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Union Pacific Steam Locomotive Painting and Lettering

This page was last updated on April 18, 2014.

Before 1937

With its adoption of less-colorful paint schemes in the 1870s, Union Pacific, like so many of the nation's other railroads, began using black paint with white (or light gray) lettering on its steam locomotives.

The September 4, 1895 issue of the Salt Lake Daily Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) newspaper reported, "The U. P. is now lettering freight engines with aluminum leaf; the passenger engines remain in gold leaf."

A similar news item appeared in The Rawlins Republican on September 13, 1895, and was used to answer Question 391 in UPHS's The Streamliner in December 2005. "The Union Pacific has adopted a new standard for the lettering and numbering of its freight engines. In the future all freight engines will be lettered and numbered with aluminum leaf, which looks like silver leaf, and the passenger engines will be decorated with gold leaf."

"In the early 1900s, gold leaf was eliminated, and all UP engines were lettered with aluminum leaf. Sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, the Aluminum leaf was changed to Aluminum paint, which is still the standard today for UP steam locos. As far as we know, there is no documentation anywhere that states the use of white paint for the large lettering on UP steam locos. Aluminum oxide is white, and that is likely the reason for some photos appearing to have white lettering." (Dick Harley, email dated April 16, 2011)

In his recent book A History of Union Pacific Steam, on page 75, Gordon McCulloh wrote that Aluminum Leaf was adopted in May 1904 as the standard color for lettering on *all* Union Pacific steam locomotives. This was in line with the recent adoption of the Common Standard for all of E. H. Harriman's Associated Lines. At the same time, what was known as Common Standard Roman was adopted as the standard lettering style.

This era before 1937 is remembered by the large locomotive numbers that were placed on the locomotive tenders, and continued through to the mid 1930s. The largest numbers were used throughout the road's financial problems of the mid 1890s, with smaller numbers being applied during the Common Standard era brought on by E. H. Harriman.

In about 1932, the application of a UP medallion (shield) on steam locomotive tenders was stopped. In this application, the medallion was a separate metal piece, riveted to the tender side. At the same time, the word "System" was removed from the Union Pacific medallion.

During 1936, Union Pacific's mechanical designers began work on a new passenger locomotive that used the 4-8-4 wheel type. UP celebrated the delivery of UP 800, the first FEF-1 in August 1937 with a new image for its steam locomotives, thus changing a lettering scheme that had been used since the late 1870s, sixty years before.

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