4-6-6-4 "Challenger" Locomotives

The Challenger Type, an articulated design (meaning that either one, or both sets of driving wheels pivots to better and more safely negotiate curves), was one of the most successful large steam locomotive designs ever developed.

Originally conceived for use by the Union Pacific in an attempt to create a more powerful steamer that could pull loads faster over stiff grades the railroad would also go on to own the most Challengers, eventually rostering 105 of the steamers!

The 4-6-6-4 was one of the most technologically advanced of its kind with advancements that allowed for both high horsepower and efficient operations. Sadly, however, like the Yellowstones, Challengers had an extremely short lifespan.

Upon delivery of the UP’s first Challenger during the mid-1930s all were scrapped in short order, operating less than twenty years on nine different railroads (some were barely ten years of age!).

From 1981 until 2011.one could still witness an example of this arrangement in operation, Union Pacific #3985.  It worked alongside stablemate 4-8-4 #844/4, hosting excursions and business trains along the railroad. 

Alas, with 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy" #4014's purchase and restoration the Challenger has once again been retired.  She currently sits stored inside the roundhouse at Cheyenne, Wyoming.

One of the Denver & Rio Grande Western's big 4-6-6-4's, Class L-105 #3708, is seen here in Salida, Colorado on June 21, 1951. Designed for faster speeds in mountainous territory, they proved effective in this capacity.

The Challenger Type was born out of a need by the Union Pacific for a more powerful locomotive that could handle trains more efficiently, particularly over the stiff grades of the Wahsatch Mountain Range in western Utah.

At the time of their development (mid-1930's) the railroad knew, specifically Chief Mechanical Engineer Arthur H. Fetter and Otto Jabelmann (UP's assistant general superintendent, motive power), that UP's current roster of 4-12-2 Overlands (developed in the 1920s by Fetter himself), 2-8-8-0s, and 2-10-2s were no longer up to the task.

Working with the American Locomotive Company (Alco) the two gentleman came up with the 4-6-6-4 wheel arrangement that proved to be an exceptional blend of power and speed that worked well for the railroad.

Other Large Wheel Arrangements And Related Reading

One of Union Pacific's big 4-6-6-4's pours on the smoke as its steams west over Archer Hill, Wyoming (just east of Cheyenne) during the 1950's.

Fetter, specifically, had been responsible for many improvements and innovations within Union Pacific's steam program.

When developing what became the 4-6-6-4 he suggested an articulated design that could reach speeds greater than the current 4-12-2s while reducing the reciprocating weight of a compound.

Interestingly, he and Alco started with an Overland design to begin developing what became the Challenger. The first prototype was ready for service on August 25, 1936 when it arrived in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The locomotive was listed as #3900 and originally the design was called simply that, 3900s.

It featured the latest in steam technology at the time (and with the arrival of the diesel just around the corner, in many ways the 4-6-6-4s were some of the most advanced steamers ever built) including roller bearings on all axles (engine and tender), a massive boiler, and large firebox.

Northern Pacific 4-6-6-4 #5141 (Z-8) is seen here at the end of its career in International Falls, Minnesota on July 27, 1955. Note the new F9A directly behind the big Challenger. Built by American Locomotive in 1944 these locomotives saw barely a decade of service before being scrapped.

The unit's first test was to run an eastbound freight from Ogden, Utah to Green River, Wyoming where it would be forced to battle the Wasatch Range. To see just what the new 4-6-6-4 could do officials decided to run it unassisted for the round-trip and the locomotive more than proved its worth.

According to William Kratville's book "The Challenger Locomotives" Fretter, himself, stated that the design had "met the challenge" of the test and the name stuck.

In the coming months and years Union Pacific, who went on to roster 105 units by 1944 (all from Alco) classed as the "CSA" and "4664," found the locomotives to be extremely utilitarian; they were just as adept at pulling heavy, fast freights over the Wasatch and Sherman grades as they were hurrying important passenger runs (such as the Challenger streamliner, which was named after the locomotive).

Rio Grande 4-6-6-4 #3713 (L-105) is seen here in Salt Lake City, Utah circa 1950. Stephen Bogen photo.

 The below chart breaks the units down by railroad, type, and number:

· Clinchfield: Class E1 (8), E2 (4), E3 (6) – 18

· Delaware & Hudson: Class J – 40

· Denver & Rio Grande Western: Class L-105 (15), L-97 (6) – 21

· Great Northern: Class Z-6 – 2

· Spokane, Portland & Seattle: Class Z-6 (6), Z-8 (2) – 12

· Union Pacific: Class CSA-1 (15), CSA-2 (25), 4664-3 (20), 4664-4 (25), 4664-5 (20) – 105

· Western Maryland: Class M-2 – 12

· Western Pacific: Class M-100 - 7

Union Pacific 4-6-6-4 #3949 (out-shopped by American Locomotive in October, 1944, construction number 72811), awaits its next assignment at Sidney, Nebraska on March 3, 1956. The locomotive was scrapped in October, 1959. Richard Kindig photo.

Initially the Challenger type was used over the Wasatch where it was first tested but after being bumped from this service by the larger and more powerful Big Boys, UP found uses for the locomotive all over its system from Oregon and California to Utah and Wyoming.

Aside from the Union Pacific other owners of the Challenger Type included:

  • Clinchfield

  • Delaware & Hudson

  • Denver & Rio Grande Western

  • Great Northern

  • Northern Pacific

  • Spokane, Portland & Seattle

  • Western Maryland

  • Western Pacific

As with the UP’s use of the locomotives, all eight other carriers used them to pull heavy freights where grades were stiff.  Most of the 252 Challengers built came from Alco although Baldwin chipped in with 27 of that total.

One of the Rio Grande's powerful 4-6-6-4's works its way over Soldier Summit within Utah's Wasatch Mountains in a snowy scene dating to the 1940s.

Of all the 252 Challengers built, astonishingly only two remain preserved; Union Pacific #3985 and #3977 (former Delaware & Hudson 1508's tender also remains).

The latter has been on display for many years in North Platte, Nebraska while the former (#3985) operated as part of the Class I's steam program from 1981 until 2011. 

Since that time it has awaited a major overhaul, which never came following the restoration of 4-8-8-4 #4014 which began in 2016.  It was announced in January, 2020 (retroactive to May, 2019) that #3985 is permanently retired but will remain on UP's roster (the locomotive has never been off of the UP roster since it was delivered by Alco in 1943). 

Today, along with sister #844, #4014 regularly chugs along the UP system on excursions and other promotional events.  The Big Boy's phenomenal success in 2019 means it will be play a significant part in UP's steam program and public relations events moving forward. 

To put it bluntly, they are a true sight to behold so if you have the opportunity I strongly recommend seeing one (or both) of these old girls in action, as large steam locomotives operating at-speed on main line railroads today is extremely rare. 

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Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource in the study of steam locomotives. 

The amount of information found there is quite staggering; historical backgrounds of wheel arrangements, types used by virtually every railroad, preserved and operational examples, and even those used in other countries (North America and beyond). 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.  It is a must visit!

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way. 

Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that. 

If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer

It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!