Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Visiting Big Boy—A Blast from a Cheyenne Past

The Union Pacific's Big Boy 4014 engine in West Chicago.
Last Sunday afternoon my wife Kathy Brady-Murfin indulged the sentimental Old Man and drove down to West Chicago to visit an old friend.  Union Pacific 4014, a massive Big Boy steam locomotive was on display at the Larry S. Provo Union Pacific Training Center there.  The great beast roared into the town on Friday as part of 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad Tour
Ol’ 4014 was built in 1941 at the American Locomotive Company shops in Schenectady, New York.  Of the 25 Big Boy engines built all but eight have long ago been sent to scrap.  Seven are in railroad museums or otherwise on static display.  Only 4014 is operable and once again rolling. 
The Big Boy engines were specifically designed to haul exceptionally long trains—up to three miles long—over the Wasatch mountains between Ogden, Utah, and Green River, Wyoming.  In 1947 they were reassigned to run from Nebraska over the hump of Sherman Hill between Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming—the highest elevation on the UP route and were based in Cheyenne.
A Big Boy engine hauling freight through Echo Canyon, Utah.
In the special nomenclature of steam engines they were articulated 4-8-8-4 steam locomotives—a four-wheel leading truck for stability entering curves, two sets of eight driving wheels and a four-wheel trailing truck to support the large firebox.  The engines were 85 feet long and with the firebox were a total of just under 133 feet.  The engine weighed 762,000 lbs. and with the addition of the firebox a total of 1,250,000 lbs.  In every aspect they were the biggest, heaviest, and most powerful steam engines ever built.
They were originally designed to haul 3,600-ton trains over steep grades.  In operation they proved capable of much more and load limits were raised several time finally running at 4,200 tons.  They were capable of speeds in excess of 80 miles an hour over level ground and routinely operated at 60 mph.  The engines were efficient money makers for the UP eliminating the need add extra engines—double head—to get over steep grades which required making up and breaking up trains on each side of the grade.  Engine crews admired them for being sure-footed and easy to handle despite the rugged terrain it covered.
The Big Boys were well maintained and had years of service ahead when the UP decided to remove them from service only because the railroad wanted close their Wyoming mines which provided the bituminous soft coal they used for fuel.  They were last run in regular revenue service on July 21, 1959 and officially retired them all by 1962.
They were replaced by diesel and gas turbine-electric locomotives.  Several locomotive units had to be attached at each end of a long train in a push-pull operation to duplicate a single Big Boy.
Enough of the train geek stuff.  My connection to the mighty behemoths was much more personal.  Stop me if you have heard the tale before.
When we first moved to Cheyenne we stayed at the Lincoln Court Motel.  Across Highway 30 I could see the Union Pacific yards.
We moved to Cheyenne in 1953 from Canyon City, Colorado when my father, W. M. Murfin got a new job as Secretary of the Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce.  We move temporarily into the Lincoln Court Motel by the Hitching Post Inn on U.S. 30 while my folks searched for a house.  It was only supposed to be a few days, but my twin brother Tim and I came down with a virulent case of the measles—so serious that there was evidently fear for our four-year old lives.  We were quarantined in the tight motel room for several days.  
After the fever broke I spent long hours in my bed looking out the window across the highway to the busy UP humping yards.  I was fascinated by the trains and what seemed like constant bustle.  My favorites were the little steam switch engines busily moved cars in the yards making and unmaking trains.  I called them baby trains.  But more impressive was the mighty rumble of the Big Boy engines and the blasts from their horns as the came in from Sherman hill or gathered steam for the push to the summit going the other way.
By the late ‘50’s we were settled into a house on Cheshire Drive by the long runway of the airport.  In the summertime in those long-gone days a boy was free to roam anywhere his legs or bicycle could take him as long as he was home when Mom rang the dinner bell.  Sometimes I would go all the way across town and sneak in the rail yards.  Well, maybe not sneak.  Most of the switchmen and other yard workers ignored a curious boy and I was only once in a while yelled at or shooed by a conductor or yard bull.  Engineers high up in their cabs in striped overalls, puffy topped caps, and impressive gauntlets would wave and sometime toot whistles.
Watching a Big Boy take water was an awesome sight.
If a Big Boy was making up, I made for the water tower and watched the crews swing the boom and let loose Niagaras of water down the top hatch to the insatiable boilers.  It seemed that the huge tank could not hold enough water to satisfy the thirsty beast.
On some cool summer nights Tim and I would sleep out in the back yard in our father’s World War II Army mummy bags under the spectacular array of the Milky Way.  On still nights we could hear the freight trains crest the high plateau at Pine Bluffs and hear it until it went over Sherman Hill.  It was a lovely, lonesome sound sometimes punctuated by the distant howl of a coyote. 
Cheyenne was still as much a railroad town as anything our next door neighbor on Cheshire was a U.P. fireman and the father of my brother’s best friend Aubrey Mumpower was an engineer on the Big Boys.
In 1962 the UP gifted Big Boy 4004 to the city of Cheyenne for display in Holliday Park.  We gathered one day to what the huge engine being moved from the yards down Lincolnway—U.S. 30—to its new home.  The busy highway was closed.  Workmen carefully laid rails in front of the engine which crept forward under its own power.  They picked up the rails left behind and moved them to the front in a slow leapfrog operation.  It took hours.  Finally at the Park it rolled down an embankment to its new home.
The Big Boy in the park then set on its rails completely in the open.  Tim and I would visit it and climb all over the engine.  I would sit in the engineer’s seat with my head and elbow out the window with my other hand on the throttle.  Somewhere there are little Kodak Brownie snapshots of the heroic pose.
Big Boy 4004 on static display at Cheyenne's Holiday Park was already surrounded by a chain-link fence when it was flooded in 1984,
Eventually, long after I left town, the old Big Boy was caged behind a chain-link fence.  It had suffered at the hands of scrambling children like me, vandals, and souvenir hunters.  Exposed to the elements it rusted and deteriorated.  Over the last two years dedicated local volunteers completed a cosmetic restoration of 4004 to its former glory and are currently working on restoring a UP caboose to put on display with it.
Seven other Big Boys were donated to various railroad museums or cities.  All but two have been displayed outdoors and are in various states of repair.  Two are undercover at the Forney Transportation Museum in Denver and the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  4014 was long on display at the Fairplex RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona, California.
In 2013, the Union Pacific re-acquired 4014 and brought it home to Cheyenne for a complete restoration project at their Steam Shop.  Its huge driving wheels were sent to be repaired by the Strasburg Rail Road in Strasburg, Pennsylvania and the boiler had to be adapted to fire No.5 Diesel fuel instead of coal.  After more than two years work the boiler was successfully test fired on April 9, 2019 and on May 1, it moved under its own power for the first time in more than 59 years. The next evening, the locomotive made its first test run—a round trip from Cheyenne to Nunn, Colorado. 
Restored Big Boy 4014 by historic Union Station ready to leave Cheyenne.
4014 was official designated for excursion service and made its first run to and from Ogden Utah for that city’s Heritage Day Festival.  Then in July it began a Midwest tour hauling a rolling museum in a restored mail car with stops in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.
If you live in these parts and you are nimble you might catch that Big Boy on the move.  It is scheduled to leave West Chicago this morning at 8:30 with stops at Rochelle, Clinton and Wheatland, Iowa before stopping overnight at Cedar Rapids.  There will be several other stops in Iowa and Nebraska before 4014 comes back home to Cheyenne.  For a complete schedule check here.
Interestingly in addition to excursion service, the UP indicates that 4014 is designated to haul revenue freight during ferry moves.  So the old warrior might occasionally be put back to real work
The Old Man and Big Boy, united at last.
On our quick visit to West Chicago, throngs were overwhelming the Provo Training Center.  Neither local police nor the UP seemed quite prepared for the crowds.  Clear signage pointing to the somewhat out-of-the-way and to parking was sorely lacking.  So were directions on the ground leaving many folks wandering about trying to find out how exactly to access the display at ground level.  We huffed and puffed back and forth a long viaduct and around the grounds before we finally could get up close.
The Old Man lay his hands on the old engine.  He was, as they say, verklempt.


  1. I remember Big Boy at Holliday Park in Cheyenne. It was an awesome sight! Would love to take a ride someday!