Thoughts on Big Boy No. 4014's return: The day after

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, May 20, 2019

It is over. The long-awaited debut of Big Boy No. 4014 is in the books. By all observations, it was an amazing success. Even though the restoration came down to the last hours before the May 4 debut, the UP did it. On May 19 when the UP steam crew shepherded their charge off the main line and into the shop at Cheyenne, they’d come more than 1,000 without a serious mechanical problem or schedule delay. Even the derailment of two driver wheels in Rawlins on the return trip was handled with calm, cool, professionalism as evidenced by the fact that it took only 3 hours to correct the gauge and get the 600-ton brute back in operation. UP’s one-time slogan, “We can handle it,” still rings true.

I hope UP management knows what an amazing team they have in Cheyenne. It is true that this project began seven years ago. But between the efforts to move the engine from Los Angeles to Wyoming in 2013 and 2014, the gap to upgrade the shop and overhaul stablemate No. 844, they did the job on the Big Boy in less than a total of 4 years. That is impressive. I’ve come to know the head of the program, Ed Dickens, and the members of his team, and they are impressive. After months of hard work and long hours, they took No. 4014 and No. 844 on the road with the sort of determination and pride that only those with solid planning, the ability to react to the situation at hand, and the support of a large organization know. They were patient with politicians, the public and the press. They let no one down, including themselves. I hope they are all getting a well-deserved rest.

As I wrote this, Southwest Airlines was whisking me back to Milwaukee. A few thousand feet below inside the confines of the UP steam shop in Cheyenne, Wyo., the 4-8-8-4 is cooling down toward ambient temperature. Seeing the engine on the road with 295 psi on the gauge has been a dream of many. You don’t know how many people of a certain age have told me they were staying alive to see this miracle. It is still hard to believe that this miracle has happened.

Two weeks with this machine have confirmed its power, both literally and figuratively. I was fortunate to ride the cab from Rawlins to Wamsutter.  I saw this giant play with its light train and pull away from a following 4,400-hp diesel in full dynamic braking. For those doubters who believe No. 4014 was simply pushed along by 4-8-4 No. 844 and the diesel, I can vouch for No. 4014’s strength. Its muscles are only begun to be flexed, but they are there. The engine’s implied power is great, evidenced by the masses of fans who have come from across the continent or around the world and the scores of locals who went trackside just to see what a Big Boy may be. With few exceptions, the railfan apocalypse that many predicted and many avoided failed to materialize. Yes, the motorcade was 12 miles long coming into and leaving Ogden, but as far as I know, no major vehicular crashes took place, and nobody was injured.

My perspective on these events may be unique. Outside of the UP steam crew, I know of no other who has stayed with the project’s every step. I was there the day the engine was inched out of the Los Angles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, Calif., in November 2013. I was there the day the engine arrived in Cheyenne, dead in tow, in May 2014. I’ve been inside the shop repeatedly in between.  And now I’ve seen the first steps of this locomotive for the ages.

Despite these credentials, I’ve worried that I would not be up to the job of describing this locomotive, this steam crew, or the impact they’ve made. I also fretted that as a journalist, I would not be able to retain my composure. As a lifelong lover of steam locomotives, I along with the crew and every observer there, have reached a high summit, one that we never believed was possible. But here we are.

I came west earlier this month to fill the pages of Trains, to complete a special issue called Big Boy Back in Steam, and to gather material for a 2-hour DVD of the same name. I came to write blog posts, and news wire items, to live stream to Facebook, and to help with our Big Boy Chase Bus and our Journey to Promontory tour. But I also came to better understand why we love this locomotive so much. In meetings with colleagues who know the media business but not railroading, I’ve often explained the Big Boy as Elvis, the ultimate celebrity. No. 4014 is surely that. But this locomotive and its crew are so much more. It’s a product of America at its zenith, when we were unmistakably the good guys. It is also a profound demonstration of humanity’s genius. It is rolling example of problem solving. It is the answer to a challenge. The crew is proof that we can still do big things. We can still meet the challenges we create for ourselves. We can still make the big commitments we want to make.

As I listened to No. 4014’s deep whistle sound and watched its running gear flex and stretch like a strider, I came to realize what a real gift that No. 4014 in steam is. In this cynical age, to watch Big Boy roll down the tracks is to witness something truly majestic. And more of that is something we can all use in our lives.


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