Reconnecting History

“Big Boy” Steam Locomotive returns to Utah

My great grandfather died in the summer of 1975, eighteen days before I was born.  As far as I can remember, my thoughts about him have oscillated between the regret that I had just barely missed him in this earthly life, to a desire to learn more about him from family and his neighbors.  Ed Poorte was a railroad man. He began his 50 year career in the industry at the freight house of the O.U.Ry.& D. (Ogden Union Railway & Depot). It was hard work, however, for a man who walked 3 miles roundtrip to get there, regardless of weather or season, it suited him.  He then worked for the Southern Pacific RR and in 1923, the Union Pacific RR. During my youth, I acquired several stories of his 44 years with the “U.P.” The one that stood above the rest was the “Big Boy”.

The climb out of Ogden, eastward into the Wasatch Mountains by rail is a challenging 1.14% grade for a freight train to conquer.  For a train to haul over 4,000 tons up and over it would require the use of two or three locomotives. A double or triple header.  In the late 1930’s when the U.P. needed more efficient capacity to make the grade, they turned to their designers and the American Locomotive Company (or ALCo).  The U.P. also wanted a locomotive that could pull at sustained speeds of 60MPH, beyond those mountain grades. What they were delivered in 1941 was a loco and tender that together weighed 1,250,000 lbs.  It provided over 6,200 horsepower at a cost of $265,000 (or $4.5m today). Flat-out, it could pull 80MPH.

In my procurement of stories about Ed Poorte many at some point, with a little glimmer in their eyes would lean in to tell me “he used to work on the Big Boy, you know?”  Followed up by a nod of their head and a broad smile across their face. As a machinist, he would bring the wheel carriages into the wheel shop (a smaller building at the north end of the railyard) and using hand tools and fire from a blow torch, he would remove and install wheel bearings.  The air inside the “shop” was filled with flying particles of lathe oil. Needless to say when he walked home at night, he probably scared a few people occasionally, looking like a vagrant, exhausted and covered in axle grease, wearing filthy clothes.

My Great Grandmother Lenora insisted upon a strict procedure upon her husband’s arrival at home.  He would have to sit on their back porch, strip off his work clothes and boots and go down their basement stairs in his socks and undergarments where she had a rag waiting for him next to a can of coal oil (kerosene) on top of a big, deep lead sink that reminded me of a horse trough (it might’ve been one originally).  He would scrub off all of the oil, grease and grime, turning the rag black as pitch then toss it into their wood burning stove, so he would be allowed upstairs for supper. She kept a clean house.

Many of those who had lived around Ogden long enough, also shared with me their fond memories of that “wonderful whistle” from the steam locomotives, as they pulled in and out of town.  How that magical sound would carry across much of Weber County.  From the farms to the west, throughout the streets of Ogden, all the way up to the foothills.  After my own first experience hearing one, I completely understood the value and endearment of that sound.  It seems to fill your soul.

Once the cost of coal increased and development of diesel engines became more of an efficient solution to freight operations, the U.P. ceased operations of the Big Boys in the late 1950’s.  That deep, throaty whistle that was such a presence in the air all around was gone.  Several that I spoke to felt as if our community had lost something in the passing of that particular era.  They never described the loss of those sounds at any great length. Perhaps it was best described by one who told me quite simply, “I miss it.”

In 2014, my father told me that the U.P. had purchased the Big Boy No. 4014 out of Pomona, California and that they would be bringing it back through Ogden on its way to Cheyenne, Wyoming for restoration and ultimately, return to service.  We were both excited.  He would get to see this iconic work of metal, smoke and steam from his childhood and I would have the opportunity to have stories from the past transform into an experience of the present for me.  A few weeks later my parents, wife, daughter and I went to the Union Station to see the return of the Big Boy. It was fantastic.

The 4014 is a massive machine, over 130 feet long, locomotive and tender.  Inside its cab is a daunting complexity of valves, levers and gauges. Truly an example of engineering function over form.  Everything about it was built to achieve. Built to last. Even the most casual viewer during its return stay in Ogden, could be heard either speaking the word “wow” or showing it in the expressions worn on their faces.

On Thursday May 9th, 2019 the U.P. No 4014, the world’s only operating Big Boy steam locomotive returns to Ogden after spending the past four years being completely restored by the U.P.  The No 844 “Living Legend” which is a wonderful example of engineering as a work of art, will also be at the Union Station.  I will be there as well.  Waiting to reconnect, in person with all of those stories about the Big Boys, my Great Grandfather’s work and to all of the history of this remarkable achievement of determination, power and awe.

15oth Golden Spike Anniversary

One of the most iconic and life-altering events in America’s history – the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad – happened in Utah on May 10, 1869. Celebrating the 150-year anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony in Utah will include the last existing Big Boy Steam Locomotive.

Train Excursion Tickets!

May 11-12

Experience the Big Boy No. 4014 and Living Legend No. 844 before their return home to the steam shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

>> For tickets and info, go to


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