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
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.