Big Boy steam locomotive almost ready for its big day

The Union Pacific's "Big Boy" -- the largest steam locomotive ever made -- is being readied for its first major trip in more than 50 years. The engine has been restored by members of the UP's Steam Division in Cheyenne and will leave Cheyenne for Ogden, Utah, on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Union Pacific)

By Ramsey Scott

Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — The story of Cheyenne is impossible to tell without also telling the story of the railroad. The tracks that cut through town are more than just the lifeblood of the country’s economy; they were the genesis of Cheyenne’s entire existence.

The railroad is just as synonymous with Cheyenne as the cowboy is, said Darren Rudloff, CEO of Visit Cheyenne.

“The railroad’s history is an integral part of the Cheyenne mystique. Not just nationwide, but worldwide, as well,” he said. “The name Cheyenne brings forth images of the Wild West and trains and steam engines, so it’s part of our core. It’s why we’ll always have a picture of a train on the cover of our visitor’s guide.”

A big piece of that history will be rolling out of Cheyenne next Saturday as Union Pacific unveils its newly rebuilt Big Boy steam engine. Big Boy 4014, along with UP’s Living Legend 844 steam engine, will head west on the tracks as part of the company’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Big Boy 4014 arrived in Cheyenne five years ago, and has since been located at the UP Steam Shop, where it underwent extensive rehabilitation and repairs. The goal has always been to get it ready to run by May 9 to recreate the moment 150 years ago when the golden spike was driven into the First Transcontinental Railroad near Ogden, Utah, said Kristen South, spokeswoman for UP.

That final spike signified the completion of the joining of Central Pacific and Union Pacific’s railroads.

“People said it couldn’t be done, you can’t rebuild a Big Boy, because the parts are no longer available. It just couldn’t be done,” South said. “This is our way of doing something big to honor the mark that is the 150th anniversary of the (Transcontinental Railroad) completion.”

An anniversary so important necessitated a gesture worthy of the occasion, South said. That’s why UP found Big Boy 4014 and sent it to Cheyenne in 2014 to start an extensive rehabilitation and rebuilding of the iconic steam engine.

Starting in 1941, there were only 25 Big Boy locomotives ever created, all exclusively for use by UP. One of those engines made the route between Cheyenne and Ogden on a regular basis, South said. The engines were specifically designed to be able to handle massive cargo loads, as well as the sharp turns and steep inclines so common in the West.

The engine lives up to its name, measuring 133 feet long and more than 16 feet tall. It’s almost twice as long as a modern diesel engine and just 99 feet shorter than a Boeing 747. Big Boy 4014 is now one of eight engines still in existence – one is stationed at Holliday Park – and the only one that’s still operational.

As part of the celebration, local and state leaders will come to the Cheyenne Depot to see Big Boy 4014 and Living Legend 844 off on the five-day journey to Ogden. For years, Visit Cheyenne has been getting massive interest globally about the Big Boy and its upcoming debut, Rudloff said.

“We get calls every day here, not only to the Depot staff, but the Visitor Center staff, as well, asking how they can see the Big Boy. And it’s pretty cool. You really do see people from all over the world,” Rudloff said. “A few years ago, we had a couple people from Germany visit. They were wearing UP caps and clothes. They knew more about UP’s history in Cheyenne than we did. That’s how deep their passion was.”

The two trains will be stopping at several Wyoming cities, including Laramie, Rawlins and Rock Springs, to give people along the way a chance to see a living piece of history. After the celebration in Ogden on May 9, the trains will be on display for several days before heading back toward Cheyenne on May 12.

While it’s understandable to be excited about catching a glimpse of history rolling down the track, South said it was important for people to remember this is a massive working steam engine and safety needs to be on everyone’s mind when around the Big Boy.