Union Pacific Retrofits the ‘Big Boy’ Locomotive


In the early forties, Union Pacific Railroad ordered the construction of 25 steam locomotives of unprecedented size. Weighing in at 1.2 million pounds, each mammoth machine was powerful enough to motor up and down the West’s most extravagant topography seven million pounds of freight in tow. Legend has it that a railroad worker was so impressed with one engine that he scrawled “Big Boy” in chalk across its nose. The nickname stuck.

Now, more than fifty years after the last of these locomotives was retired, Union Pacific is restoring Big Boy 4014, which traveled 1,031,205 miles over its 20-year career before being retired in the mid fifties. On April 28, the machine begins a 1,200-mile odyssey from Colton, California, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where it will be restored and retrofitted to run on recycled oil. Once its ready to go again, the train will roam the rails as a moveable museum devoted to pre-diesel America.

“There’s something about it: It’s animated, massive, and loud,” says Ed Dickens, senior manager of Union Pacific’s Heritage Operations who likened the project to trying to revive the T-Rex. “And when you hear a steam locomotive whistle, you immediately know what it is. Now, a new generation can actually see one up close and personal.”

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Dickens said the mild Southern California climate has been good to Big Boy 4014, making it a prime candidate for restoration, but it’s still a beast to move. To transfer the locomotive from the RailGiants Train Museum near Los Angeles to Colton, which is actually on the rail network, Union Pacific had to lay down temporary tracks across a large parking lot to nudge the Big Boy onto 56 miles of standard tracks. The trek to Wyoming will require two diesel locomotives and a “hospital train” full of grease and tools that will accompany it all the way. Even though the train’s boiler won’t be in operation, the Big Boy will still stop every 60 miles or so for Dickens and his crew to inject “special hard grease” into all of its many bearings and connecting rods. 

“We spent long hours and lots of elbow grease getting the locomotive ready to go,” says Dickens. “Just getting it back [to Wyoming] is going to be an accomplishment for the railroad, and that’s when the work actually starts to restore it. It’s a big production for a big locomotive.”