Having Big Boy 4014, the massive 1940s Union Pacific steam locomotive, zip through Fort Lupton and Brighton becomes an annual experience.
It’s the third straight year the railroad has sent the historic engine on the line between Cheyenne and Denver, with fans lining the tracks along the way to catch a glimpse or take a photo.
“I film Big Boy for my YouTube channel. I’ve seen it many times, and it’s always an experience that blows your mind,” Brighton resident Eric Abramovitz said.
But this year, for the first time, Union Pacific chose to keep the engine at Union Station in Denver for a few days.
Big Boy left Cheyenne on July 28, traveling south through several towns with onlookers lining the tracks along the way.
Big Boy traveled to Union Station on Friday for display, with crowds waiting for his arrival to take videos and photos. They also had the chance to tour the interior of the restored cars, including an educational car set up as a museum showcasing the history of trains, Union Pacific and its rail infrastructure.
The train returned to Cheyenne on July 30, but this time on a passenger trip. Passengers were allowed to purchase a ticket and ride in a car pulled by the big engine, with proceeds going to the railroad’s Union Pacific museum.
Roger Wisehart Jr. and Roger Wisehart Sr. drove up from Longmont to see Big Boy at Union Station. Elder Wisehart has a history with one of the train’s cousins.
“I helped move Big Boy 4005 to the Forney Museum of Transportation,” he said.
“This is the first time I’ve seen Big Boy, and it’s exciting,” Wisehart Jr said.
Twenty-five Big Boy locomotives were built for Union Pacific to haul heavy freight during World War II. It was delivered to Union Pacific in December 1941. The chassis is articulated to navigate curves traversing the rigged mountains of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
Big Boy #4014 clocked approximately one million miles in 20 years of service and retired in December 1961 to the Rail Giants Museum in Pomona, CA. Union Pacific inherited it and relocated it to Cheyenne for years of major restoration.
Seven Big Boys are on public display nationwide, but #4014 is the only working Big Boy in the world.
They brought it back on track on May 8, 2019 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
The return of steam
Ed Dickens is the heritage operations manager and engineer who drives Big Boy. He has been an engineer for about 35 years. Dickens said it was easy for him to switch from driving a modern locomotive to a steam engine because he worked on steam locomotives in his youth.
“It was really interesting in my career, I had a really good experience on the steam locomotive, which helped me learn about diesel engines,” Dickens said. “As my career progressed, I had the opportunity to join this crew in 2004.”
It is an eight-member team that maintains and rebuilds Big Boy. In 2014, they completely dismantled the locomotive.
“In two and a half years we put it back together, with a lot of new parts that they built because you can’t find any more parts for the locomotive that was built in 1941,” Dickens said.
It’s part of the story of why people are so fascinated by the locomotive, he said. Experts promised them that the Big Boy would be impossible to restore, he said.
“It’s never going to work again, it’s too big and too heavy, it’s not going anywhere,” Dickens said. “They said ‘You can’t do anything with it’. In 30 years they said you’ll never see a Big Boy.”
But Dickens said the Union Pacific Railroad decided to restore the locomotive anyway.
“Everyone was very skeptical – even the rail fan groups were very skeptical, saying we would never do it,” Dickens said.
That’s one of the reasons people are so excited about it now, he said.
“There are a lot of firsts with this locomotive because we have already driven it in so many places. We’ve done about 14,000 miles since we rebuilt it,” Dickens said.
One of those firsts happened this year, with crews bringing the Big Boy locomotive to Union Station in Denver for the first time. When Big Boy started his tour in Denver, Colorado, he stopped a mile and a half from the Union Pacific terminal, but he never reached Union Station.
Dickens said it was an exciting day for Big Boy to travel the Denver and Rio Grande track.
“There haven’t been steam locomotives on the Denver and the Rio Grande since 1956, on this part of the track,” he said. “Having this crowd of train enthusiasts on this historic day is fun to be part of with all of us driving the locomotive.”
Big Boy has two teams that monitor it regularly, an eight-person standard maintenance team and a 20-person historic fleet team that takes care of special passenger cars.
“We have our media colleagues, our public affairs colleagues. So we’re a big family, a lot of people behind this massive rail infrastructure with people in Omaha and people locally,” Dickens said. “It’s a group effort to do all of this.”
And it’s worth it, he says. People may take the rail for granted, but seeing something like Big Boy in operation is special.
“Day in and day out, we’re running trains all the time,” Dickens said. “You see Union Pacific trains traveling everywhere. So this kind of operation is out of the ordinary and extraordinary. We can do remarkable things. Anyone can be involved in this.”