For three years, Union Pacific’s Engine No. 844 cooled its wheels in Cheyenne, Wyoming, undergoing a major overhaul in the company’s steam shop. The last of the company’s steam engines, produced in 1944 by the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York, the so-called ‘Living Legend’ never had been formally out of service, but age takes its toll, and the need for maintenance was obvious.
The locomotive began rolling again in 2016, traveling first to Cheyenne Frontier Days, and then to the opening of the Big River Crossing in Memphis. The Boise Turn Special, an eleven-day run to help celebrate the 92nd anniversary of Boise’s historic depot, took UP 844 over 1,600 miles of Union Pacific track through Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho.
Eventually, she traveled to the midwest, then on to Texas. Stops along each route allowed both dedicated railfans and the casually curious to see, touch, and hear an important part of American history.
Recently, UP 844 has been ‘double-heading’ — traveling in tandem with Union Pacific’s Engine No. 4014, affectionately known as ‘Big Boy.’ The pair made their way westward to Ogden, Utah to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, and soon will be back in Cheyenne. In the coming months, Big Boy 4014 will travel other parts of the Union Pacific system, allowing even more people to experience a piece of living history. That such a thing is possible — Big Boy back on the rails and able to tour the country– is something of a miracle.
UP No. 4014 leaving Evanston, Wyoming, headed to Ogden, Utah (Greg Brubaker)
During World War II, Union Pacific operated some of the largest and most powerful steam locomotives ever built. Known collectively as the ‘Big Boys,’ they were designed to solve a particular problem.
Seventy years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the mountains of Wyoming and Utah continued to confound Union Pacific. Moving heavy freight over the mountains often required multiple locomotives, which meant a need for more workers and more fuel. The climb over the Wasatch mountains between Ogden, Utah and Green River, Wyoming was particularly difficult. According to William Pearce:
The 176-mile stretch of track started out at 4,300 ft (1,310 m) above sea level in Ogden, climbed the Wasatch Range to 7,300 ft (2,225 m) at the Aspen Tunnel, and then dropped to 6,100 ft (1,859 m) at Green River. Occasionally, up to three helper engines were used to assist heavily loaded trains over the Wasatch mountains.
In 1940, the railroad’s mechanical engineers sought to solve the problem by designing a new class of engines which came to be known as “Big Boys.” Twenty-five were built, each measuring 132 feet long and weighing 1.2 million pounds. Because of their length, their frames were articulated, or hinged, allowing them to negotiate curves. Their wheel arrangement (known as a 4-8-8-4) included a leading set of four pilot wheels to guide the engine, two sets of eight drive wheels, and four smaller following wheels to support the rear of the locomotive.
After delivery to Union Pacific in 1941, UP 4014 joined the other Big Boys in helping to move millions of tons of war supplies. According to steam historian John E. Bush, “Without the Big Boys, the Union Pacific never could have moved all that material for the war effort.”
UP Big Boy 4012 hauling freight through Green River, Wyoming, November 1941
(Otto Perry image via Denver Public Library)
Union Pacific used the Big Boys until 1959, then replaced them with diesel-electric locomotives. Most were scrapped, but some were put on display: in St. Louis; Dallas; Omaha; Denver; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.
In 2013, Union Pacific announced that it had re-acquired a Big Boy from the RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona, California, and hoped to restore it for the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many expressed scepticism; even the machinery needed to create replacement parts would have to be redesigned and reconstructed. But in the end, the goal was accomplished, and UP Big Boy 4014 is rolling again.
During my childhood, I found the poetry and romance of steam enticing. In the classroom, teachers told stories of strong, indestructible iron horses, or taught songs about winsome little creatures called “pufferbellies.”
In my naiveté, I believed that pufferbellies were roaming our neighborhood, and thought I ought to be able to catch one — like a firefly, or grasshopper. One Sunday afternoon, I headed off toward the schoolyard, determined to find one of the creatures. Before long, my dad caught up with me and asked, “Where do you think you’re going?” “To find the pufferbellies,” I said. Silence billowed between us like steam. “The what?” ”The pufferbellies. We learned a song about them in school. I want to see them.”
He asked if I could sing the song for him, and I could. I remembered every word, and sang the first verse twice.
By the time I finished, he was laughing. “Sweetie, I know where the pufferbellies live. Why don’t we go see them?”
Later that afternoon, we bundled into the car and drove to a place he called the depot. At the depot, while people boarded trains for such exotic destinations as Des Moines and Omaha, we sat on a bench, waiting for a train to arrive. Hearing the low moan of the arriving train’s whistle, feeling the vibrations in the ground, and covering my ears against the sharp, steam-shrouded screech of the brakes, I came to a conclusion: real trains were far more exciting than pufferbellies.
I began riding my bike to the depot to watch the trains come in, and began reading the names on freight cars at crossings: Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Burlington; Great Northern; Illinois Central; Cottonbelt.
I learned new songs, sung by men with names like Boxcar Willie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The Wabash Cannonball, The Wreck of Old 97, and Paddy Works on the Erie weren’t pleasant fantasies; they were grounded in railroading as a way of life, celebrating the engineers, boomers and brakemen, switchmen, conductors, and engineers who worked the yards.
In time, I began walking the trestles with friends, shivering with anticipation and fear as we tempted the afternoon freight. Once, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, where the engines and their turntable delighted me. On road trips I begged my dad to race the Streamliners highballing along their glistening tracks, and in the rich summer nights I lodged myself between crickets and stars to hear mournful whistles dissolving away into the dark.
Decades later, photographer and friend Tom Parker captured UP 844 rolling through Frankfort, Kansas on her journey south from Cheyenne to Harlingen, Texas. The Valley Eagle Heritage Tour, named for a popular Missouri Pacific passenger train which operated between Houston and Brownsville from 1948 to 1962, was a railfan’s dream.
Like a giant pufferbelly escaped from bonds of inattention and neglect, UP 844 was riding the rails of imagination as surely as her rails of steel. From the moment I learned she’d roll through Houston before heading southwest, there was no question I’d be at the stations, whistlestops, and country crossings to witness the historic journey.
UP 844 steaming through Kansas ~ Tom Parker
At a crossing southwest of Houston, waiting for one more glimpse of the great locomotive, I found myself pondering the world represented by an outdated but still compelling technology.
In that older world, the metaphor of the well-oiled machine still had force. In most occupations, skill and perseverance were more important than connections. Deals were sealed with handshakes, and a man’s word was his bond, rather than a contemptuous and cynical attempt to manipulate others.
In a world marked by divisions, it’s worth remembering that, for many railroaders, the only divide that counted was the Continental Divide: an obstacle eventually overcome by a Golden Spike of vision, foresight and ingenuity. Certainly manipulation and not a little greed were part of overcoming that divide. Nevertheless, five days after the spike was driven in 1869, passenger train service was instituted. Pulled by the astounding iron horses, people journeyed from Omaha to Sacramento in four days rather than four months, and they fell in love with their trains.
Today we travel faster, but I’m not sure we travel better. When those engines from an earlier time begin to move, people gather. They stand at crossings and linger at whistlestops, traveling miles beyond good sense to see a highballing steamer race across the prairie or idle at a switch.
Beyond the charms of retro technology, there’s a palpable sense of people wanting to meet people, to hear the whistle and feel the vibration: to reach across the years that divide us from our past in order to touch the steam, steel, and grit that made this country work and to witness the proof of a challenge well met.
As long as UP 844 and UP 4014 keep rolling; as long as the people who love and sustain them survive; as long as the whistles sound and the firebox glows, there’s railroading to be done. There are prairies to cross, and foothills to climb. There are mountainsides where the great, vertiginous sky reaches off to infinity; high plateaus where the winds blow free and a person can breathe in the air of acomplishment and history.
Children will love their pufferbellies, but railroading’s for grownups: for people willing to pick up and roam; to work beyond exhaustion; to trade security for freedom, and speak with integrity.
Of course there will be difficulties. No one wants to face the broken tie, the washed-out bridge, the screaming downgrade acceleration, or the jumped tracks. But ask any old-timer from Old Cheyenne — or anywhere else for that matter — and he’ll tell you it’s worth the ride. Today’s railroaders would agree.