Looking at Big Boy 4014 now, it almost seems like the monstrous engine could have been a vehicle in “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
That’s because the Big Boy people saw in 2014 when it arrived in Cheyenne has been completely disassembled.
It’s no longer covered in sleek black paint. Instead, it’s been stripped down to the bare bones, leaving it brown and covered in spikes and bumps.
Some days it doesn’t feel like much has been done to the Big Boy, but Ed Dickens, Union Pacific’s senior manager of heritage operations, noted that this isn’t the case.
“Part of the problem with a lot of the things we’ve had to recover from when working on the 4014 … is changing the way the locomotives are cared for,” he said. “The railroad did things differently years ago, back when you had thousands of steam locomotives, as well as thousands of people in dozens of facilities to maintain them.”
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case in 2017. The crew had to take a step back and figure out how to completely disassemble a train that was crafted in the 1940s, put it back together and make sure it’s essentially looks and runs the same as it did when it was crafted in 1941.
Today’s crew wants to make sure their work lasts years, which requires precision, concentration and dedication.
There is still much work to be done in the next 18 months. The goal is to complete the restoration by May 10, 2019, the 150th anniversary of when the golden spike was driven into the First Transcontinental Railroad. That final spike signified the completion of the joining of Central Pacific and Union Pacific’s railroads.
By that point, it will have been exactly five years and one day since the Big Boy rolled into Cheyenne. It had been previously housed in the RailGiants Train Museum in California, where it had been since 1962.
The original projections had been for the Big Boy to be completed in three to five years. It looks like the crew is going to meet that extended goal.
Thankfully, the train was well-maintained during its life at the museum, which made the work on the steam shop crew exponentially easier.
There were only 25 Big Boy locomotives ever created, but only eight remain in existence. One is stationed at Holliday Park, but local train expert Jim Ehrenberger said it was heavily damaged during a flood in the 1980s, making it basically impossible to restore.
Reassembling the Big Boy is like putting together a large, intricate puzzle. The crew spent the summer of 2014 documenting the condition of the train, trying to figure out what parts they would need to manufacture or order from various companies around the world.
Removing and replacing the locomotive’s boiler has been a major factor in restoring the Big Boy. This is one of the biggest projects this small crew has had to undertake, even bringing in two 70-ton cranes to pull the boiler out of the locomotive.
“It’s a lot of little projects going on,” Dickens said. “One day, we’re working heavily on one item. Then, we’ll reach a point where we can’t progress any farther, so we move to the next phase. But, we’ve got everything in sequence so we can keep replacing the old with the new.”
It hasn’t helped that some of the crew’s focus has had to shift to the nearby No. 844 engine during the Big Boy’s restoration process. Dickens noted that the original plan in 2013 had been to obtain the Big Boy and bring it to the steam shop while continuing working and operating the 844.
The problem is they didn’t quite expect the 844 to be in the state it was.
“We knew we’d have to tear the 844 apart in a small way and make some repairs,” Dickens said. “The more we took it apart, the more problems we found. We found such a corroded condition on the exterior of the boiler and so many of its parts put together in such a way that didn’t give us a good feeling about its condition. So, we knew we’d have to take the entire boiler apart.”
In the end, all of the years of work will be worth it. Once it’s completed, the Big Boy will be considered the world’s largest operational steam locomotive.
Although the public’s appetite for updates on the Big Boy hasn’t quite been fulfilled, there will be multiple opportunities to tour the steam shop and get an up-close look at the engine.
Last year, Visit Cheyenne and Union Pacific teamed up to offer tours of the steam shop to the public. This was the first time anyone had been able to tour the area outside of Depot Days, which is held every May.
As a retired Union Pacific employee, Ehrenberger is looking forward to the day when the Big Boy is unveiled to the public, fully restored and ready to travel.
“I think once they’ve finally completed it, the Big Boy will be a masterpiece,” he said. “People from all over the world will want to see it. It’s going to be great.”
What’s been done to the Big Boy so far
Since the last update by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in November 2014, here is what has been done to the Big Boy, according to Dickens:
• The boiler has been dissembled and is being replaced.
• The front engine has been removed.
• Obtained a litany of new parts that will require some machining and fitting to add to the locomotive.