Just months before Pearl Harbor, the American Locomotive Company delivered the first Big Boy to the Union Pacific Railroad. The UP’s Department of Research and Mechanical Standards had designed the locomotive for a specific task: to pull a 3600-ton train unassisted over the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. While the Big Boy is often cited as the biggest steam locomotive ever built, in fact it is not. The Norfolk & Western’s Y6 and A, the Duluth Missabe & Iron Range’s Yellowstones, and the Chesapeake and Ohio’s Alleghenys were all in the same league, and some exceeded the Big Boy’s weight and power.
But in the battle for hearts and minds, the Big Boy won. Perhaps it was the name, simple and direct, scrawled on a locomotive under construction by an Alco shop worker. Maybe it was timing, as the Big Boys hit the road just when America needed symbols to rally around. Maybe the UP’s publicity department just did a better job of telling the world what great equipment they had. Whatever the reason, the Big Boy captured the imagination of railfans and the American public over the ensuing years, perhaps more than any other steam engine. In many ways it is the symbolic locomotive of the American West, as big and powerful as the country it sped through.
Writer Henry Comstock beautifully described the Big Boy’s place at the apex of steam engine history: “A Union Pacific ‘Big Boy’ was 604 tons and 19,000 cubic feet of steel and coal and water, poised upon 36 wheels spaced no wider apart than those of an automobile. That it could thunder safely over undulating and curved track at speeds in excess of 70 miles an hour was due in large measure to the efforts of two long-forgotten pioneers. As early as 1836, the basic system that held its wheels in equalized contact with the rails was patented by a Philadelphian named Joseph Harrison; and a French technical writer, Anatole Mallet, first thought to couple two driving units heel to toe below one boiler in 1874.”
This enduring symbol of American railroading returns to the rails for 2015 featuring our industry-leading speed control and snychronized puffing smoke output, as well as authentic articulated chuffing sounds with the front and rear engines drifting in and out of sync. And when the Union Pacific Railroad finishes its restoration of prototype Big Boy No. 4014, which is currently taking place, we’ll record No. 4014 in action and issue a free replacement sound set that you can download into our 2015 model.