Winter winds are howling on Sherman Hill, but in Cheyenne crews are working on Big Boy No. 4014

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Friday, March 10, 2017

I spent two days earlier this week in wind-whipped Wyoming for a good cause, although at the time, I had doubts, as 40 and 50 mph sustained winds and 70 mph gusts made it difficult to stand, let alone hold a camera steady, or take a deep breath. The reason for the trip is that we’re gathering photos and information for our latest special issue, Big Steam is Back, 100 pages of mainline-worthy steam stories and photos due out in late June. As you can imagine, one of our main feature stories is about Union Pacific and its fabled steam program, starring 4-8-4 No. 844, restored in 2016, and one of those too-good-to-be-true-but-it-is restorations, Big Boy No. 4014. Thus, Cheyenne, Wyo., is a significant stop in our reporting and preparation for this publication and its accompanying documentary video of the same name.

Our special issue covers the amazingly good list of big engines running today (Milwaukee Road No. 261, Southern Pacific No. 4449, and Southern Railway No. 4501 to name-drop just a few) and a couple that are nearing completion and that cause this steam locomotive aficionado to think that all is right with the world. There’s a vaunted Santa Fe 2900-series 4-8-4 that is nearing completion in Albuquerque and a brutish, beastly Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 coming together in Cumberland, Md., at Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Those two alone make me want to sing and dance. But as they say in the infomercials, “Wait, there’s more!”

So, correspondent Hayley Enoch and I traveled to Wyoming to see and document work on No. 4014. We managed to squeeze in an extra day on Sherman Hill, where tractor-trailers were advised to lay low, least high winds topple them on Interstate 80, and where UP seemed especially cautious with its stack and automotive trains, exposed on the high plains as they are. We watched westbounds struggle against the headwind over the 1.5 percent grade that seems from an observer’s viewpoint to be much steeper. We struggled with car doors that defied opening because of the wind at Borie, chased down scarves that blew off, and watched a lens cap sail off a bridge into an unknown abyss in the trash and dead vegetation along the tracks. Maybe a track supervisor one day will find a 95 mm lens cap near Granite and wonder about its origin. I claim responsibility.

And then, on Tuesday, we were the guests of the UP in the shop for a few hours of observation, questions, and photos. I’m happy to tell you that a brief report will appear in the June issue of Trains, and a substantial feature will spread out across 10 glorious pages in Big Steam. Part of that will be about No. 844’s return, and the other part will focus on the Big Boy. I’ll not go into the details here, but I will say that the Big Boy is an impressive machine in one piece, whether it is sitting still or moving in tow. It is still has a commanding presence, even with the front engine rolled out, the front and back tube sheets removed, and a team of workers working in and around the locomotive.  A Big Boy hasn’t been torn down and restored in the halls of the Cheyenne back shop in roughly 60 years. What we witnessed and what we will share with you is one of the most significant restorations of all time, and it was both humbling and exciting to witness it. If all goes well, in two years, we’ll see the return of this giant.

Windy Sherman Hill was the final territory of the Big Boys in the 1950s. In the years since, the wind has whipped out of the west and across this mountain grade countless times. But I predict that one day soon, a new wind will come out of the east, the biggest of the big will rule again, and No. 4014 will assert itself once more.

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