AN important improvement of American locomotives in addition to the bogie or locomotive truck and the pilot, devised by Mr. Dripps, was the construction of a comfortable cab or sheltering place for the locomotive engineer. A number of improvements in wheels and tires were devised. Springs were applied to break the force of jars and shocks. Great attention was also given to devices for arresting sparks, when wood was used as fuel (which was the general custom), so as to prevent the burning of haystacks, barns, and other buildings adjacent to the tracks. Much trouble arose from the lack of satisfactory spark arresters, and many attempts to remedy this defect were made. Corresponding difficulties had not arisen on the English roads, because there coke was usually the fuel used, while here wood, and frequently pine, fed the flames of the locomotive. The outpouring of sparks was frightful. Even after wire screens and effective methods of arranging them were devised, it was sometimes difficult to obtain the requisite amount of appropriate material, and in this as in many other matters, a series of new wants were developed for which no adequate provision had previously been made.

The original American locomotives were nearly all wood-burners, and during a protracted period while spark-arresting inventions were undergoing a gradual process of evolution, with occasional failures, a great amount of destruction and annoyance was caused on some lines. Interwoven with this difficulty was a necessity for using smoke-stacks considerably higher than those now generally used,—too high, indeed, to pass under the roof of some wooden bridges or some overhead bridges,—and to overcome this defect the smoke-stacks of some locomotives were jointed or hinged so that they could be lowered when trains were proceeding over or under bridges. This requirement probably increased the danger that the locomotive would literally become a devouring engine. At all events it was customary on some of the covered wooden bridges for a watchman to follow every train, carrying a bucket of water for the purpose of extinguishing fires, and notwithstanding this precaution some wooden bridges were burned.

Increase of power was another desideratum, and it was reported in 1835 that the power of Baldwin engines then at work on the Philadelphia and Columbia, was thirty-five per cent. greater than that of two English engines which were also then in use. To Thomas Rogers, of the Rogers Locomotive Works, is given the credit of several important devices, one of which was making the driving-wheels of hollow cast iron, as a substitute for the wooden wheels with iron tires, and another the use of weights on the wheels to counterbalance the momentum of reciprocating parts. Joseph Harrison, of Philadelphia, in 1837, invented a useful method of distributing the weight of the engine evenly to the axle boxes by means of equalizing levers. In connection with this improvement and the circumstances that gave rise to it, a sketch of locomotive advancement says:—
"Mr. Henry R. Campbell, of Philadelphia, on February 5th, 1836, secured a patent for an eight-wheel engine with four driving-wheels connected, and a four-wheeled truck in front, and James Brooks, of Philadelphia, built for him such a machine, completing it May 8th, 1837. This was the first eight-wheeled engine of this type, and from it the standard American locomotive of to-day takes its origin. The engine lacked, however, one essential feature; there were no equalizing beams between the driving-wheels, and nothing but the ordinary steel springs over each journal of the driving-axles to equalize the weight upon them. It remained for Messrs. Eastwick & Harrison to supply this deficiency; and in 1837 that firm constructed at their Shop in Philadelphia a locomotive on this plan, but with the driving-axles running in a separate square, connected to the main frame above it by a single central bearing on each side. This engine had cylinders twelve by eighteen, four coupled driving-wheels, forty-four inches in diameter, carrying eight of the twelve tons constituting the total weight. Subsequently, Mr. Joseph Harrison, jr., of the same firm, substituted " equalizing beams" on engines of this plan afterward constructed by them, substantially in the same manner as since generally employed."


The limited powers of the very early locomotives, and the nature of the first advances, are indicated by the fact that Jonathan Knight, civil engineer of the Baltimore and Ohio in 1832, said: "In the year 1828 the power of the locomotive engine was no more than sufficient to propel itself up an ascent of 1 in 96 at the rate of 10 miles an hour, without dragging any load after it. In the course of two years after, however, such were the improvements made in this engine that it could draw up that ascent a train of cars weighing, with their freight, 17 tons, at 10 miles per hour. At the same time, it could draw on a level, at the same speed, 53-four-tenths tons; at 15 miles per hour, 30 tons, and at 20 miles per hour, 15 tons."

It was considered quite a triumph for Mr. Cooper's Tom Thumb to draw a single passenger car of about the size and weight of a small street railway car. Of Mr. Baldwin's first practical locomotive, a contemporaneous account of its trial trip states that "there is every reason to believe that this engine will draw thirty tons gross."

One of the principal reasons why locomotives did not increase in size and capacity more rapidly arose from the defective nature of the railroads. It was feared that heavy locomotives would injure the roads then existing, and a striking proof of the necessity for caution was furnished by the fact that the Stourbridge Lion, after making a successful trial trip, was discarded, not on account of any inherent defect, but largely because it was considered too heavy for the line it was bought to serve, although the weight of this locomotive was only about six or seven tons. Similar difficulties were encountered in attempts to run six- or seven-ton locomotives over other roads.

The necessity of constructing locomotives of such limited size and capacity that they would not injure the fragile wooden-rail and strap-iron roads was so imperative that desirable improvements were postponed on this account. Nothing perhaps better illustrates the tendencies of this description which for a time prevailed than the fact that in 1833 Robert Stephenson, of England, wrote to Robert L. Stevens, of the Camden and Amboy, a letter deprecating the general inclination in this country to build light locomotives, and stating that he had completed the design of an engine, of which he gave a sketch, which weighed nine tons, and was capable of hauling "one hundred tons dead load sixteen or eighteen miles an hour on a level." He solicited the aid of Mr. Stevens in effecting sales of such a locomotive.

Primitive ideas of what a locomotive should be are indicated by the fact that when the Baltimore and Ohio advertised for American engines in January, 1831, it stipulated that "the engine, when in operation, must not exceed three and one-half tons' weight and must, on a level road, be capable of drawing, day by day, fifteen tons, inclusive of the weight of the wagons, fifteen miles per hour."

The first annual report of the New York and Erie Railroad, dated September 29th, 1835, after discussing the grades then proposed for that projected line, and the improvements which had been made in locomotives, and referring to elaborate investigations by distinguished civil engineers, says: "The board of directors now have the gratification of announcing to the stockholders the following result, to wit: That loads of sixty tons gross (or, deducting the weight of the cars, forty tons net,) may be drawn in a single train from the Hudson river to lake Erie, and at an average speed of from twelve to fourteen miles to the hour; that with the rate of speed augmented one-half, a locomotive engine will nevertheless suffice to transport two hundred passengers and their baggage; that no stationary engine will be requisite to any part of the work; and that one, or, at most, two auxiliary engines (or pushers) will be requisite on the whole length of the line."

In an economic sense, the great advance made in the locomotive which outstrips all others, is in the increase of the weight of the trains which each machine can draw, and in this respect, although a very creditable and remarkable improvement had been effected prior to 1840, by which time some locomotives weighed twelve tons, and drew several hundred tons, the main part of the desirable work, in the direction indicated, still remained to be done.


That much had been accomplished, however, in comparison with the limited capacity and performances of 1830, is shown by the records made and the claims set forth by rival manufacturers in 1840. The Reading railroad was then a favorite field for competitive effort, and some of the most notable achievements occurred on its lines. A statement of its superintendent, Mr. G. A. Nichols, dated July 31st, 1839, said of a Baldwin locomotive that it had been in use fifteen months; that its performance was in every way satisfactory, and that it "drew at one time 45 cars, loaded with 150 tons of rails and iron, making in all 221 tons gross behind the tender, from Reading to Norristown, 41 miles, in 3 hours and 41 minutes, running time." This engine was presumably built in the early part of 1838.

A Norris engine drew over the Boston and Worcester road in 1840 a load of 150 net tons and 1,789 pounds, exclusive of 37 cars and a tender, which added 90 tons and 820 pounds to the weight drawn, and the movement was made partly over grades of thirty feet to the mile, which, although they taxed the capacity of the locomotive severely, were overcome by the free application of sand to the rails. This was considered an extraordinary achievement.

Another notable performance was reported of a locomotive constructed by Eastwick & Harrison, a rising firm of locomotive builders, located in Philadelphia, which discontinued operations in the United States on account of strong inducements to engage in similar pursuits in Russia. This performance consisted of the movement, on February 20th, 1840, of a train which had a gross weight, including cars and freight, but not including engine or tender, of 423 tons of 2,240 pounds. The net weight of freight was 268½ tons of 2,240 pounds. The trip was made from Reading to the foot of the inclined plane on the Columbia railroad, 54½ miles, in 5 hours and 30 minutes, or at the rate of 9.82 miles per hour. There were no ascending grades on this trip, however, with the exception of about 2,100 feet near its termination, graded at 26.4 feet per mile, upon which grade the train was stopped. On the return trip the locomotive drew a gross weight of 163 tons of 2,240 pounds, not including engine or tender, up a grade of 18.4 feet per mile. The engine weighed 11 tons, and its performances were considered unprecedented.


One of the indications of the extent to which American railways had been supplied with locomotives previous to 1840, and of the names of the active roads then, is furnished by the fact that in an advertisement of Baldwin, Vail & Hufty, published in January, 1840, they state that there had then been delivered and were ready to be delivered, from the Baldwin Locomotive Works, the following number of engines to the companies named, viz.:—

In Pennsylvania.—Columbia and Philadelphia, 26; Harrisburg and Lancaster, 6; Philadelphia and Trenton, 4; Philadelphia, and Norristown, 5; Little Schuylkill, 2; Cumberland Valley, 1; Philadelphia and Reading, 2. In New York.—Utica and Schenectady, 12; Rensselaer and Saratoga, 2; Long Island 2; Rochester and Batavia, 2; Buffalo and Niagara Falls, 1. In Georgia.—Georgia Railroad and Banking Company, 12; Central Railroad, Savannah, 4; Monroe Railroad and Banking Company, 3. In New Jersey.—New Jersey Railroad and Transportation Company, 5; Elizabethtown and Somerville, 2; Morris and Essex, 1. In Delaware.—Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore, 4. In South Carolina.—Charleston and Hamburg, 6. In Michigan.—Detroit and Ypsilanti, 3; Adrian and Toledo, 2; Detroit and Pontiac, 1. In Massachusetts.—Boston and Providence, 3; Boston and Worcester, 3. In Maryland.—Elkridge and Annapolis, 2. In Louisiana.—Clinton and Port Hudson, 3; West Feliciana, 2; New Orleans and Nashville, 1. In Indiana.—Madison and Indianapolis, 3. In Illinois.—North Cross Road, 2. In Mississippi.—Commercial, 2; Mississippi, 1. In North Carolina.—Wilmington, 1, and Raleigh, 2. In Florida.—Lake Winnico and St. Joseph's, 2. In Alabama.—Mobile and Cedar Point, 1; Tuscumbia and Decatur, 1. In Connecticut—Housatonic, 2. In West Indies.—Island of Cuba Railroad, 3. Total, 140.

Transport Systems | Antebellum RR | Contents Page

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery