Union Pacific Steam Locomotive Painting and Lettering

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This page was last updated on March 28, 2020.

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After 1937

Union Pacific changed its image in early 1937, using Gothic lettering for the first time. The earlier "numbers-on-tender" era, with Roman lettering, came to an end, and was replaced by the "numbers-on-cab" era with Gothic lettering.

(Read more about UP's Gothic lettering)

The first locomotives to receive Gothic lettering were UP 4-6-2 2906 and UP 4-8-2 7002 in March and April 1937, when both locomotives received lightweight side rods and roller bearings. This new lettering scheme for UP's steam locomotives changed the previous "numbers-on-tender" style that had been used for almost 60 years, since the 1870s.

This new image changed both the style of the lettering, and the placement of the letters and numbers. The typeface, or font, was changed from serif lettering, also known as "Roman", to sans-serif lettering, also known as "Gothic". The locomotive number was moved to the locomotive cab, and the Union Pacific name was moved to the tender side, reversing the earlier pattern.

An undated photo in Kratville's Motive Power of the Union Pacific, page 157, shows UP 7002 with Gothic lettering and its bell in the original location. (The same photo is in Lloyd Stagner's article in The Streamliner, Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 1994, page 7, showing a date of 1937, and a UP negative number of 68-257.) This photo shows UP 7002 with roller bearing rods, but before the streamlining was applied. Kratville states on page 177 that when the streamlined shrouds were removed in 1942, 7002's bell was moved to its smokebox front.

The first new steam locomotives to be delivered with the new image were twenty FEF-1 class 4-8-4s delivered in August 1937. The next steam locomotive deliveries, also in August 1937, were twenty-five new 4-6-6-4 Challengers, delivered as UP 3915-3939, and they, too, were finished in the new lettering and numbers.

For the Streamliner diesel fleet, the apparent first use of Gothic lettering was when the City of Denver units were renumbered from M-10005 and M-10006 to their CD numbers in June 1937. As yet, research in published sources with dated photos has not found any photos of the CD units without Gothic lettering, or M-series numbered trains with Gothic lettering.

Streamlined Steam

As for the actual completion dates for UP 2906 and UP 7002 other than "March and April 1937", more research is needed. The concept of modernized steam locomotives was approved on June 28, 1936, but no documents have been discovered that shows a formal completion date for either locomotive. The only clue so far was found by Gordon McCulloh in a brief mention in a March 17, 1937 letter about the need to check the performance of "Engine 2906 recently turned out of Omaha shop." Local newspapers carried a story mid May 1937 saying thst the streamlining of UP 2906 had been completed during the previous month at a cost of $10,000 to $12,000. (A photo on page 115 in Kratville is dated 1936.) Regardless of the actual date, by March 1937 UP had modernized 4-6-2 2906 with roller bearings and lightweight drive rods. Within a month, in about April 1937, 4-8-2 7002 was also modernized with similar modifications.

Both locomotives received streamlined shrouds as in April 1937 so that they could serve as dedicated power for the new Forty-Niner train that made its first westbound run on July 8, 1937. A photo of UP 2906 fully streamlined with Gothic lettering, and dated April 1937, is found on page 176 of Kratville, along with undated photos of shrouded UP 7002. Dick Kindig's often published photo of the streamlined UP 2906 is dated June 26, 1937. An Art Stensvad photo dated May 1937 shows UP 2906 without its shroud. The Forty-Niner as a special train was canceled in 1941, and the shrouds on the locomotives were removed in 1942.

Circle 'O' and Oval 'O'

UP first used the 'Gothic' (sans-serif) style lettering on steam locos in 1936. At that time, the lettering had a slightly elongated "O" and "C" (and some other letters) and a narrow style of numbers, noted by ovals in the centers of 6, 8 or 9. This style lettering can be seen on new CSA-1 and FEF-1 locos. Before 1936, UP used Common Standard 'Roman' (serif) lettering. In mid-1939, many of the letters and numbers were changed, most notably to a circle "O" and "C" and circular centers to the 6, 8 and 9. In 1956, the "O" and "C" were again changed to an oval shape, which is different than the 1936 shape. A few steam locos were painted with this style, but not many steam locos were repainted after 1956. That shape is what is on 844 and 3985 today. (Dick Harley, email dated July 27, 2005)

Aluminum Paint On Axle Ends

Union Pacific began using aluminum paint, the same color used for the lettering, on axle bearing caps on steam locomotives in 1952 when the two-tone gray was replaced by black.

In addition to the engine truck axle ends, the wheel hubs surrounding the axle stubs were painted.

The practice was reserved for locomotive and tender axles with roller bearings, and it was started by the UP in 1947 with the S-40-10 stock cars that had Armour Yellow journal box lids covering their roller bearings. The original intent was to paint journal box lids with "a contrasting color" to alert yard workers to not put journal oil and waste wadding in those journal boxes - wadding wouldn't do much good to roller bearings, nor would the oil. The contrasting color lid was also used for lubrication retainers on solid bearing journals when those were introduced. So for freight cars, it was not exclusively an indicator of roller bearings. The two most common colors were either Armour Yellow or Aluminum paint, though only Aluminum was used on steam locos. The practice also was used on passenger cars, although a start date has not yet been found. (Dick Harley, email dated March 23, 2016)

Engines that had the stainless steel valve and/or cylinder head covers from the two-tone gray days usually kept them, but sometimes they were painted black. It varied all over the lot with no particular pattern, and occasionally one locomotive would have a mix.

Hand Lettering

John Rimmasch of Wasatch Railroad Contractors wrote on Trainorders.com on September 27, 2010:

We here at Wasatch have done extensive painting for the UP. As such, we have also spent a great deal of time working on gathering history of how these were painted and what types of paints were used. Here are a few interesting "tid bits".

The original lettering in most cases was smaller than what you see today. For example, we corrected this with the Challenger when the UP shop painted it this last go around. The letters/numbers that were on the locomotive were nearly 1 inch larger than the original. The reason for this is due to the fact that the old painter hand painted the letters and numbers. Though a stencil was used the first time, it was hand painted every time there after. As the letters/numbers were re-painted, the painter simply used the outline of the old letter and basically traced what was left. Over time, the result is a larger letter than the original. The original height of the letters of the UP steam power is: Tender is 13 1/2 inch (some letters are bigger...I can explain if you would like to know) The Cab is the same. The small letters on the cab are 2 inches original. Everything else is 3 inch and the back of the tender is 8 inch. The words "Fire Hose Only" typically found on the fireman's side of the tender and painted red, as delivered, were 3 inch letters.

Before the Challenger was painted the cab letters were nearly 15 inches high! The same was true with the 844, 4023 and 4004, all of which have been corrected.

It is true, UP never used white as the color for lettering. Even in the modern day steam program, I am unaware of white ever being used. Aluminum is the color that was used.

In 2010, Steve Lee (Manager of UP's Steam Program) wrote that that the steam locomotives in the program were hand lettered, rather than using stick-on letters, like the diesel locomotive in the program.

More Information

After 1936 -- A brief review of changes in Union Pacific's organization that affected locomotive and car lettering styles and schemes; included are comments about the changes in UP's mechanical department that resulted in new locomotive designs.

(Read more about the 1936 changes for UP's mechanical department)