Locomotives developed from tiny 'teapots' weighing a few tons to 200-ton giants during the railroads' long and colorful era of steam power
Only a forlorn few of them are still snorting and chuffing in regular service, but less than 30 years ago the steam locomotive, rumbling invincibly over the steel track, was indisputably monarch of motive power on U.S. railroads. From the tiny wood burners that pulled flimsy wooden cars through the first chapters of railroad history, the steam locomotive developed into a mighty power plant weighing 200 tons or more and hauling enormous loads in trains a hundred or more cars long.
As recently as 1941, over 42,000 of the nation's 44,333 locomotives were run by steam. But by 1965 only 93 steam locomotives remained on U.S. rails, and today only a scattered few are still in service, and most of these are used only for special rail fan excursions.
The steam locomotive had its beginnings in England. A small engine with seven-inch drivers was built there in 1784 by William Murdock. Twenty years later, in 1804, a young Cornishman named Richard Trevithick built a locomotive complete with boiler and a cylinder that turned the steam into power to move the wheels. This pioneer engine confounded its critics by actually hauling a ten-ton load, thereby winning a sizeable wager for Trevithick's backers. But because of track difficulties, the engine was pronounced unsatisfactory.
Steam locomotives first went into regular use in the collierys, and it was for the colliery lines that the renowned George Stephenson built his first locomotives. Beginning with the Blucher, which started to haul coal in 1814, he produced motive power for the mines for the next 12 years. Toward the end of this period, he built Locomotion No. 1, the first locomotive on the world's first common carrier steam railroad.
Stephenson gained new stature and homage as a locomotive builder during the Rainhill tests. Held with considerable pomp in October 1829 near Rainhill Bridge, ten miles from Liverpool, the historic locomotive trials attracted attention throughout the world. Stephenson's entry, the Rocket, had no difficulty in demonstrating its superiority over another engine entered in the competition, the Cycloped, which was a treadmill locomotive powered by a horse. Two other locomotives, the Novelty and the Sans Pareil, were respectively faster and more powerful than the Rocket, but the latter was judged to be the most dependable and practical all round engine among the contenders, and its virtues, widely celebrated in the world press, caused Stephenson to be hailed as the father of the steam locomotive.
The first locomotive to run on a regular railroad in the United States was built in England. It was named the Stourbridge Lion and made its first trip on the tracks of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company August 8, 1829. The D&H, however, encountered difficulties with the rail which it could not surmount and the locomotive was deemed inoperable the same month. In September an American-built locomotive, the Tom Thumb, made a trial run on the Baltimore and Ohio.
But it was still another locomotive, the Best Friend of Charleston, that gained the honor of being the first locomotive to go into regular service and handle commercial traffic on a U.S. railroad. Tested in December 1830, the Best Friend ran at a speed of 35 miles an hour without cars. It pulled 50 passengers in six cars at 21 miles an hour. The tiny engine promised a long and laudable service for her railroad, the South Carolina, but her career ended June 17, 1831, when her safety valve was fastened down, and she exploded.