If Big Boys could talk

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Friday, March 17, 2017

Last week I told you about my visit to the Union Pacific steam shop in Cheyenne, Wyo., where the railroad’s steam crew is working on Big Boy No. 4014 with the aim of returning it to service in 2019. When it’s done, it will rival the Goodyear blimp in terms of its public relations prowess.  Today, I’m going to tell you about the Big Boy I visited on the way to Wyoming, No. 4005.

That other 4-8-8-4 is the centerpiece exhibit of the Forney Museum in Denver. It’s crammed into a two-track indoor display area along with a Chicago & North Western Ten-Wheeler, No. 444; a UP rotary snowplow; a UP derrick (said to be the oldest big hook in existence; any UP or big hook experts care to confirm or deny?); a Rio Grande diner; an office car; and a wood coach that needs tremendous TLC. This Big Boy, of the eight still in existence, is the one that I wish could speak about its life and times (other than No. 4014, which I am pretty sure would express great joy at the opportunity to run again).

No. 4005 has two significant stories to tell.

The first is about the only attempt to convert a Big Boy to oil firing. As an experiment in 1946, UP changed the locomotive from coal firing to oil firing. Accounts vary on why the experiment lasted only two years and ended with No. 4005 being returned to life as a coal burner. Some say the oil burning apparatus couldn’t evenly heat the giant firebox that’s big enough to put a dining room table inside. Others say it was all a show that was meant to keep in line the Wyoming coal miners who supplied the railroad. But the most plausible explanation I’ve come up with from UP steam experts is that in heavy service, it demanded tremendous volumes of fuel, and that would have meant building more facilities to keep not just one but a whole fleet of Big Boys fueled.

The other tale is about the only major wreck of a Big Boy, which took place at Red Desert, Wyo., in 1953, when a newbie brakeman misread a hand signal and lined a switch into a siding as No. 4005 and train neared him. The engine and train were moving at a good clip, and the wreck was horrific. The engine came to rest on its left side. The cab was destroyed. Two of the three crew on the head end died. The engine was rebuilt and put back into service. A gash on the tender is still a visible scar from the crash.

I’ve been fortunate to have visited with all eight of the surviving Big Boy locomotives. But if I could sit down with a glass of white with just one of them, it would be No. 4005. It’s got some explaining to do. It’s got some tales to tell. If only Big Boys could talk.

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