BY AUSTIN RUFF
PHOTOS BY LAURYN BECKER & HAOMIAO LU
VIDEO BY RYDER COOK
The Big Boy locomotive stopped in Hays last Friday as it makes its way across the country. The steam locomotive is a part of the Heritage Fleet of Union Pacific, which launched a restoration project on the behemoth in 2013.
One of only 25 ever produced, the No. 4014 was designed by the American Locomotive Company and Union Pacific to haul large freight trains across the Wasatch Mountain Range in Utah. Manufactured between 1941 and 1944, the 4884 class of steam locomotives would become the largest and most powerful in the world, a title the “Big Boy” still holds today.
When it was retired in 1961, the No. 4014 had logged over a million miles in revenue service. After serving Union Pacific for 20 years, it was donated to the Southern California chapter of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society in Pomona, California. Here, it became one of only eight “Big Boys” to be preserved around the country.
It would sit on display for 50 years until, in 2012, it was announced that ownership would be transferred back to Union Pacific. Between 2013 and 2014, No. 4014 was slowly moved from its display in Pomona to the Union Pacific Steam Workshop in Cheyenne, Wyo. After modifying the shop to accommodate such a large locomotive, No. 4014 was painstakingly refurbished and restored to its original working order. Heritage Fleet Director, Ed Dickens, directed and oversaw the restoration efforts. On May 1, 2019, No. 4014 moved under its own power for the first time in nearly 60 years.
As the only operating “Big Boy,” No. 4014 made its debut on a tour across the Midwestern United States in 2019. It was then that “Big Boy” made a stunningly picturesque stop in Hays during a calm, snowy November morning. After the cancellation of the 2020 tour due to the coronavirus pandemic, operations resumed in 2021.
Starting in Lawrence, it worked its way westward, stopping in Topeka, Manhattan, Abilene, Salina, Ellsworth, Wilson, Russell, and finally arriving in Hays at 2:15 p.m. on Friday. Big Boy popped over the hill just east of Hays, its enormous plume of steam reaching into the sky. The low, raspy whistle greeted curious onlookers as the locomotive approached.
School children and hundreds, if not thousands, of others, sat along Old Highway 40, watching as the locomotive chugged towards Hays, a train of cars following beside it. For many of us, steam locomotives have always been a thing of legend, limited to paintings, storybooks, and Hollywood movies. But, as seen this past Friday, the strength and might of these almost-mythical machines were on display.
As Dickens pointed out in an interview with KWCH, “They can see the animated machinery, they can hear the whistle blowing…..this is a very, very rare occasion…”
Dickens gave interviews and answered questions as the “Big Boy” sat idle near the intersection of 9th St. and Milner St. The bellowing and steaming machine thrilled an audience of people who gathered around it for most of the day. No. 4014 departed Hays the next morning at 8 a.m., where it made several more stops before heading into Colorado on its way back to Wyoming.