Big Boy in Brew City

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, July 26, 2019

Big Boy 4014 steams through St. Francis, a junction on the former C&NW on the southeast side of Milwaukee, en route to Chicago on July 26. The giant kept a low profile during its brief stay in the Brew City. Robert S. McGonigal
It took me long enough, but I finally caught up with Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014. Or maybe I should say the 4-8-8-4 caught up with me.

Various circumstances have until now kept me from witnessing the greatest steam spectacle of the last several years, even when the 4014 was tantalizingly close. Hosting a Trains magazine Promontory tour back in May brought me face to face with the engine in Ogden on May 9, but only for a static ceremony. Two days later, as our bus tour headed east toward Cheyenne, we were a day ahead of the 4014’s return ferry move. So close, but not close enough. 

But UP’s “Great Race Across the Midwest” finally made a stop this week in my adopted hometown of Milwaukee and I got my chance to catch up on everyone else’s excitement. 

In truth, 4014’s stay in Milwaukee was a bit of a stealth performance. For undisclosed reasons, UP chose to overnight the engine at its yard in northwest-suburban Butler, a facility with limited access under the best of circumstances. During 4014’s visit, the public was kept at bay, limited to a view from the alley behind a strip shopping center. 

The decision is puzzling to me, given the size of the Milwaukee media market. It figures there would have been a huge turnout if tours were available. But maybe that’s the point — the logistics of stops in small places like Wheatland, Iowa, or Adams, Wis., are a lot easier to handle than in a big city like Milwaukee.

Still, UP’s public relations staff did a good job of prepping the local news media and 4014’s visit didn’t go unnoticed. It made a splash in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and on local TV news shows, and, of course, the fans showed up in droves as the engine rolled into town on Thursday and departed early Friday morning.

UP's Ed Dickens tugs on the 4014's whistle chain before making a move in Butler Yard, the old C&NW's major Milwaukee yard. Kevin P. Keefe
The Butler stop gave some of us associated with Trains a chance to see the Big Boy up close and personal, including a short interval in the cab as our engineer, UP Senior Manager-Heritage Operations Ed Dickens, made a couple of short yard moves. Joining me were Classic Trains Editor Rob McGonigal and Model Railroader Editor Hal Miller. 

I’ve been in some big locomotive cabs before — notably UP Challenger 3985 and Milwaukee Road 261 — but I wasn’t prepared for something as spacious as a small condo. Dickens and his fireman, Ted Schulte, went about their chores with the sort of easy familiarity you’d expect from a crew that’s been running the engine for two years, not two months. Of course, they do have all that similar experience with 4-8-4 No. 844. 

Dickens is justifiably proud of his team. Their heroic work in bringing the 4014 in on deadline at Cheyenne and their near flawless operation since is impressive. So is Dickens’ leadership philosophy. I asked him what he thought of the thousand or so railfans who chanted “Ed, Ed, Ed!” a few weeks before in Ogden.

“To tell you the truth, I’d have much rather they chanted ‘Crew, crew, crew!’” said Dickens. “We all have to wear many hats on this team. We all just do what we gotta do.”

As we climbed back down off the engine later, I noticed a sizeable crowd was still ogling the 4014, though by that point it had been parked for the night. I vowed to return later in the evening, seeking a quieter moment as the 4-8-8-4 cooled her heels in Butler. 

Massive in daylight, UP's 4-8-8-4s loom even larger at night; No. 4008 simmers at Laramie in 1957. Jim Shaughnessy
I was inspired to go back mostly because I like hanging around steam locomotives at night. I also remembered an article photographer Jim Shaughnessy did in the Spring 2009 issue of Classic Trains, featuring his photos of Big Boys at night in the terminal at Laramie, Wyo., in August 1957. It was a wonderful portrayal of men and machine. Shaughnessy’s prose was up to the task, too. 

“In the darkness, the great machines loomed even larger than normal,” he wrote. “As they crept about the terminal, the rails groaning under them, they seemed like prehistoric monsters slinking through the shadows.”

Butler wasn’t quite as dramatic as Laramie. The 4014 was off by itself, far from the site of the old roundhouse that once serviced C&NW’s biggest engines, the H-class “Zeppelin” 4-8-4s. The roundhouse was torn down decades ago to make way for a parking lot. And as an oil burner, the 4014 makes for a quiet evening guest. When the crew shuts her down, they shut her down. No fire to tend, no dynamo whine, no cab or running lights, no hiss from the cylinder cocks, no simmering boiler.

But in this day and age you take what you can get, and a brief evening’s encounter with 4014 is still a treat. I came away from Butler feeling quite satisfied.

The next morning, it was back in the spotlight for 4014, on its way to its next big engagement in Chicago. I managed to find a grade crossing along the old C&NW New Line on the south side of Milwaukee, one that wasn’t overrun with fans and daisy pickers, in keeping with 4014’s comparatively unheralded visit to Milwaukee. As I waved to the crew, I thought of all those unfortunates in town who missed out on the world’s largest operating steam locomotive. 

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