History of the Union Pacific Railroad (Part Two)

We recently kicked off our look at the history of the Union Pacific Railroad by reviewing its origins and who built it.

For the second part of this series, we’re going to look at the obstacles faced in building the Union Pacific, the impact the railway had on the United States both socially and economically, the role it continues to play today, and of course, the legendary locomotives which it operated!

If you missed part one, check it out here.

Were There Any Obstacles to Building the Union Pacific Railroad?

In addition to natural barriers such as rivers and the Rocky Mountains, the Union Pacific also faced many people-driven obstacles. Initially, the American Civil War delayed the commencement of construction, while financial challenges meant that worker numbers were, at times, low in the early days of building.

While Irish immigrant labor made up most of the workforce, Chinese workers were also brought in to assist with construction. Although the Union Pacific kept no records, numerous laborers reportedly died while working on the project. This number varies from as few as 50 to as many as 1,200, although it’s unknown as to what extent these deaths affected the rate of construction.

Another challenge faced by the Union Pacific was resistance from Native Americans. Already seeing their land eroded, in addition to the habitats of the animals they hunted, Native Americans were known to engage in violent attacks to prevent the work from proceeding. The workforce was also frequently attacked in order to acquire resources and tools, and to prevent laborers from hunting across the plains, which was perceived as stealing food from the Native American population.

How did the Union Pacific Railroad Help the United States?

The impact the Union Pacific Railroad had on the United States was immense.

The economy was a primary benefactor – as well as reducing the time it would take to transport goods, the railway revolutionized the volume of goods that could be moved at once. It also helped to grow international trade. Goods from Asia could arrive via ship to western ports and be loaded directly onto trains to be distributed across the nation.

The impact on people was huge, too. The completion and opening of the transcontinental railway meant that those wanting to travel across the United States could do so quicker and at a much cheaper cost. Long, uncomfortable, and often dangerous stagecoach journeys across the plains were replaced by smooth, fast train journeys, which could be completed in days rather than months and were as much as 85% cheaper.

The Union Pacific Railroad Today

Today, the Union Pacific remains headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska.

Thanks to mergers and years of expansion, the UP now operates over 32,000 miles of track in 23 states. While Amtrak passenger trains operate over some of their routes, the UP is exclusively a freight operator, transporting goods across the west and into the heartland, carrying loads from the agricultural, energy, automotive, consumer and industrial sectors. As of the 21st century, the UP and it’s main competitor, BNSF Railway, hold a duopoly over the transcontinental freight business in the western United States.

The Locomotives of the Union Pacific

In addition to being one of the oldest and most expansive railroads in the United States, the Union Pacific is also known for operating a wide range of innovative and unique locomotives throughout its existence. 

The Challenger

As the horsepower needs of the Union Pacific increased in the early 20th century, so did the size of it’s locomotives. Requiring more driving wheels and a longer chassis than could be accommodated on even their broadest of mainline curves, a new design had to be achieved. This came in the form of the Challenger – based on an articulated chassis, this massive 4-6-6-4 steam locomotive had two sets of independently pivoting driving wheels, allowing for more traction, and provided a higher pulling capacity than any of their previous locomotives.  

The Big Boy

There is perhaps no steam locomotive more storied than the legendary Union Pacific Big Boy. Based on the same basic design principles as the Challenger, the Big Boy was the largest production steam locomotive ever built. With a massive 4-8-8-4 wheelbase, the type was 132 feet long, and weighed more than one million pounds. In 2019, the Union Pacific brought one of the few remaining Big Boys back to life for excursion service – check out our video of the first eastbound run here! 

The GTEL Gas Turbine 

As new technologies developed in the 1940s, the UP decided to experiment with Gas Turbine locomotives in addition to diesel power –  the attraction being that one Turbine could power the same train as four diesels. Although they carried up to 10% of UP’s freight during their peak in the early 1950s, the turbines were ultimately uneconomical, requiring expensive “Bunker C” oil to operate. They were also incredibly loud, gaining the nickname “Big Blows”, and could only be used on more remote routes.  

The DDA40X “Centennial” 

Sometimes known as the diesel Big Boy, the DDA40X was the largest and most powerful diesel locomotive ever built on a single frame. Designed to replace the Gas Turbines, the types were almost 100 feet long and could crank out up to 8500 horsepower! Although they were efficient, they were expensive to operate, and were retired by the end of the 1970s. 

Union Pacific Trains at Model Train Stuff

Here at ModelTrainStuff we have all that you need to bring the mighty Union Pacific to your railroad! From locomotives to freight cars, passenger cars, and even buildings, structures, and memorabilia, we have everything you need to start your UP empire in miniature!

Add a part of history to your collection by viewing all of our Union Pacific products here.