Union Pacific is marking its annual Railroad Days celebration this weekend, and this year’s event is truly a special occasion: U.P. is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and Big Boy, the world’s largest steam railroad engine, is on display downtown after more than two years of restoration.
Big Boy No. 4014 is impressive in many ways. It’s a massive creation weighing 1.2 million pounds and, if stood on its end, would be the equivalent of a 13-story building. U.P. bought the engine in 1941 and eventually had 25 such titanic freight haulers. The engines — so great in length that they needed to be hinged to accommodate curves — proved invaluable during World War II in moving massive amounts of materials for the war effort.
These old-time steam engines were remarkable in their complexity, requiring expert operation and maintenance. William L. Withuhn, the longtime curator of transportation for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, once observed:
“A steam locomotive is like a rolling lit bomb. You have 200 pounds per square inch of pressure in the boiler, and if it goes up, the explosion can send the locomotive 300 yards down the track. You have this huge momentum — 1,000 tons behind you. You have to be ahead of it at all times. You need to know all the changes in grade and the curves and rail crossings. … Running a crack train at 90 miles an hour meant you had to think three miles ahead. These were people who never finished grade school, some of them, and they had many of the same skills and responsibilities as the captain of a 747 jet.”
The diesel era in the 1950s spelled the end of regular steam engine use, and U.P. retired Big Boy in 1961. But for this year’s 150th anniversary, the railroad decided to revive the engine, reacquiring it from a California museum. The impressive restoration work in Cheyenne, Wyoming, was meticulous, careful work requiring examination and reworking of the entire enormous engine.
U.P.’s 150th anniversary provides an occasion to appreciate the extraordinary transformation that railroads spurred in our country during the 1800s. At the start of the 19th century, elected officials and business leaders regarded canals as the key innovation that would lift the young country’s internal transportation and interstate commerce to a new height. Then attention turned to steamboats. But trains spurred the true revolution in transportation and commerce.
The first American trains, steam-powered, were humble in design but understandably generated much excitement. A passenger, recalling his 1830 trip on a rudimentary rail vessel, enthused, “Away we fly on the wings of the wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles an hour….”
Rail lines spread across many eastern states during the first half of the 1800s, and in May 1869, the transcontinental railroad became a reality with the hammering of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, linking the Union Pacific and Central Pacific. Soon thereafter, historian Donald J. Berg writes, “more than a dozen other railroads laid tracks across the Plains,” and by the end of the century, “the Great Plains had been laced together with ribbons of steel.”