The King of the Rails

Published: Author:
"The King of the Rails"
The Birth and Re-birth of the Union Pacific Big Boy

"I stood just outside of the Dispatch office and waved to the Engineer as that monster of an engine thundered by shaking the cement floor and rattling the windows.” -- Unknown


Concept and Production

Designed by Otto Jabelmann and manufactured by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) in the late 1930s, the Union Pacific Big Boy was intended to be an immediate upgrade to the already heavily favored Challenger that was dominating rail-ways in North America. By December, 1941 ALCO would develop 25 Big Boy models, all of which were delivered to the Union Pacific Railroad Company. This "monster" described by a rail-yard worker from the quote above truly lived up to its name measuring 132ft in length, and weighing a whopping 1.2 million pounds when combined with its tender! For size comparison, the Union Pacific Big Boy was longer than a Blue Whale in length, surpassing the largest animal in known existence by an impressive 32ft.

The Big Boy's initial route -- The Wasatch Range was a major contributor to the locomotive's need for power and speed. Faced with the task of creating the world's largest locomotive at the time, and conquering the treacherous Wasatch Range, engineers got to work and immediately began designing the Big Boy.

The Big Boy was originally designed to be a massive freight hauler packing a whopping 24 wheels on the locomotive and a massive 14-wheeled tender in tow. Designing and producing the 4-8-8-4 model was a daunting task initially with several challenges presenting themselves in production. Early upgrades would include a 25,000 gallon water tank, a 50,000 pound capacity for coal, and a whopping 135,375 pounds of tractive power! A reduction in wheel diameter from 69in to 68in would see an increase in traction, and in 1940 the decision to equip each unit with a larger firebox would be made as well. Later upgrades like an increase in boiler pressure would provide a massive boost for the Big Boy helping power the massive giant as it made its way down the Wasatch Range. The Big Boy would also feature an articulated design, and was hinged to handle the curves and twists of the Wasatch route. At top speed the Big Boy was clocked at 130km/hour (80 miles/hour), but would rarely hit such speeds, and would typically travel at 55mph. At its completion, each Big Boy would cost roughly $265,000, translating to just about $4.6 million per unit present day. 

Upon their arrival from production, the 4-8-8-4 model would quickly garner attention for its massive size. Engineers and rail-yard workers alike were in awe of the colossus that was presented to them. For one ALCO employee, only one name fit for such massive engine. Wasting little time, the unnamed ALCO employee found a nearby piece of chalk and would write "Big Boy" on the #4000 engine's smokebox door. The "Big Boy" name quickly became popular around the rail yard, before eventually going on to become the locomotive’s official moniker.


Retirement and Rebirth – Big Boy No.4014

The Big Boy models would see a lengthy 20 year run during their service, with the last model officially being decommissioned in 1962. By the 1970s most of the Big Boy models were scrapped, and only a handful would go into a historical preservation status. To date only 8 Big Boy models exist, and can be found on display throughout various museums in the United States. The last remaining Big Boy in commission, the #4014 model would finally see its retirement in December of 1961 thus officially ending the Big Boy’s run.

The Big Boy would remain in dormancy for over half a century before a plan for re-commission was proposed by Union Pacific. Those plans would come to fruition, and by 2013 Union Pacific would narrow down their hunt for a Big Boy locomotive in Pomona, California. After negotiations were completed, the RailGiants Museum would eventually sign a deal with Union Pacific to send a Big Boy locomotive back to Union Pacific. Coincidentally enough, the same unit that was the last to ride, would be the first brought back. The #4014 Big Boy was brought back to Cheyenne, Wyoming where it would begin a lengthy restoration process lasting a total of 6 years. By 2019 the #4014 Big Boy was fully restored and re-commissioned; where it now serves as a popular attraction open to the public for rides and tours.


From The Wasatch Range to Your Layout

Being history’s most popular locomotive, the Union Pacific Big Boy is never short of hobbyists looking to add this model to their collections, and manufacturers trying their best to honor the legendary locomotive with their own versions of the Big Boy. Giants like Lionel, MTH, and Athearn have all released their own Big Boy replicas honoring the historic locomotive. Brass makers like Tenshodo have even tried their hand at the Big Boy, producing wonderfully detailed brass replicas of the unit.

At we’re proud to carry numerous models of the famous Union Pacific Big Boy locomotive, with options available in O-Gauge, HO-Scale, N-Scale, and G-Scale variations.

For O-Gauge (1:48 Scale) die-hards, Lionel and MTH both offer plenty of great replicas of the Big Boy each packed to the brim with details from the boiler front to the cab. These O-Gauge replicas tend to be on the bigger side, so a spacious layout will definitely be your best option to run this model. The O-Gauge replicas also offer some great historic choices with the 4020, 4006, and other models available for purchase.

For those of you looking for a slightly smaller scale Big Boy, then HO (1:87 Scale) options are a great route. A variety of HO-Scale options are available from manufacturers like Athearn and Broadway Limited with sound capabilities and options in DC and DCC  functionality.

And for all of you N-Scale runners, fear not! also has options for the Big Boy in N-Scale (1:160) variations. These smaller scale models might be smaller in size, but definitely don’t lack in fun. And with Great options form makers like Rivarossi and Athearn, you’re bound to bring a great life-like experience to your N-Scale layouts! With models like the 4014 and the infamous 4005 to choose from, you’re bound to add some great historical detail to your collection! So if you do find yourself fielding a smaller layout, or are just limited on space, then the N-Scale route is a great way to go! Visits #4014!

The restoration and revival of the No.4014 Big Boy brought eager visitors from all over the country, the majority of whom were going to see an operational Big Boy model run for the first time in their life. When tours were officially opened in 2019, owner Scott Griggs and his wife Milinda were among some of those visitors. Scott and Milinda were fortunate enough to watch the 4014's power in action after it completed its historic stop in Ogden and was headed back to Cheyenne with part of the passenger consist in tow from the "Great Race to Ogden" trip in 2019. For this was our way of getting to be a part of history, and an opportunity to see one of our most favorite locomotives finally breathe life again! 

Big Boy Forever

For many, the rebirth of the Union Pacific Big Boy was in 2019 when the No. 4014 model hit the rails again for the first time in over 50 years. But for this writer, the re-birth and continued legacy starts with the community. Collectors and enthusiasts alike have kept the legendary Union Pacific Big Boy alive since its official retirement back in 1962 with their love and passion for trains. The Big Boy remained engrained in the minds of original collectors, and has cemented its status as a must-have for generations of collectors that have come long after the first introduction of the original Big Boy locomotive. It’s become an icon in the rail-road industry, the collector’s market, in modern history, and continues to live on powering its way down layouts around the world. For those of you looking to continue your adventures with a historic piece, has plenty of choices for anybody looking to continue the Big Boy’s historic legacy on their own layouts!

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1 comment

I,D love to get my hands on a BIGBOY!!!

andrew Shamburger

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