The last operational Big Boy – steam engine No. 4014 – rolled into San Antonio’s historic Sunset Station on Tuesday as part of Union Pacific’s national tour celebrating the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
The stop marked the engine’s 35th day of travel on its way to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Prior to this year, No. 4014’s last run was July 21, 1959; it was retired in December 1961.
Only eight of the historic Big Boy engines remain of the 25 that were initially built beginning in 1941, and only No. 4014 can actually move under its own power. That feat is thanks, in part, to the patient determination and meticulous work of locomotive engineer and manager of the restoration project Ed Dickens.
There were many challenges and unending skepticism about the possibility of getting the engine running again, Dickens said. The engine and tender are 17-feet tall, 133-feet long and weigh nearly 600 tons, three times heavier than the average modern diesel locomotive.
Dickens said, for 30 years, steam locomotive experts insisted the engine would never run again.
“Impossible, it won’t happen,” Dickens said, summarizing the accepted wisdom. “They’d enumerate all these reasons why it won’t happen, it’s too heavy, it won’t turn around anywhere because it’s too long, too stiff, it’ll smash through bridges, it’ll sink into the ground. Well, it does sink into the ground. We’ve had that happen.”
But Dickens, who had extensive experience repairing bygone engines for heritage railroads in Colorado, was convinced he could get it running. No. 4014, which sat for years as a relic on the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, California, was acquired in 2013 and later transferred to Cheyenne for restoration. In 2016, Dickens began work on the project and in May 2019, he proved the experts wrong by presenting the world’s only operational Big Boy steam engine.
Unlike its coal predecessors, No. 4014 runs on No. 5 oil, which is a residual or heavy fuel oil often referred to furnace fuel oil that requires burning at 171–219 degrees Fahrenheit for proper atomization.
The engine was open to the public at Sunset Station from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and three hours into the event crowds were still flooding the station, taking countless photos and waiting in line to pose in front of the mechanical beast. Many train enthusiasts even asked Dickens to pose with them or snapped photos of him as he stood near the engine wearing the iconic striped overalls of a train engineer.
“It’s exceeded everyone’s expectations, including mine, but I understand what this stuff does,” Dickens said about the crowd’s enthusiasm. “Locomotives are fascinating, steam locomotives take it to a whole other level. The Big Boy is out of this world, out of this universe, spectacular.”
The massive Big Boy engine has been awing fans and engineers alike since it was built in 1941 and even amazed those who built the engine itself. Dickens said an anonymous worker gave the engine its name by scribbling “Big Boy” on it in chalk, because it was the biggest thing they’d ever built, and the name stuck.
Chuck Macklin, a lifelong train enthusiast, was visiting from Bloomington, Indiana, and although technically here to visit his daughter’s family in Austin, he said he made sure to time his trip for when the Big Boy No. 4014 would be in town.
Macklin said his love of trains began early on when he lived in San Antonio as a child and enjoyed riding the Brackenridge Eagle train around the zoo. He said he was able to recreate that moment on Monday by riding the zoo train again, but this time with his two grandsons.
Seeing Big Boy No. 4014 and sharing the moment with his daughter’s family, especially his 5-year-old grandson, Stuart, who also is a big fan of trains, made the experience memorable, Macklin said.
“This is, at my late age, a coming of age moment for me, because I was given my first toy train [in San Antonio] when we lived here,” Macklin said. “I’m more than pleased that I could do this, but I’m even more pleased that my kids put up with me. This is wonderful.”
Big Boy No. 4014 will continue to travel the country for another 25 days, Dickens said. The engine is heading to Houston and College Station next, before traveling north to Arkansas, making stops in Kansas City and a few other cities, and eventually ending its journey in Cheyenne. Dickens said the engine will have some more work done before heading out for another tour next year.
An itinerary for Big Boy No. 4014’s scheduled stops can be found at https://www.up.com/heritage/steam/schedule/index.htm.