For railroad buffs, it doesn’t get much better than seeing a Big Boy – the world’s largest steam locomotive. These 132-foot long behemoths weighted more than 1,250,000 pounds and were designed to pull massive freight trains over the Wasatch Mountains between Wyoming and Utah at speeds up to 80 miles per hour. When they said Superman was more “powerful than a locomotive,” this is the locomotive they were talking about.
Only 25 of the monsters were ever made, all of them during World Word II; today only 8 remain – seven in static displays in railroad museums and parks, including Big Boy No. 4004 in Holliday Park in Cheyenne, Wyoming. But the eighth Big Boy, No. 4014, is also in Cheyenne, sitting side by side with Challenger locomotive No. 3985, which is currently the largest operating locomotive in the world. The two gigantic engines are in the private Union Pacific Steam Shop, where both are being restored to pull excursion trains in the future. Usually, the Steam Shop is strictly off limits – except for two days a year, May 21-22, 2016, when visitors to Depot Days in Cheyenne have an opportunity to enter the most famous machine shop in railroading history, and also see Union Pacific’s historic roundhouse.
Depot Days for Rail Buffs
Depot Days is Cheyenne’s three day celebration of railroading. Not only can visitors see rare locomotives, but they can enjoy a Model Railroad Show, meet Harry Brunk and watch tiny engines move along his amazing Union Central & Northern model train display. Harry worked on his model railroad for 30 years. It has been featured in more than 100 magazine articles and is considered to be one of the best model railroads ever constructed. Because it was in his home, hardly anyone ever saw it in person. Today, the setup has been relocated and rebuilt in the Union Pacific Depot. It’s a kick to see little locomotives pass over the Georgetown Loop and chug into incredibly detailed models of Central City, Black Hawk, and Idaho Springs.
During Depot Days, you can purchase some railroad art at the annual Rail Art Show & Sale, which showcases train paintings, drawings, sculptures, photography and handcrafted models. The Depot Museum has exhibits on building the Union Pacific railroad and the history of Cheyenne. Then you can finish off the afternoon with one of 20 craft beers at the Cheyenne Brewing Company. Sit by the large picture windows and you can watch the 75-100 trains that pass through Cheyenne every day; the brewpub is located trackside in the beautiful and historic 1887 Union Pacific Depot. All of this is very fitting in a town that wouldn’t exist without the railroads.
Cheyenne’s Wild West History
When the first transcontinental railroad was being built across America in 1867, there was nothing in Cheyenne but rolling grasslands. The chief engineer of the Union Pacific, Maj. General Grenville Dodge, decided Wyoming was as far west as the railroad could get before winter, so he picked out a place to build a fort to provide protection against Indians. Following practices that said no liquor could be sold within four miles of a fort, he laid out a town exactly four miles away.
Within weeks, the “town” of Cheyenne had 90 saloons and gambling halls, mostly in large portable tents, as well as 400 “ladies of the evening,” 4,000 residents and 23 hangings. Cheyenne boosters will tell you this is where Cheyenne got its nickname, “Magic City of the Plains,” because the city just sprang up overnight like magic. But at the time, most people referred to it by an equally descriptive name: “Hell on Wheels.”
When the railroad moved west in the spring, Cheyenne should have moved with it, but the Union Pacific built its historic railroad roundhouse here and a substantial city was built around it. This is part of the roundhouse, railyards and machine shop complexes that you can enter during Depot Days. Later, Cheyenne became a cattle town and it was said that because of rich cattle barons, Cheyenne was the wealthiest town in the world on a per capita basis. Many of the mansions on Cattle Baron Row still survive.
Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Luke Short and “Calamity Jane” all called Cheyenne home, and the legendary murderer Tom Horn was hanged right downtown – the last man hanged in Wyoming (at least legally). The famous Deadwood Stage started in Cheyenne, covering the 300 miles to the gold fields in South Dakota in three days of bouncing on rough dirt tracks through outlaw and Indian country. Old West history is everywhere in downtown Cheyenne – in the western wear shops, galleries, museums, and architecture. But make no mistake, Cheyenne knows how to have fun, too. Wyoming was the last state to ratify prohibition and prostitution was legal until 1938.
Today in compact Cheyenne, there are two outstanding breweries and a dozen bars, several with live music. Bring the bikes and there are 37 miles of trails, many of which weave through historic neighborhoods of great old wood mansions, especially in the Rainsford Historic District, where there are dozens of homes and mansions all designed by architect George Rainsford. Rich cattle barons loved his creative porches and roofs with towers covered by decorative “fish scale” shingles.
Downtown Cheyenne has the best collection of western stores on the Front Range. Wrangler is the place for hats, boots and belts; Wyoming Home has western furnishings, rugs, jewelry and gifts; and Just Dandy has women’s western-wear fashions. There are dozen other western galleries, bookstores and souvenir shops. Many people make a trip to Cheyenne just for the Sierra Trading Post, where you can save 35-70% on closeouts and overstocks of outdoor apparel and gear from places like North Face, Columbia, Rockport, Kelty, Merril and Timberline.
If you want to stay overnight, the historic 1911 Plains Hotel, across the plaza from the Union Pacific Depot, has welcomed guests including Harry Truman, Ronald Regan, Ted Kennedy and Richard Nixon. There’s a crew! The lobby is filled with historic Western paintings and sculptures and offers rooms starting at $99.
IF YOU GO: Depot Days runs May 20-22, but the Union Pacific Steam Shop is only open on May 21-22. A $10 wrist band gets you a free trolley ride to the machine shops and free admittance to all other railroad activities over the weekend. For more information on Cheyenne, go to: www.cheyenne.org.