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One of the Biggest Locomotives of All Time Rides Again

After five years of restoration, 1.2 million pound Big Boy 4014 is visiting Utah to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike

smithsonian.com

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike, the moment when the transcontinental railroad was finally completed with a ceremony at Promontory Point in Utah on May 10, 1869. And while the historical anniversary has railfans overjoyed, it’s the appearance of another piece of railroad history that might have them just as excited. After five years of restoration, one of the largest locomotives to ever ride the rails, Big Boy N0. 4014 is back on the tracks.

Mead Gruver at the Associated Press reports that the Big Boy model of locomotive was built by the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York, from 1941 to 1944. Only 25 of the 132-foot-long, 1.2-million-pound machines were constructed, designed for hauling freight over mountainous terrain in Wyoming and Utah. The coal-powered machines were retired in 1961, replaced by more modern diesel engines. Most of them were melted for scrap, but eight went on display at transportation museums around the country.

None have been operational since their respective retirements, leading many train lovers to think they'd never see one rolling under its own power again. Not only that, Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains magazine, tells Gruver that the machine is so large and complex, nobody thought one could even be restored. But the train company Union Pacific took on the challenge in 2013, towing one of the old locomotives from a museum in Pomona, California, to its Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Now, over five years later, the Big Boy is riding again, though today the train has been converted to burn oil instead of coal.

“They had to basically completely disassemble the locomotive down to just the frame and the shell. It was an immense undertaking.” Wrinn says. “It’s a pretty big deal. Nobody ever thought that a Big Boy would be restored to operation. Ever.”

Back in 2014, when the Union Pacific announced plans to restore the behemoth, Ed Dickens Jr., senior manager of Union Pacific’s Heritage Operations, summed up the significance of the moment best: “This is like a zoo having the opportunity to bring back T-rex,” he said.

According to a press release, the big train made its debut yesterday, on May 9th, at Ogden Station, where it recreated the famed Golden Spike meeting of two locomotives by meeting “Living Legend” Northern No. 844, a Union Pacific passenger locomotive that has been in service since 1944. Afterward, a ceremonial spike was tapped into the ground by Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz and Utah governor Gary Herbert, joined by Margaret Yee, whose great-great grandfather worked as a cook on the construction line, one of some 10,000 to 20,000 immigrant Chinese laborers who played a central role in constructing the transcontinental railroad, and Sandy Dodge, the great-great nephew of Civil War general Grenville Dodge, who served as chief engineer on the railroad.

The reason the locomotives couldn't meet at the actual site of the ceremony, now Golden Spike National Historical Park, is because the original rails were pried up for scrap during World War II. The original steam engines that participated, the Jupiter and #119, were also eventually scrapped. However, replicas of those engines will also meet during a different ceremony held at the park.

Train fans lucky enough to score a ticket can actually take a ride behind the rumbling Big Boy. No. 4014, which will be on display at Ogden Station until Sunday, before it pulls heritage train cars to Evanston, Wyoming, on its way home to Cheyenne. Over the next year, as part of the Sesquicentennial, Big Boy will visit various train stations throughout the U.S. Details of that tour are yet to be released.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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