The American Locomotive Co. in Schenectady, N.Y., built 25 of the monsters known as Big Boys to Union Pacific’s specifications between 1941 and 1944, and they became legendary. They were the largest steam locomotives ever to work the rugged terrain of the American West, and by most standards the largest anywhere in the world.
Big Boys are 132 feet long, including the tender, which carried coal and water. They weigh 1.2 million pounds with a full load of fuel. They are essentially two engines under one boiler, with two sets of eight drive wheels, each set powered by two enormous cylinders nearly 2 feet across. They were engineered to reach 80 mph, even though the railroad never intended to run them that fast.
On July 23, 2013, Union Pacific Railroad announced it reached an agreement with the Southern California Chapter – Railway & Locomotive Historical Society in Pomona, Calif., to transfer ownership of one of the world’s largest steam locomotives, Big Boy No. 4014, back to Union Pacific.
Union Pacific donated No. 4014 to the historical society December 7, 1961. The locomotive arrived January 8, 1962, at the Rail Giants Train Museum in Pomona.
On the morning of January 26, 2014, UP 4014 was pulled out of the Los Angeles County Fairplex by the Southern Pacific liveried diesel locomotive UP1996. Big Boy 4014’s destination for restoration to full operating condition was the Union Pacific Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at the tune of $1.2 million dollars.
We were lucky enough to follow along some of Big Boy 4014s journey as it passed through our desert! Big Boy’s first scheduled stop that day was at Mormon Rocks. We got there early to discover scores of our closest friends had the same idea. Everyone was friendly and excited to reconnect with their tribe of fellow foamers, a term used affectionately for the most fervent of rail fans by train engineers.
Everybody was trying to guess where Big Boy would actually stop, as no one knew quite sure which of the multiple tracks in the area it would be traveling. John and I walked all over Mormon Rocks assessing good vantage points. We finally settled on a couple of favorites.
When Big Boy came rumbling down the tracks we quickly figured out it was coming in on the opposite side of Highway 138 from where we had been waiting. Other people began running on foot across the railroad bridge towards it. Luckily, no other trains were coming!
Standing next to the behemoth locomotive was absolutely thrilling. It’s wheels were taller than our height. The sight, sound and heat of it. It was love at first sight!
We planned to follow Big Boy through Summit Valley, Victorville, Oro Grande and finally to its last stop in Barstow before its departure. Due to traffic, we were unable to catch up with Big Boy in Summit Valley, so we drove to Victorville Train Depot, Big Boy’s next scheduled stop.
It was a mob scene. Rail fans were crowding the station and vehicles lined streets for blocks around. Too many people for us, so we proceeded to National Trails Highway/Route 66 towards Barstow. On the way, we decided catching a photo of Big Boy in the old train trestle in Oro Grande would be awesome.
The park gate was closed. In fact, we have never seen it open. So we parked on Air Expressway and hiked on in. About a dozen people had the same bright idea. We went separate ways, scouting for the best photo vantage when Big Boy arrived, and settled on our favorite. It was a beautiful January day and being outdoors in the warm temps was definitely a treat.
On the trail we met a young man resembling a jet pilot wearing thick goggles, carrying electronic equipment and holding the neatest drone we have ever encountered, so of course, we had to stop and chat.
Chris planned to film Big Boy from overhead, and patiently explained how the controls worked. By looking from inside the goggles, Chris could see everything like a bird. He guessed the custom drone he built probably cost about $10,000. What a humble and nice young man he was. You can find Chris on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/user/chrisquez7.
Soon Big Boy made its Oro Grande debut with a long, loud whistle blast. As it went through the trestle bridge one could almost see it under its own steam power as it rumbled down the tracks back in the day. But today everyone witnessing Big Boy cheered and waved. Big Boy was all of ours, at least for the moment.
Big Boy’s next scheduled stop was at The Harvey House Railroad Depot, originally known as the Casa del Desierto. It was Big Boy’s first revisit in 50 years. While there were many people at the station, it never felt crowded. Railfans, after all, are mostly friendly.
It was good to see so many children there to see Big Boy, as it came to a slow halt on the tracks. Of the 25 Big Boy locomotives manufactured, eight remain. Seven of the eight surviving Big Boys are on static display.
The Casa del Desierto station and hotel was built in 1911 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to replace an earlier one built in 1885 that burned in 1908. The Santa Fe closed the station in 1973. It became derelict until bought by the City of Barstow, and rebuilt following heavy damage in a 1992 earthquake.
The City of Barstow obtained the station in 1990. After restoration and more than $8 million in repairs to earthquake damage, several city offices moved into the building.
Upon arrival in Kansas in 1870, Fred Harvey met Charlie Morse, President of the fledgling Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. For the next near century, Fred Harvey’s company would bring good food at reasonable prices in clean, elegant restaurants, to the traveling public throughout the Southwest.
They also brought civilization, community, and industry to the Wild West. Only 15 years later, there were 17 Harvey Houses; at their peak, there were 84! One such Harvey House, was located in Barstow, California.
Mr. Harvey continued to improve his service until his death in 1901. He began hiring single women at a time when most jobs for women were as domestics or teachers.
Paying as much as $17.50 per month with free room, board, and clean uniforms, the company prospered with these dedicated new helpers, who abided by strict company policy.
On May 8, 2014, UP 4014 arrived in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The railroad would like to have the Big Boy operating by 2019 for the 150th anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike in Utah, which linked the Union Pacific with the Central Pacific and completed the first transcontinental railroad.
Until then, we will be waiting upon your return in all your magnificent glory, Big Boy!