CHEYENNE, Wyoming — When Utah celebrates the upcoming 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, a star visitor will be something called “Big Boy.”
Railroad buffs don’t need to be told what it is, but for those who don’t know a coal-tender from a caboose, here’s the deal: Big Boy is one humongous locomotive.
There were actually 25 of them and one — just one — will be back on the rails and heading for Utah in early May for the first time in more than a half century.
“They very rapidly became legendary because of what it was designed to do,” said Ed Dickens, who oversees Union Pacific’s Big Boy restoration project. “It’s nearly a 7,000 horsepower locomotive.”
The massive steam engine weighs over 600 tons and is 132 feet long — about half the length of a Boeing 747. The restoration project has been quietly underway for more than two years in a nondescript Union Pacific building called the Steam Shop near downtown Cheyenne, Wyoming. Railroad enthusiasts have been buzzing about it for months, looking forward to Big Boy’s upcoming trip to Ogden.
“Everyone is very excited about this,” said Kristen South, Union Pacific’s director of corporate communications. “This has been a lot of hard work.”
Big Boy is the biggest steam locomotive ever built and, arguably, the most powerful. Union Pacific developed it in the 1940s to provide muscle for the war effort as the pace of railroad activity picked up during World War II. The need was greatest in Utah’s Echo Canyon which became a bit of a bottleneck for busy transcontinental train traffic.
“That power was used to pull heavy, heavy trains out of Ogden, Utah, to Green River, Wyoming,” Dickens said. “They reached a point where two tracks could only handle a specific amount or a certain amount of trains per day. They had to find a way to carry more cars per train. You needed a single locomotive that could pull a tremendous amount of tonnage. So when this locomotive came out, it was huge.”
The 25 Big Boys retired from active duty in 1960. Nonfunctional Big Boys still exist as huge stationary exhibits in city parks and historical displays. Engine 4014 in Cheyenne will be the first Big Boy in 59 years to hit the rails under its own steam.
“The first time it will be on the rails,” South said, “is when it leaves here and heads to Ogden.”
4014 is being refurbished to play a role — a big role — in Utah’s Golden Spike 150 celebration. It won’t make it to the primary sesquicentennial festivities on May 10 near Promontory — there are no longer any rails that Big Boy can travel on to reach the Golden Spike National Historical Park. Instead, Union Pacific is holding its own celebration May 9 at Ogden’s Union Station. Big Boy will be the guest of honor, a 20th-century marvel, returning to Utah to help celebrate a 19th-century milestone.
“There will be a lot of opportunities to see the locomotive,” South said, “to see the steam firing and to hear the whistle and those kind of historic things that you really just feel deep down in your gut.”