On the Rails: Part 2

All aboard! Today on Museum Bites we’re back on the rails and winding up our tour through the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In our second and final installment, we’ll climb mountains, commute in style, travel undercover, and discover how trains can foster gratitude. We begin in the Rocky Mountains…

Big Boy, National Railroad Museum, Photo by Michael Barera (2018)-300px
Big Boy, National Railroad Museum, Photo by Michael Barera

Mountain Train:  Union Pacific’s Big Boy is the quintessential choo choo train on a grand scale. Built in the 1940s to haul freight through the Wasatch Mountains, Big Boy is truly a big boy. Weighing in at 604 tons, its 6100 horsepower engine could reach a maximum speed of 70 mph. Its massive boiler stretches 65 feet long and its tender (aka fuel car) could carry up to 32 tons of coal and 24,000 gallons of water. The cab holds a dizzying array of knobs and dials that would make an airline pilot blush. Workers jokingly referred to it as the living room, since it could comfortably seat 4 adults (engineer, fireman, head brakeman and a spare) along with its jumble of controls.

Big Boy Cab, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)-1-300px
Big Boy Cab, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Working the rails inside the Big Boy must have been a thrill ride. In addition to the breathtaking peaks, fear of rock falls, avalanches, and other track hazards, a special finesse was necessary to navigate the Wasatch Mountains. If required to slow down, coal smoke and steam would flood the cab, choking and blinding Big Boy’s handlers. Tunnels were especially tricky. Workers covered their mouths and noses with water-soaked bandannas to combat the acrid air. If that weren’t enough, regardless of the weather, temperatures inside the cab averaged a balmy 90° F. Union Pacific built a total of 25 Big Boys during the 1940s and used them to ship freight primarily between Ogden, Utah and Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Big Boy was eventually decommissioned in 1959 to make way for diesel-electric locomotives. Click on this Big Boy video clip link courtesy of Pentrex Videos to see the Big Boy in action. Click on this Ultimate Restorations link to learn how a steam train works.

Fun Train Fact #1:  Union Pacific planned to name their massive steam locomotive the Wasatch after the mountain range it would regularly traverse. But prior to its debut, a mechanic had chalked Big Boy on the train’s cab door, and the nickname stuck.

Fun Train Fact #2:  The Wasatch Mountain range was also the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Commuter Train:  Sporting curves and flashy gold stripes, our next train, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s GG-1 Electric has an art deco vibe. Built between 1934 and 1943, GG-1s whisked commuters up and down the northeast corridor of the United States. With the help of sand and a pantograph, the 4500 horsepower engine could reach 0 to 100 mph in 65 seconds. Sand poured on the tracks provided the traction needed to give the GG-1 a running start. The pantograph, a foldable metal frame attached to the roof, connected the GG-1 to the electrical wires running above the tracks. Click on this Wheels of Steel video to ride the rails with the GG-1. You’ll get a peek at the luxurious interior, a train wash (think car wash but on a grander scale), pantograph connection, and sanding of the tracks.

Champagne Celebration, Promontory, Utah (1869), Photo by Andrew J. Russell, Wikimedia Commons-300px
Champagne Celebration, Promontory, Utah (1869), Photo by Andrew J. Russell, Wikimedia Commons

Fun Train Fact #3:  On May 10th, 1869, the first transcontinental railroad in the United States was complete. In honor of this momentous occasion, the Golden Spike Ceremony was held at Promontory Summit in Utah. California Governor, Leeland Stanford and Union Pacific Railroad President, Thomas Durant hammered in the final, golden spike. Shaking hands in what has been dubbed, the Champagne Photo, are chief engineers Samuel S. Montague (left) of the Central Pacific Railroad and Grenville M. Dodge (right) of Union Pacific.

Eisenhower Train, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)-1-300px
Eisenhower Train, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Stealthy Train:  Our next train hails from merry old England. The London North Eastern Railway’s A4 steam locomotive was built for speed and luxury. Nicknamed the Streaks, the distinctive wedge-shaped A4s flew across the rails at speeds reaching 126 mph—a steam locomotive world record. The A4 on display at the National Railroad Museum was originally named the Golden Shuttle, and in the 1930s, it worked as a hotel train for Northern Belle.

During World War II the Golden Shuttle was drafted into service. Painted army green and reinforced with armor plating, it functioned as a mobile war room for Dwight D. Eisenhower and his inner circle. Four of the ten sleeping compartments were removed and the space was converted to a conference room. After the war ended, the iconic train was renamed the Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1964 it was donated to the National Railroad Museum and good old Ike was on hand for the dedication ceremony. It’s not clear if there was a champagne toast 😉

If you’d like to feel the rush of an A4 whooshing past at 126 mph, click on this A4 train clip courtesy of Linesider Video.

Fun Train Fact #4:  During World War II the whistles from the A4 trains were removed for fear they would be confused with air raid sirens.

French Gratitude Train, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)-300px
French Gratitude Train, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Thankful Train:  Our final train also played a role in World War II. The Gratitude Train was a post-war gift from the French people to the United States. This gray boxcar, decorated with the crests of France’s provinces is just 1 of 49 cars filled with gifts ranging from the simple to the extravagant. Approximately 52,000 items were packed inside the Gratitude Train, including children’s toys and drawings, handmade linens, rare paintings, a Louis XV carriage, and the first motorcycle ever built. One car was delivered to each state with the booty from the 49th car shared between Hawaii and the District of Columbia. The Gratitude Train was based on the Friendship Train which traveled throughout the United States in 1947, collecting food donations for the citizens of France and Italy.

Fun Train Fact #5:  According to newspaper reports, one destitute but determined French woman pressed her fingertips into the wet paint on one of the Gratitude Train’s boxcars. She indicated she had nothing material to give but would send her fingerprints as a symbol of her appreciation.

That wraps up our tour through the National Railroad Museum. Next week Museum Bites with be off celebrating Thanksgiving.  Wherever you are I wish you safe travels and a happy turkey day. See you in a couple of weeks!


Britannica: Big Boy Locomotive

History Channel: Transcontinental Railroad

Linesider Video: A4

London North Eastern Railway: A4

National Park Service: Golden Spike

National Railroad Museum

Olympic  Games: Salt Lake City 2002

Pentrex Videos: Union Pacific Big Boy Collection


Ultimate Restorations: How a Steam Locomotive’s Boiler Works

Visit Utah: Wasatch Mountains

Wheels of Steel: Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1

Wikimedia Commons



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