Big Boy: The Rock Star of Rolling Stock

The past passed through town this weekend.

Perhaps you were among the hundreds who turned out to take in its enormity, to feel the ground shake as it moved.

If you didn’t see it, perhaps you heard it: its insistent “Get out of the way, Now; make way for Then” whistle, the iron symphony of a millon pounds of moving parts. Or perhaps you rolled down the window of your car, took a deep breath, and said, “Hey, I smell 1941.”

Union Pacific railroad’s steam locomotive Big Boy No. 4014 arrived in Fort Worth on Friday and was on display on the east side of downtown on Saturday. Fort Worth was a stop on No. 4014’s ten-state tour from August 5 to September 7. The tour includes overnight stops in five major cities and brief stops in more than ninety other towns along the UP network.

During its passage through Fort Worth Big Boy No. 4014 got the rock-star treatment. When it was on display downtown, it was mobbed by hundreds of people. An iron Elvis. Ambulances stood by lest some steamhead be overcome and swoon. Police had to direct traffic. Jones Street looked like the highway to Woodstock. I parked sixteen blocks away. My legs may never speak to me again.

The Big Boy got a similar reaction when it was in motion, guzzling No. 5 fuel oil and belching clouds of black smoke and white steam. Motorists along its route as it came and went slowed and gawked. At railroad crossings, people got out of their cars and stared, mouth open, eyes wide, as the iron dinosaur passed so close, jarring the senses. Cameras lined the roadways.

Such scenes were replays—minus the cars and cameras—of July 19, 1876, when Fort Worth residents turned out to stare as Texas & Pacific locomotive No. 20 rolled into town,  and its steam whistle—so wrote B. B. Paddock’s Fort Worth Democrat—“uttered its shrill scream within the corporate limits, arousing the pant[h]er from his lair.”

Yes, to see—and hear and smell—the Big Boy this weekend was to see and hear and smell Fort Worth’s past. For more than seventy years steam locomotives were as much a part of traffic in Fort Worth as were horses, streetcars, and automobiles. Dozens of passenger and freight trains came and went each day, their locomotives billowing and bellowing through all parts of town.

As for the Big Boy’s own history, in 1941 as the threat of war increased and the War Department stepped up orders for the military, Union Pacific railroad needed larger locomotives. So, UP ordered twenty-five of a new class of locomotives nicknamed the “Big Boy” from the American Locomotive Company. Big Boy No. 4014 was delivered in December 1941 just as America entered the war. No. 4014 and its siblings normally operated over the saw-tooth grades of the Wasatch Mountains between Ogden, Utah, and Cheyenne, Wyoming—an important link in the east-west supply line during the war.

The “Big Boy” nickname is no mere hyperbole of a public relations agent. No. 4014 and its siblings were the longest reciprocating steam locomotives ever built and the second-heaviest. Today Big Boy No. 4014 is the biggest operating steam locomotive in the world.

How big?
The Big Boys were so long that they had to be articulated to negotiate curves in the track. So long that they did not fit in most railroad roundhouses.
No. 4014 is 132 feet long. A jumbo jet is 232 feet long.
No. 4014 weighs 1.2 million pounds. A jumbo jet weighs 975,000 pounds.
A Big Boy’s driving wheels are sixty-eight inches tall (in Hollywood leading man terms, taller than Tom Cruise, shorter than Antonio Banderas).

About those driving wheels:
The railroad industry classifies locomotives according to their wheels: the number of leading wheels, driving wheels, and trailing wheels. The vast majority of locomotives have a three-number classification.

For example, Grapevine Vintage Railroad’s Puffy (Southern Pacific No. 2248, built in 1896) is a 4-6-0 locomotive: four leading wheels, six driving wheels, no trailing wheels.

Similarly, Texas & Pacific No. 610—a giant in its day—is a 2-10-4 locomotive. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

You might remember No. 610. It was built in 1927 and operated until 1951, when it was donated to the city of Fort Worth, which failed to hold onto it. In 1975-1976 No. 610 pulled the American Freedom Train. Since 1982 No. 610 has been on static display at the Texas State Railroad museum in Palestine.

The Big Boy is a 4-8-8-4 locomotive. No, I did not repeat myself. The Big Boy rolls on four leading wheels and four trailing wheels. In between are what makes the Big Boy big: two sets of eight driving wheels under a single boiler. Below the boiler the two-part drive train of the locomotive is “hinged” between the two sets of driving wheels so that the locomotive can flex to negotiate curves.

The Big Boy is, in effect, two locomotives in one iron skin. With six thousand horsepower, it was able to haul 3,600-ton trains up the Wasatch Mountains—a haul that previously had required doubleheading—the use of two locomotives. Hauling freight on level track, the Big Boy could reach seventy miles an hour.

Seven weeks before the war ended, this Union Pacific ad said the Big Boys “have proved invaluable in transporting tremendous quantities of war materials.”

Big Boy No. 4014 served for twenty years, traveling more than one million miles. In 1961 No. 4014 was retired to a railroad museum. In 2013 Union Pacific reacquired the locomotive and moved it to Cheyenne for restoration. It also was converted to burn oil instead of coal. The locomotive returned to the rails in 2019 as a rolling celebration of the 150th anniversary of the first transcontinental railroad.

Eight Big Boys survive (one is in Frisco), but only No. 4014 is in operation.

Some photos from Saturday:

The Big Boy class of locomotives got its nickname after a worker at the American Locomotive Company scrawled “Big Boy” in chalk on the nose of one of the early 4014s.

A crew member services four of the sixteen driving wheels.

Think of it: The human mind conceived and built something this complex.

Horses and trains: That is Pantherville’s past.

Two masked men: “like desperadoes waitin’ for a . . . There it is, Pop!”

Behind No. 4041 were several cars carrying people and fuel. A diesel engine provided electricity and helped with braking.

And, yes, there was plenty of Big Boy merch on sale.

Early Sunday morning a crowd again gathered at the Union Pacific tracks to see Big Boy No. 4014. Cameras clicked as the train’s crew prepared for departure. Wisps of steam escaped here and there along the locomotive’s 132-foot length as it stirred to life. Suddenly the Big Boy’s whistle— accompanied by a medley of hisses, huffs, and clangs—“uttered its shrill scream within the corporate limits,” once more “arousing the pant[h]er from his lair” as No. 4014 began to move, rumbling on down the rails, taking the past to the next town.

Two video clips on YouTube (Fort Worth’s Echo Lake and Midlothian):

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2 Responses to Big Boy: The Rock Star of Rolling Stock

  1. Dennis Hogan says:

    Nice report, Mike!
    Why didn’t you bicycle those 16 blocks to train side?
    I saw it pass through Garrett TX, just north of Ennis. There was a carnival-size crowd there. I knew it was coming because the appearance of two low circling planes. Then came the crossing gate signals, whistle, and smoke.

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