Union Pacific Steam Locomotive Painting and Lettering

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This page was last updated on June 19, 2014.

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Throughout its history, Union Pacific used a variety of paint schemes for its steam locomotives. At first there were the colorful schemes of the pioneer era of the 1860s and 1870s. The cost of maintaining these colorful schemes likely led to all locomotives receiving a more standardized black scheme that continued into the mid to late 1930s.

Here is a summary, provided by Dick Harley:

During the 20th century all the available documentation indicates that the lettering of black UP steam locomotives was neither "white" nor "silver", but it was Aluminum - and it still is today.

The Common Standard No. 22, with updates from January 20, 1923 thru July 16, 1929, shows steam locomotive lettering as No. 16, Aluminum Leaf, which was shipped and used rolls of material.

(see Pages 23-25 and 48, 59, and 60 of this PDF of the Common Standard No. 22 specification book) (a new window will open)


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

September 13, 1895
"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." (The Rawlins Republican, September 13, 1895; The Streamliner, December 2005, Q&A 391)

May 1904
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. (A History of Union Pacific Steam, by Gordon McCulloh, page 75)

"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. If new information appears, we can change our thoughts." (The Streamliner from UPHS, Volume 20, Number 1, Winter 2006, page 6, Q&A 391)

"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." (John Rimmasch of Wasatch Railroad Contractors writing on Trainorders.com on September 27, 2010)

March 1937
The lettering on steam locomotives was changed from Roman (serif) to the new Gothic (sans-serif) Streamliner style lettering in March 1937. "Union Pacific" was spelled out on the tender sides in the new Streamliner style. Locomotive numbers were moved from the tender sides to the cab sides. Possibly the first use of Gothic lettering was on the 4-6-2 (UP 2906) and 4-8-2 (UP 7002) that were modernized with roller bearings and other up-to-date features in late 1936, prior to their being streamlined in April 1937 for use on The Forty-Niner.

July 1937
The first new steam locomotives to receive the new lettering were the first order of 800-class 4-8-4s, delivered as UP 800-819 in July 1937, and the second order of 4-6-6-4 CSA-class Challengers, delivered as UP 3915-3939 in August 1937.

Aluminum Paint

An example of aluminum paint comes from Ed Hawkins, who found in his research in the AC&F archives, that for tank cars built from 1931 to 1952, there were numerous examples of "aluminum" paint. In many cases the "paint" was actually a mixture of an aluminum powder (Baer's) with an oil base. In other cases the documents specify such paint as "Long's Aluminum Paint" apparently available in ready-mixed cans. There were no references to the term "silver." (Ed Hawkins, email to the Steam Freight Cars discussion, May 13, 2004)

Before 1937

Before 1937 -- Information about the "number-on-tender" era of UP's steam locomotive paint schemes, with its serif (Roman) lettering.

After 1937

After 1937 -- Information about the "number-on-cab" era of UP's steam locomotive paint schemes, with its sans-serif (Gothic) lettering.

Two-Tone Gray

Two-Tone Gray -- Information about the two-tone gray era of UP's steam locomotive paint schemes, used on passenger locomotives from the mid 1940s through the mid 1950s.

Gothic Lettering

Gothic Lettering -- Information about UP's unique Gothic style lettering, used from 1937.