Union Pacific 1939

Paramount Pictures

Cecil B. DeMille’s “epic” (translation: well over two hours long) film about the building of the first transcontinental railroad did everything in a big way. Big stars, train wrecks, Indian attacks and a messy love triangle for starters. Union Pacific utilized FIVE different steam locomotives — so many trains, in fact, Paramount had to obtain a railroad operating license from the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Doesn’t sound very obscure, does it? But…1939 was a long time ago and black and white turns many people off, so let’s just imagine obscurity and review it anyway. It really was a fascinating railroad movie to study.

Many many thanks to Larry Jensen and his book, “Hollywood’s Railroads, Volume One” for helping me identify the locomotives and passenger/freight cars used — most of which originally came from the Virginia & Truckee Railroad in Nevada.

As is my wont, I will concentrate on scenes where trains are involved. Camera…ACTION!

The movie premiered in Omaha, Nebraska over several days in April 1939. The recreation of the May 10, 1869 golden spike ceremony at Promontory, Utah was actually filmed near Canoga Park, California partially as a media event to promote the film.

Locomotives used in the movie:

Virginia & Truckee #21 “J.W. Bowker”, a 2-4-0 Baldwin built in 1875 (seen above) played a UP construction engine, “Gen’l McPherson”.

Virginia & Truckee #22 “Inyo”, a 4-4-0 Baldwin built in 1875 appeared as several different locomotives.

Virginia & Truckee #18 “Dayton”, a 4-4-0 built by the Central Pacific Railroad in Sacramento, California in 1873 appeared as different locomotives.

Virginia & Truckee #11 “Reno”, a 4-4-0 Baldwin built in 1872 appeared as different locomotives.

The fifth locomotive utilized was provided by Union Pacific Railroad to filmmakers (not seen in movie). It was a C class 2-8-0, #6014 (unknown manufacturer) and was used to switch railroad equipment on set as well as provide motive power for filming chase scenes.

Okay, let’s take a look at the picture.

Our first daylight views feature Gen’l McPherson (V&T #21) and train rolling past a group of Plains Indians in a classic vignette. The plucky little 2-4-0 has quite an assortment of vintage rolling stock, much of which came (like the locomotives) from Virginia & Truckee.

Here’s the aforementioned ménage à trois riding west. From left to right, Joel McCrea (as Jeff Butler), Barbara Stanwyck (as Mollie Monahan) and Robert Preston (as Dick Allen).

Most, if not all, of the railroad car interior scenes were filmed in the studio, but the details were quite meticulous. Hey, you guys know Bob Preston, right? He’s a Music Man! ;p (he’s a what? he’s a what?)

It’s the spring of 1868 and construction of the UP has reached Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Exterior views of Cheyenne (including the depot seen here) were filmed on UP’s Cedar City branch at Iron Springs, Utah.

Dressed up with some impressive antlers (Nice rack!), UP #66 rolls by the depot. This engine is actually V&T #11 “Reno”.

Mollie Monahan is the post-mistress and tools around in a ramshackle Railway Post Office car seen here at “end-of-track”.  Also serving tea and potato cakes.

My favorite part of the movie was the actual construction of the track. Notice everything is done by hand. Just look at all that material! In shot are both UP #22 (V&T #22, “Inyo”) and V&T #18 “Dayton”.

First the ties are brought up and placed on the grade. Four spikes allocated for each side of the tie.

#22 pushes a flatcar of rails forward. The heavy iron is pulled by a gang of men and placed on the next section of ties. Finally, several gandy dancers drive the spikes home.

In another view, the rails are pulled off as we watch from underneath.   Again, spikes are driven home to complete the job.

Initial construction was quite crude. No ballast, no tie plates, rough-hewn ties, etc. Crews were in a hurry to complete track and reach Ogden, Utah first before the Central Pacific Railroad (who were building east from California).

Train Robbers!

Yep, Robert Preston is a bad boy in this picture and is out robbing the payroll from the express baggage car (that’s V&T #18 “Dayton” on the point). Troubleshooter Joel gets wind of the hold up via the telegrapher and soon is leading a posse train in pursuit with V&T #11 “Reno” pushing.

Notice the sharp curve and distinct telegraph pole beside “Dayton”. We’ll see this location again, later on in this review.

A large chunk of the movie left off HERE



UP #41 (V&T #22 “Inyo”) is laying on the smoke and pedaling furiously trying to outrun the war party. Nice shootin’ pose, Jeff!

Great pacing shots alongside Inyo as the Washington Redskins take pot shots at the train. UP #6014 was actually pulling the train (out of shot) along with a flatcar bearing an outrigger camera platform to capture these scenes.

Train wreck!

The Fighting Sioux have pulled a water tower down into the path of the train. The resulting smash up, (done with models) blasts the wooden cars to smithereens.


As the Native Americans pillage the train (hmm… this chair would be PERFECT for my den), Preston and Stanwyck emerge from the wreckage. With just one toss of her head, Babs is perfectly coiffed with every hair in place and ready to go.

While the looters enjoy playing with bolts of cloth (the guy in the foreground appears to be drinking a can of beer), Joel and Barbara rig up a crude telegraph to send for help. Sparks fly when these two get together!

Before you can say, “Chief Wild Eagle”, a rescue train led by good old General McPherson, pulling two flatcars of soldiers, is racing along to save the day.

Remember that sharp curve and telegraph pole from before? Here we are in the same spot as the rescue train pulls up to battle the Cleveland Indians. Who says the cavalry doesn’t come over the hill in the nick of time anymore?

More movie left off HERE


Big Finale!

It’s May 10, 1869.  Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads have finally agreed to meet at Promontory, Utah for the joining of America’s FIRST transcontinental railroad!

A fancy basswood tie is slipped under the rails and a hallowed GOLDEN SPIKE! (borrowed from Stanford University) is placed as the final spike.

Places everyone! Let’s have a picture…(with thanks to Andrew J. Russell).

The City of Los Angeles (1939 edition) raises the dust and flashes past the camera as the credits roll. Love that EMD E2 porthole-clad passenger engine racing past with its consist!

Here’s what IMDb has to say about Union Pacific:

If you have ANY information about this movie you’d like to share, please contact me at: Lindsay.Korst@gmail.com, or leave a comment.  Thanks and enjoy the blog!



4 thoughts on “Union Pacific 1939

  1. Pingback: Onion Pacific 1940 | More Obscure Train Movies

  2. Baby M

    Chapter six of Lucius Beebee’s wonderful book “Highball” is on the subject of cabooses, and includes an account of a runaway train incident that occurred during the filming of this movie. 6014 was pulling a caboose full of extras and bit players when the drawbar failed and the caboose rolled downhill, to the consternation of those aboard.



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