Union Pacific Big Boy 4-8-8-4

Authored By Sarah Shelly

This photograph was taken of The Union Specific Big Boy 4-8-8-4 in 1941 in Scranton, PA.

The Big Boy was the biggest locomotive in the world in 1940, weighing 560 tons and going up to 80 mph (“Big Boy No. 4014”, n.d.). Before the 1940’s the railroads in America were struggling to move large freights over the mountains and treacherous landscapes throughout the United States. Then in 1940, the Union Pacific gathered mechanical engineers and teamed them up with the American Locomotive Company to build one of the world’s largest steam locomotives. The name of this new locomotive was the Big Boy (Franz 2018).                                                                                                                                            Providing jobs was one of the main benefits of the railroad. Jobs ranged from unskilled freight handlers to engineers. Unfortunately, the jobs tended to segregate the workers due to their ethnicity. The majority of the engineers were American or native-born men, while immigrants were used to build the trains and tracks. Even among the immigrants there were separations and classifications depending on where they came from. At first, Chinese, Irish and Italian immigrants were used for the most brutal work. Then in the 1900’s Romanian and Mexican immigrants as well as African Americans became the primary day laborers on the railroad (Thale 2005).

Although the railroad companies had the intention of making transportation of goods easier and traveling more affordable for Americans it was not easy going. The task of connecting the United States by rail began in the 1800’s and continued into the 1900’s. Understanding that many people would not want such a grueling job the railroad companies chose to have construction done by immigrants who worked tirelessly under brutal working conditions. (“Transcontinental Railroad” 2010).

Misuse of railroad laborers continued up until the time the Big Boy was created. During the 1930’s and 1940’s railroad workers were finally able to take advantage of new federal legislation to join unions. During the time of the Big Boy many unions began accepting African Americans for the first time (“Workers of the Central and Union Pacific Railroad”, n.d.). Due to the unionization railroad workers were able to get better pay and finally have safer working conditions. The railroad workers also got retirement benefits and regulated work hours (Thale 2005).

Today, six decades since the last Big Boy was taken off the tracks, the Union Pacific has decided to rebuild one of the locomotives in time for the first Transcontinental Railroad celebration. This famous rebuilding of the Big Boy locomotive is to honor the locomotive engineers and railroad laborers who put in so much effort to create such a masterful train (Franz 2018).


“Big Boy No. 4014.” UP, Accessed March 15, 2020. http://www.up.com/heritage/steam/4014/.

Franz, Justin. 2018. “One of the World’s Largest Steam Locomotives is About to Make a Triumphant Return”. Atlas Obscura. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/where-can-I-see-big-boy-steam-locomotive

Thale, Christopher. 2005.“Railroad Workers”. The Electronic encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1038.html.

“Transcontinental Railroad.” 2010. History.com. A&E Television Networks. http://www.history.com/topics/inventions/transcontinental-railroad.

“Workers of the Central and Union Pacific Railroad.” 1996. PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/tcrr-workers-central-union-pacific-railroad/.

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