes the most scenic parts of the route and Denver provides it’s own destinations.

On this trip, I plan to do many quick sketches of train views along the route. At California Arts Supply in San Mateo, I got a custom Ronquad which is a 4 by 6 piece of card stock that would be a template for framing each sketch. I used my Ronquad on the featured sketch.

But why Denver and not Chicago? Both cities provide great sketching opportunities but Denver has an edge over Chicago: life birds! I had a few ABA lifers on my list: scaled quail, dusky grouse, American three-toed woodpecker, brown-capped and black rosy-finch, sharp-tail grouse, and the much sought after white-tailed ptarmigan. And while Chicago offers lots of architecture sketching opportunities, Denver has that too but also beautiful landscapes.

The Zephyr stops at the historic Union Station in downtown Denver and I booked a “Pullman” room in the hotel at the station, the Crawford Hotel. I admit this is a bit a splurge but I love the idea of stepping off the train in the evening, after a two day trip, and walking a short distance to my room in Union Station. It seems a throwback to a different era. An era when more people travelled by rail, when the airline industry was in it’s infancy.

As I do before any trip, I do a few sketches to build knowledge and excitement. The featured sketch is from the AMTRAK website for the California Zephyr. This location looks to be somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. I also like to do a map of my future journey. In this case, Train 6, from Colfax to Denver with all the stops in between.

California Zephyr map showing all the stops from Colfax, Ca to Denver, Co.

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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.