Since the last of Union Pacific's fabled Big Boys were retired from active freight service during the early 1960s many have wondered if one might ever be restored. The prospects, of course, were incredibly slim considering the locomotive's size and girth; the cost to do so was just too great for any organization outside of a major railroad to spend the millions necessary to restore the behemoth and then have the funding necessary to keep it operational. In late 2012 came news that this nearly unthinkable possibility may actually happen when it was announced that UP was looking to purchase and restore one of its 4-8-8-4s for use within its Heritage Program. The announcement became official about seven months later and now comes the long wait for the locomotive's multi-year restoration.
Ever since the release of the 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy" and the 2-6-6-6 "Allegheny" (Chesapeake & Ohio) the debate has raged over which steam locomotive was more powerful, an argument that continues until this very day. One could also potentially throw in the Norfolk & Western's masterfully engineered Class Y-6 2-8-8-2s, as another for title as "largest" and "most powerful." In any event, that discussion will not be presented here. At the time of the Big Boy's development Union Pacific was specifically looking for a steamer that could conquer the stiff grades of the railroad's Overland Route main line between Ogden and the Wasatch Mountain Range in Utah. Initially, the 4-6-6-4 Challengers were unveiled in the 1930s that proved quite adept but the railroad wanted something more, a single design that could move a heavy, 3,600-ton freight without assistance of helpers with the idea being that it would reduce operational costs.
Union Pacific used its own team of steam experts and worked with the American Locomotive Company to enlarge the Challenger and create the 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy." The locomotive offered a tractive effort of roughly 135,000 pounds and while not meant to operate at such speeds it was designed for 80 mph (very impressive considering the Big Boys weighed more than 600 tons!). The first locomotive was delivered to UP headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska on the evening of September 5, 1941 numbered 4000. Over the next few years the railroad acquired a fleet that totaled 25, 4000-4024. During their short career that spanned only two decades and 20 years the Big Boys were deemed a great success and many logged more than 1 million miles in service.
The #4014 was part of what was known as "Class 1," the first group of 4-8-8-4s delivered by Alco (her builder plate proudly displays the builder and the year in which she was delivered; September, 1941). In all these totaled twenty of the Big Boys, 4000-4019 (4020-4024 were listed as "Class 2"). During #4014's years of service it regularly muscled heavy freights over fabled Sherman Hill in Wyoming and through Utah, logging 1,031,205 miles in the process. According to Union Pacific the locomotive saw its last major overhaul in 1956 and then traveled around 41,000 miles before being retired during December of 1961. By that time most of the Big Boys had been retired although the last did not occur until July of 1962 and even then a few remained serviceable at Green River, Wyoming until September.
Only a month after retirement #4014 was donated to the Southern California Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society where she arrived on January 8, 1962 in Pomona at the Rail Giants Train Museum. Naturally, the big articulated steamer became a prized attraction at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds. Over the years it was well cared for by volunteers and museum staff, allowing the locomotive to remain in relatively excellent condition (considering its age), which was also thanks to the dry, warm air of southern California. According to the website SteamLocomotive.com, even into the 2000s #4014 still looked like it could steam away from its display location (which was surely a deciding factor in Union Pacific selecting it). It seemed the Big Boy was destined to forever remain a tourist trap until the end of 2012.
On December 7th Trains Magazine broke a story that Union Pacific was studying the possibility of restoring the locomotive as part of its Heritage Fleet based in Cheyenne, Wyoming. During the next seven months nothing of further significance was released concerning the project although reports about its potential continued from time to time. Finally, the unbelievable occurred on July 23, 2013 when Union Pacific officially confirmed that it had reached an agreement with the Chapter to purchase #4014 and restore the massive steamer back to operational status. This news not only caught the attention of the railfan community but also the mainstream media as well. During early 2014 the Big Boy moved from its long-time home at the fairgrounds and returned home to Wyoming, which drew coverage wide and far during its long trip, particularly the initial move from California.
There is currently no timetable as to when #4014 is projected to be fully restored and ready for service although the consensus seems to be that it will still take several years. However, it is entirely the discretion of Union Pacific as to when it wants the project completed and the railroad most likely already has a date or time frame in mind. Of note, one thing is known about the project; while the Big Boys were coal burners UP plans to convert #4014 to run on #5 oil. In the meantime, while we wait on the restoration of this 4-8-8-4 we will have to enjoy the other heritage locomotives in UP's growing fleet from the queen, 4-8-4 #844, to DDA40X "Centennial" #6936.