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 the 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!).
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 in the mid-1930s the railroad knew, specifically Chief Mechanical Engineer Arthur H. Fetter and Otto Jabelmann (UP's assistant general superintendent, motive power), that the current roster of large designs like the 4-12-2 Overlands (developed in the 1920s by Fetter himself), 2-8-8-0s, and 2-10-2s were simply not up to the task of keeping up with the heavier trains and growing traffic. 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.
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.
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 which came 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).
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 the Clinchfield; Delaware & Hudson; Denver & Rio Grande Western; Great Northern; Northern Pacific; GN and NP-controlled Spokane, Portland & Seattle; Western Maryland; and 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.
Of all the 252 Challengers built, astonishingly only two remain preserved; Union Pacific #3985 and #3977 (former Delaware & Hudson 1508's tender also remains). However, while #3977 is now on display in North Platte, Nebraska #3985 is not only restored to operation it has also become one of the most famous steam locomotives worldwide due to its celebrity status of operating excursions around the UP system on an occasional basis (the locomotive has never been off of the UP roster since it was delivered by Alco in 1943). Today, along with sister #844, a 4-8-4 Northern, they regularly chug along the UP system on excursions and other promotional events (although #3985 normally is not used nearly as often as #844).
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 (and we should all be thankful to Union Pacific for keeping these two beautiful and historic pieces of railroad equipment in tip-top shape for future generations to have the chance to witness what railroading was like before the days of the diesel). The website details, specifically, all of the different types of Challengers used by the nine railroads which operated them.