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Commentary: Mammoth steam locomotive to tour through Minnesota

By John Diers Jul 11, 2019

There are steam locomotives, and then there’s “Big Boy.” At 604 tons and 132 feet long and with a 4-8-8-4-wheel arrangement, it is the largest, most powerful steam locomotive in the world.

Twenty-five of them were built by the American Locomotive Company and delivered to the Union Pacific Railroad in 1941 and 1944 for service between Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Ogden, Utah, according to the railroad. Designed to pull long, heavy freight trains on stiff mountain grades, a Big Boy’s 6,000 horsepower was just as capable whether it was at 40 mph over the mountain or 70 mph on the flats. They were versatile locomotives. Union Pacific wanted to eliminate double-heading and helper locomotives, and these monsters did just that.

Christened Big Boy by workers at the American Locomotive Company, they moved millions of tons of freight over the Rocky and Wasatch Mountains until 1959, when they were replaced by cheaper diesel and gas turbine locomotives. Union Pacific kept them in reserve until 1961. Ten were eventually preserved for display. One of the 10, the 4014, has been restored and returned to service by Union Pacific.

Get ready. It’s headed for Minnesota.

I grew up around railroads and steam locomotives. They’re permanently and indelibly fixed in my childhood memories. When I stayed with my grandparents in St. Paul, I’d beg them to take me to Cleveland Avenue where it crossed the Milwaukee tracks so I could watch the afternoon Hiawatha behind its streamlined 4-6-4 blast through at 80 mph on the final leg of its journey from Chicago. I recall being invited in the cab of a locomotive at St. Paul Union Depot and touring the Union Depot Roundhouse.

At 5, the highlight of my young life, thanks to a family friend, was a cab ride with the engineer and fireman aboard a steam locomotive from St. Paul to Willmar on Great Northern’s Fast Mail. I’ll never forget it — especially the rocking motion as it hurtled along, the smell of steam and grease and coal smoke, the roar and the heat of the firebox and the whistle. My young ears and psyche were never the same until, on a family vacation, I saw a Big Boy start and move upwards of 120 freight cars from the yard in Cheyenne.

There were few diesel locomotives before World War II, but after the war, the electromotive division of General Motors started building them in great numbers. Even steam locomotive builders Lima, Baldwin and the American Locomotive Company (Alco) switched from steam to diesel locomotive production. The last production steam locomotive from an American builder was turned out in 1949 for the New York Chicago and St. Louis (Nickel Plate) Railroad.

Diesels may have lacked the color and personality of steam power, but their low operating costs and reliability saved the railroads millions of dollars and, likely, kept the industry out of bankruptcy.

The Union Pacific Railroad has a sense of history, and while it ended steam in regular mainline service in 1960, it kept one of it’s steam engines, a 4-8-4 built in 1944, on its active locomotive roster for excursions and special events. A second engine, a 4-6-6-4, was saved and returned to operation in 1981.

Big Boy 4014, on display at the Rail Giants Museum in Pomona, California, was removed from display in 2012 and moved to Union Pacific’s steam shop in Cheyenne for restoration and operation to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The event took place on May 10. Big Boy 4014 powered a special train from Cheyenne to Ogden for the occasion.

On Monday, July 8, it left Cheyenne for a second tour of the Union Pacific system and the Midwest. Its planned schedule calls for it to make a brief stop in Northfield, Minnesota, at 12:45 p.m. on July 17. It will be on display at St. Paul Union Depot on July 18, then in Duluth at the Duluth Railroad Museum on July 20. A complete and updated schedule and more information are on the Union Pacific webpage, up.com.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see this locomotive in operation for the first time since 1959. It’s a septuagenarian alert. Chances are good it won’t ever happen again.

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John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.