When the Union Pacific Railroad’s Big Boy locomotive starts its journey from Southern California on Monday, wheels that have been stilled for more than half a century will begin to turn -- and hopefully carry one of the biggest steam engines ever built all the way to Wyoming.
“We’re taking this out on America’s biggest railroad, and we can’t stop somewhere and have a problem,” says Ed Dickens, Union Pacific’s senior manager of heritage operations in Cheyenne, Wyo.
With a team, he will not only oversee Big Boy’s journey but also the three-to-five-year restoration of what’s affectionately known as No. 4014.
The vintage engine, built in the 1940s, leaves from a railyard near Colton and is expected to reach Yermo, Calif., about 80 miles away, by the end of the day.
As it moves north and east on its multistate journey, Big Boy will stop long enough to be on display in Las Vegas on Wednesday and Salt Lake City on Saturday before reaching Wyoming on May 8.
The 6,300-horsepower engine, which weighs 1.2 million pounds, can’t move under its own steam and is far too heavy to be put on any kind of flatbed truck or railcar to be transported. So two giant locomotives will push Big Boy at an expected speed of 20 to 25 mph.
Why are the wheels such a big deal? The train had been an artifact at the RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona for more than 50 years, Dickens says. It’s in good shape, but he and his team have to make sure the wheels can go the distance, even with the other locomotives’ help. The train was removed from the museum and moved to the railyard in January to prepare it for the epic journey.
The two locomotives that will power Big Boy have symbolic numbers too. One is No. 4014, the same as Big Boy, whose number was reused after the engine was retired in 1961. The second engine is No. 4884, a nod to the wheel configuration that allows Big Boy to maneuver around curves.
Dickens says if you’re standing by the track when one of the monster steam engines goes by “it thumps your chest -- boom! boom! boom! -- it’s an exhilarating feeling.”