New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Earliest American Railroads and Steam Locomotives

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The first railroad in the United States served a granite quarry in Quincy, Massachusetts and went into service in 1827. This was followed in the same year by another railroad serving a coal mine in Pennsylvania. These ventures have a special place in the history of railroading in North America, but they were very short and did not offer commercial or passenger services aside from shuttling the output of the mines which they served. The first truly commercial railroads are therefore categorized separately and date from 1828 when the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company built one line and when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the South Carolina Railroad began construction of two other lines. The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company line was from coal mines to their canal and could be grouped with the 1827 effort. William Brown considered the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the South Carolina Railroad to be the first ‘true’ American railroads.1

We would not think of any of these early operations as railroads, even allowing for some primitive technology. For example, these early roads had no locomotives. Early track construction also was quite different in the early years than it is today and different types of construction were often tried experimentally for a few miles and then changed in favour of a new idea. One type of construction included cedar ties installed in individual trenches with compacted crushed rock bedding. At least one road also provided caisson-type piers of compacted crushed rock toward the ends of each tie. These ties were spaced many feet apart and had notches on top to receive the 6 inch square or 12 inch square timber rails with running surfaces made of iron straps. Softwood was generally used for the rails, and some roads inserted hardwood planks between the softwood and the iron. The entire assembly of ties and rails was unballasted to reduce the rate of timber rot. Another type of construction used quarried granite slabs on grade with no rails, and with the iron straps attached directly to the granite.

Motive power was unusual by later standards. The second railroad in the U.S. (the one in Pennsylvania from a coal mine to the Lehigh River) was built on a strong grade and carried coal downhill by gravity. The empties were then hauled back to the mine using mules. Horses were the usual source of power, however. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the South Carolina Railroad both used horse power in the beginning.

These early roads relied upon the efficiency of iron wheels running on iron runways and animal power, when used in this way, was still very effective. In one example, a single horse could haul three cars with 80 passengers at a rate of eight miles per hour.

Another method of using horse power was to have the horse run an on-board tread mill. Mechanical gears would then increase the speed of the operation to levels that were considered remarkable.

Some roads experimented with wind power and reported some success. The Chief Engineer of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was not impressed, however, and remarked that the sail car “was but a clever toy.”2

The South Carolina Railroad used horse power in the beginning, if only out of necessity. They are credited with being the first road to embrace the idea of steam, however, and the Board passed a resolution in January of 1830, which stated in part that “the application of animal power [was] a great abuse of the gifts of genius and science.”3 The way was now set to bring “this great mechanical blessing [of steam] to mankind.”4

Three steam locomotives were bought in England in 1828 or 1829, and the first of these arrived in New York in May of 1829. It was ordered by Horatio Allen of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company and was built in Stourbridge near Birmingham. The “Stourbridge Lion” had four wheels, all drivers, with a 16 foot long boiler built of 1/2 inch thick iron plate. The whole unit weighed seven tons and was carried on oak wheels banded with iron. This was the first steam locomotive in America.

The Stourbridge Lion was transported to Honesdale, Pennsylvania in July for tests, but it was clear to everyone that it was too heavy for the track structure and that it would never go into commercial use. The test proceeded, however, and one brave man undertook to drive the locomotive over a trestle on an about 15º curve. He was not certain whether he should take it slowly or quickly, but decided against timidity and continued at speed over the trestle bridge without tragedy.

The other two locomotives were never assembled, and the Stourbridge Lion sat for many years in a shed. Parts disappeared over the years and some of it was finally scrapped. Other parts have been preserved in museums. 

 The Stourbridge Lion

The History of the First Locomotives in America, plate following page 88 

Another steam locomotive was built by George Stephenson and imported to New York in 1829. This was on display for a while, but only as an amusement for the crowds.

The second significant steam locomotive in America, following the Stourbridge Lion, was the Tom Thumb. This was the first locomotive built in the U.S.A. and was made by Peter Cooper in a plant near Baltimore. The purpose of the Tom Thumb was to demonstrate to Baltimore and Ohio Railroad investors that a steam locomotive could negotiate the sharp curves found in America.  The Lion had negotiated about a 15º curve, for example, and curves or up to 30º had also been reported. The Tom Thumb was “a very small and insignificant affair”5 according to Peter Cooper and the “engine could not have weighed a ton.”6 It had four wheels, and a vertical boiler about 20 inches in diameter and five or six feet high. It burned anthracite coal. The Tom Thumb underwent tests in 1829 and was modified before further testing in 1830.  

Peter Cooper’s Tom Thumb

The History of the First Locomotives in America, plate following page 112 

1830 and 1831 saw a rapid deployment of steam locomotives in the U.S. The first actual operating locomotive built in America was the Best Friend of Charleston, built for the South Carolina and Hamburg Railroad and delivered in the fall of 1830. The Best Friend of Charleston had four wheels, all drivers, with iron hubs and treads but wooden spokes. The boiler was vertical and the engine weighed 4-1/2 tons.

The supply contract for the Best Friend of Charleston required that it haul three times its own weight at a speed of 10 mph. The actual performance was twice that, and it would run at 16 to 21 mph while hauling four or five cars with 40 to 60 passengers. The top speed was about 35 mph with no cars attached.

An accident soon occurred due to track curvature: “The change in direction which takes place when a carriage enters a curved part of a road is effected by the action of the flange which is attached to the rim against the iron rail. A lateral strain is then brought to act on the spokes of the wheel, and in this present instance they have proved too weak to resist it, and from this circumstance the accident has originated.”7

The boiler of the Best Friend of Charleston exploded in June of 1831 and several people were injured. The engine was then rebuilt and renamed the Phoenix, with several design improvements such as all-iron wheels.

Another accident for the Best Friend of Charleston was when it traveled too quickly through a turnout. Speeds not exceeding 10 to 25 mph were then mandated, depending upon the number of passenger cars being hauled.

The second steam locomotive for the South Carolina Railroad was the West Point which arrived in February of 1831. It was ordered from the West Point Foundry and was similar to the Best Friend of Charleston except that the boiler was horizontal. The West Point could haul four cars with 126 passengers and crew, plus a barrier car, at speeds of about 17 mph. A ‘barrier car’ was a safety car with bales of cotton to separate the locomotive from the passenger cars.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was not far behind the South Carolina Railroad, and issued a notice in January of 1831 inviting American manufacturers to supply four-wheel steam locomotives. There was a specification outlining the requirements, and the manufacturer of the engine which best met the requirements would be paid $4,000. The runner up would be paid $3,500 for his entry into the competition. The engine was to burn coke or coal and was to weigh a maximum of 3-1/2 tons.  It would be required to haul a load of 15 tons at a speed of 15 mph on level track. The driving wheels were to be three feet in diameter if all four wheels were drivers, or four feet in diameter if only two of the wheels were drivers. Idler wheels could be as small as 2’ 6” in diameter.  The winning locomotive was by Davis and Gantners. 


  1. William Brown became the Chief Engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company: See Clark, James G., Specifications for Iron and Steel Railroad Bridges Prior to 1905, published by the author, Urbana, Illinois, 1956; derived from his earlier Masters thesis, University of Illinois.
  2. Brown, William H., The History of the first Locomotives in America, D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1874; page 110.
  3. Brown, William H., ibid., page 137.
  4. Brown, William H., ibid., page 138.
  5. Brown, William H., ibid., page 109.
  6. Brown, William H., ibid., page 133.
  7. Brown, William H., ibid., page 143.

Written by johnwood1946

September 14, 2011 at 4:01 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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