The Age Of Steam

| November/December 1969

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.