Big Boy and “the 30 day miracle”

Posted by Justin Franz
on Friday, April 5, 2019

AFT No. 1 leads the American Freedom Train. Trains Magazine Collection.
The clock is ticking.

As I write this, Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4014 is scheduled to depart Cheyenne, Wyo., in just four weeks. One of the most watched steam locomotive restorations in a generation is coming down to the wire and railroad enthusiasts, steam fans and history buffs are waiting with bated breath to see if it can be done.

Although there have been few images out of Cheyenne in recent weeks, I imagine the UP steam shop is a busy place these days. Not unlike a roundhouse in Baltimore in early 1975, when steam showman Ross Rowland, mechanic Bill Benson and a team of laborers restored Reading Railroad 4-8-4 No. 2101 in just a month for the American Freedom Train; an accomplishment dubbed “the 30-day miracle.”

According to Rowland, in late 1974, the American Freedom Train Foundation was informed their primary steam locomotive — Southern Pacific 4-8-4 No. 4449 — would not be able to come to the east coast due to clearances. Determined to have the museum train hauled by steam for the entire two-year tour, Rowland and his team set out in search of a steam locomotive that could squeeze into the tightest spaces. The search brought them to a scrapyard in Baltimore, home to two T-1s, Nos. 2100 and 2101. Rowland purchased both locomotives in December 1974, and a month later they were moved to an area roundhouse. A mechanical evaluation found No. 2101 was in better shape and so Rowland decided to put his energy into that locomotive. Rowland hired Benson, who had restored another T-1 a few years earlier, to lead the effort. Work began in late February, just over a month before the American Freedom Train was due to depart Cameron Station, Virginia on March 28.

Dozens of people worked around the clock to get it done on time in a scene not witnessed since the age of steam.

“At times it looked like ants crawling on a piece of candy on a hot sidewalk,” Rowland said from his home in New York this week. “There were people all over the locomotive.”

Rowland credits Benson and the American Freedom Train sponsors for accomplishing the speedy restoration. In one instance, the team needed a new set of superheater units. A contractor told them it would take nine months to complete. But, after Rowland made a call to an executive at General Motors, one of the train’s sponsors, the superheater order was pushed to the front of the line. The new parts were ready for pickup in a week.

About a month after they started, No. 2101 — by then dubbed American Freedom Train No. 1 — was fired up and taken on a test run. On March 28, the locomotive was at the Cameron Station military base to pick up the exhibit train and head north for Wilmington, Del., where the tour was set to begin on April 1. Rowland said “the paint was still wet on the handrails” when they steamed out of town.

“The engine had been sitting in a scrap yard for years and people said there was no way it was going to happen, but it did!” Rowland said. “Miracles do happen.”

What happened in Baltimore in 1975 and what is happening in Cheyenne in 2019 are vastly different situations, but the excitement surrounding them are the same. The tale of “the 30-day miracle” has been etched into rail preservation lore and I’m confident that an equally exciting story is unfolding in Cheyenne as I write this. I can’t wait hear it.

Does the architect of that 1975 miracle think the UP steam team can get the world’s largest steam locomotive on the high iron in just four weeks?

“I hope so,” he said. “I wish them the best.”

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