The History of the Big Boy Locomotive, Part 2

Posted by John E. Bush
on Tuesday, May 15, 2018

For Part 1 of the Big Boy history, click here

At this same time, the newly formed Department of Research and Mechanical Standards, led by Wyoming native Otto Jabelmann who had come under the eye of the Harriman family and been brought to Omaha to run the new group, was updating older power.  Always active in the advancement of steam loco performance and economy, Union Pacific staff had worked closely with engineers in the Firebar Corporation in the early 1930’s to develop a new and more efficient design of grates for use in the firebox’s of coal-burning power.  In concert with the new grates many experiments and tests aimed at improving the “drafting” of air through firebox, boiler tubes and smokeboxes were being made on a number of different classes of Union Pacific locomotives with the idea of improved generation of power, increased boiler efficiency and savings in fuel.  Improvements were also being sought and accomplished via use of better steels; improved and greatly expanded lubrication of moving parts; higher operating speeds made possible through improved counterbalancing science applied in concert with reductions in the weight of pistons, piston rods, drive and side rods and valve gear parts; driving wheel center casting designs which provided for superior balancing; increased boiler pressures and many other areas.

This work along with advancements made by the locomotive builders resulted in an industry prepared and ready when Union Pacific determined there was every indication that traffic was going to continue the present upward spiral and that it was thus worthwhile to look again at the problem posed by the long Wahsatch climb and its ruling grade of 1.14 percent.

In his great book “Big Boy” written by the late and acclaimed author William W. Kratville, first printed in 1963, Kratville stated that President William Jeffers stipulated his desire that a locomotive capable of moving 3,600 tons up and over the Wahsatch grade unassisted be designed, resulting in what became the Big Boy.  Unfortunately, to my knowledge the exact internal correspondence relating to Jeffers’ request has not been located in company records.  However, Mr. Kratville’s relationship with Union Pacific mechanical staff and his utterly open access to company records is of vital importance.  At the time he was working on the book very nearly every single upper-level mechanical staff member who collaborated on the Big Boy project was still working.  It is thus very likely that Bill was informed by one or more of that group of Mr. Jeffers’ stated desires at the time by those well able to recall them.  I still hope that this correspondence is at some point made available to researchers, if it exists at all.

Once more Union Pacific turned to the American Locomotive Company (“Alco” as their own advertisements and correspondence referred to the company), without much doubt the railroad’s closest motive power partner.  Together mechanical engineers from both companies set to working out the proportions of a boiler necessary to produce the power capable of moving the tonnage specified by the railroad.

In thinking about a locomotive capable of hauling the desired load over Wahsatch grade, one might first imagine the size of the 4-6-6-4’s.  According to a report submitted to Jeffers by Otto Jabelmann, during year 1939 those locomotives when double-headed with 5000 class 2-10-2’s averaged 3,041 tons east out of Ogden.  Thus, very clearly, if a single locomotive was going to move 3,500 tons over the hill a boiler necessary to accomplish the desired performance was going to be massive indeed.  As calculations progressed it soon became apparent that in order to remain within weight limits a locomotive of sixteen driving wheels was going to be required.  Even more, pilot and trailing trucks were forced to be of two axles each in order to avoid expensive upgrading or outright replacement of bridges and other trackage due to per-axle weight limits.  In fact, clearance and weight restrictions were major factors in dictating what the locomotives would ultimately become, if they were to be built.

We now arrive at what I planned to make the first of the “25 things you may not know about the Big Boy.”  It’s always been considered that the first order of Big Boys were “1941” locomotives, and as it happened it is in that year when they were finally constructed.  Yet as an example of the time needed to plan, design and construct such massive machinery, even when great pressure existed to have it on hand as soon as possible because Omaha had already made the decision to move ahead, you may find it interesting to know that the original “sketch” entitled “Preliminary Study Proposed 4-8-8-4 Loco” was completed by Union Pacific draftsman Joe Davenport on July 12, 1940!  As collaborative work progressed on the design Davenport made revisions to the sketch no fewer than five times, the last being made October 11, 1940.

Despite the fact that not every detail was known or concluded when the sketch was first completed in July, President Jeffers had already begun work necessary to present matters to the Executive Committee in New York.  In May he wrote the Chairman of the Executive Committee with details of savings realized by use of the 4-6-6-4’s and 800 class 4-8-4’s, the idea being to demonstrate reduced costs when modern new power was utilized and lighter power could be released for other assignments, a sort of “filter down” arrangement.  Staff was tasked with reviewing myriad data in order that reports could be prepared making the case for the new locomotives.  Jeffers planned to make the locomotive purchase a part of a larger program of new equipment which included 1,000 ballast cars and 2,000 box cars plus new passenger equipment comprising diesel locomotives and cars for two new 17-car streamlined trains combined with construction of cars intended to replace those damaged in a wreck suffered by the City of San Francisco.

Pres. Jeffers began close work with the Executive Committee in July of 1940.  Following a great deal of back and forth correspondence relating not only to the obvious, such as the cost per locomotive, but details as finite as planned assignments for locomotives expected to be released from the Ogden-Green River service, including how many of each type and where they were going to be used, etc., Jeffers ultimately received authorization to proceed with ordering the 4-8-8-4’s on October 24, 1940.  In a subsequent letter to the Chairman on October 31st Jeffers stated that competitive bids were being sought from the three major builders, despite having worked with Alco the entire time.  It was necessary to prove to the Executive Committee Alco’s competitive position and Jeffers’ diligence.

This fact brings us to the second of the “25 Things…..”  It has long been understood by fans that the Big Boys were built in 1941 and 1944, and this is true.  Twenty in 1941 and five in 1944.  However, the initial order comprised not twenty engines, not what would become 4000-19, but FIFTEEN locomotives.  So, as it worked out, for a time our beloved 4014 held what would have been the final place in the first order of 4-8-8-4’s.

It took time to prepare things internally and work out final details.  Union Pacific’s General Purchasing Agent E. L. Fries wrote Alco on December 11, 1940 stating “Please consider this our Formal Order to cover the following…” and thus was created Order No. 5831-1 for “…fifteen 4-8-8-4 locomotives with 4-10-0 type tenders…” (Union Pacific had worked with Alco in 1939 to create this type of tender, sometimes referred to as the “centipede” type on account of the five-axle rigid section of the frame which trailed a forward separate four-wheel truck and first used on the 820-34 series of 4-8-4’s constructed that year).  The last revision to the original specifications which first took visual root in Davenport’s sketch of July was made on December 10th, the day before submission of the formal order.

As it happened, exactly a month later on January 11th Jeffers wrote Executive Committee Chairman F. W. Charske in New York “After going over various Governmental projects in the west that have to do with National preparedness, and which will be served largely by the Union Pacific, I am convinced that the fifteen additional locomotives we have on order will not suffice.  I recommend, therefore, that we increase this to twenty, and by placing the order for this additional power immediately, the builder can secure material so that the additional five engines can be delivered immediately following the fifteen now on order.”  The Executive Committee approved the plan only three days later (and we think we do things quickly today!).  Order No. 5834-1 was forwarded to Alco on January 16th.  The Authority for Expenditure form states in part “To provide additional locomotives to handle the anticipated heavy freight traffic incident to the National Defense Program…”

Construction of the first twenty 4-8-8-4’s was underway and the steam railroad world would never be exactly the same again.

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