We did a tremendous amount of wonderful, old-fashioned work.
In the 19th Century, Boilermakers found their home harnessing steam to power a growing country and to transport an increasingly mobile North American population. The railroad industry was booming, and for decades Boilermakers, along with many other steam era crafts, made sure there were plenty of steam engines to get people and goods where they needed to go.
About four years ago, two Local 34 (Topeka, Kansas) Boilermakers went back to the union’s roots as part of a nine-person “steam team” restoring a 1941 Union Pacific Big Boy to its former glory.
After over 50 years of being on display at the Rail Giants Museum in Pomona, California, the Union Pacific reacquired the Big Boy No. 4014 steam locomotive in preparation to commemorate the transcontinental railroad’s 150th anniversary in 2019. Local 34 Boilermakers Don Crerar and James Thompson dusted off their “last-century” boilermaking skills to help rebuild the 1.5 million-ton giant.
Just getting the behemoth out of the museum was a feat. Workers leapfrogged a 40-foot section of track to transverse the engine out of the museum for first repairs at the U.P.’s West Colton, California, station so it could make its journey home. Big Boy then took the 1,390 miles to the U.P.’s Heritage Fleet Operations in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
“It had been sitting there since 1961,” says Ed Dickens, senior manager of Union Pacific Heritage Operations. Dickens gets excited when he talks about the restoration for the Big Boy.
Originally engineered to mount steep grades, the Big Boy N0. 4014 had two massive engines under a 250-ton boiler. Restoring the beast took historic knowledge, patience and old-world skills.
“We did a tremendous amount of wonderful, old-fashioned work,” Dickens says. “Old-fashioned boilermaking.” And they did it in a compressed timeframe to be ready for the huge heritage celebration.
Big Boy ran the rails from 1941 to its retirement in 1961, logging 1,031,205 miles in its 20 years in service. Before its relaunch in May of 2019, workers converted the Big Boy’s fuel source to burn oil. And that’s just one of the updates the “steam team” made.
The biggest restoration challenge, according to Dickens was tearing the Big Boy down to its frame and then rebuilding the entire locomotive from scratch. The massive boiler and the short time frame in which to complete a total rebuild posed a challenge for everyone.
“We managed it very well,” he says. “We had the needed materials, and we ordered parts even before we started restoration.”
Due to the antique nature of the Big Boy, the team made their own tooling. They bought some big rivet guns but made the rivet snaps and fixtures themselves. In order to form the boilerplate, they made dies with a 3-D image scaled off a drawing and CAD. They had a two-piece male and female die and cut out steel plates to weld them together.
“We also made a giant oven,” Dickens says. “We pulled the plate out and put it into the press and made that piece. Now we had the metal to weld onto the boiler.”
They also made outside and inside firebox patches.
“It’s all custom work,” Dickens says. “Some of the tooling I’ve bought is from the power plant industry—new plate bevellers. We machine the plate so when you’re welding them together you’ve got an extremely accurate joint. You get a beautiful resulting weld.”
He adds that the two Boilermakers welding on the “steam team” were some of the most skilled he’s ever worked alongside.
“These guys are the best,” Dickens says. “If you’d go back to the ’40s and ’50s, you’re going to find the same talent in them here and now. You’re forming very thick metal and have to form it together accurately, which takes skill.”
For Crerar, one of the challenges he faced in the rebuild happened during welding. “Some of the angles—you get yourself into some pretty awkward positions. I never welded stuff flat. Sometimes, I was nearly hanging upside down.”
Crerar and Thompson put in new tubes and flues. “We did lots and lots of welding in there. We put some patches where the stay bolts were; cut out patches that were thin and put them back in,” Crerar says.
The team acquired a pipe bender, which helped immensely with all the new piping needed for the restoration.
“It bends the angles in pipes,” Crerar says. “We’d figure out the angle and then bend the pipe around.”
Even though the team has restored the Big Boy to its former glory, it’s still going to need ongoing maintenance, as will other locomotives in the Union Pacific’s Heritage fleet. Crerar, Thompson and Dickens agree that whether restoring an antique from the last century or performing maintenance, it’s all a team effort, one they’re all happy to be a part of.