As is well known, steam power was invented and developed in Britain country for both stationary and locomotive purposes. Its introduction and use in the United States very likely came about as a result of illegal activity here in England. At around the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, it was deemed an offence by ·the government of the day to transmit any information about the development or use of steam power to North America. In fact it was punishable by a one-year prison sentence in addition to a £200 fine! But, evidently news of James Watt’s success was transported across the Atlantic it would appear that industrial espionage is not a modern phenomena!
The first practical use of steam power, as applied to railways, in the USA, was first witnessed in the shape of locomotives imported from England by the Delaware & Hudson Canal Co., which operated a sixteen-mile horse and gravity operated coal railway in Pennsylvania. The first steam locomotive to run in the USA was in fact the English built “Stourbridge Lion”.
The first American built locomotive to be operated by an American railroad, was built at the West Point Foundry in 1830 and made its inaugural run for the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Co. of Charleston, on Christmas Day 1830. The locomotive was appropriately named the “Best Friend Of Charleston”. In appearance it hardly resembled a steam locomotive as we know it at all, powered by a vertical boiler positioned behind the driver, driving four coupled wheels it was not entirely dissimilar to the rather less successful “Novelty” locomotive, entered for the Rainhill Trials in England the previous year. But, it was a beginning, from which the North American steam locomotive was developed, ultimately to produce some of the World’s largest and most powerful steam locomotives ever to be built. In the early years of railway development, steam locomotive design in the USA progressed along similar lines to that of their European counterparts.
But then, there came to be a number of what at first could be seen as small, technical differences, providing a divergent path along which North American loco. design progressed. One of the principal foundations to this alternative to the British school of design, was the predominant use of bar frames as the principal technique of chassis construction, whereas in Britain, plate frames were the preferred method. Although bar frame techniques were actually first Introduced in the U.K. by Edward Bury, their development in the USA resulted ultimately in the use of techniques for manufacturing the chassis or frames of steam locomotives as enormous one piece castings. In many cases with cylinders and ancillary items of equipment ”cast on”. Style, an arbitrary idea in itself, was possibly the one most obvious difference between North American and British types.
Whereas in this country designers placed great emphasis on the aesthetic appeal of their machines, the era of elaborate ostentation in the USA reached a peak in the 1860s and. 70s. These then gave way to more logical concepts of the steam locomotive as a machine, where it was not a sin to trail pipework and fittings on the outside of the locomotive, making the working parts more accessible and maintenance infinitely easier.
To many of us though, thinking of nineteenth century design in the USA, immediately there comes to mind the wood burning 4-4-0 types, replete with ‘cowcatchers’, ornate bell and enormous chimneys. (Diamond stacks as they were known.) These locomotives were a tradition, if not a legend of North American railroads, and engendered a folklore and many legends of their own., from ‘Casey Jones’ to the ‘General’. The latter, in particular, having quite an entertaining history, culminating in its seizure by Union forces during the Civil War. The elaborate ornamentation of some of those mid-nineteenth century designs achieved well nigh indescribable levels, with gold plated scrollwork and paintwork and lining schemes that would have done justice to any regal palace!
By 20th century standards such locomotives were small, yet it’ was with just such engines as these that the vast mid-west and western seaboards of the USA were penetrated. Possibly the most outstanding achievement being the linking by rail of both east and west coasts at Promontory, Utah on May 10th 1869.
The locomotives of the Central and Union Pacific Railroads were brought to within feet of each other and the ceremony completed by driving in a golden spike. From this point, railroading in the USA entered a period of explosive growth, as the government endeavoured to foster settlement of the West. New routes and companies sprang into existence, almost on a par with the ”Railway Mania” period in this country. In terms of Locomotive design though, there the resemblance ended. Railway companies in this country, for the major part, relied on their own designs, whether built in their own workshops, or by contractors. In the USA however, contractors to a much greater extent were relied upon to produce the designs as well as constructing the engines.
There emerged the idea that locomotive manufacturers as specialists in design and construction of steam locomotives would develop their own ranges of ‘standard’ designs, to be bought virtually, “off the peg”. Naturally there were exceptions, though in the sphere of technical development, the manufacturers were often first in the field. This approach was not unknown in this country, but developed to a much greater extent in the USA. A resultant feature being that whereas here it is traditional to refer to a class of locomotive by its owner and designer; in the USA it is almost invariably that of the manufacturer. The names of which were virtually household in this country also; Baldwin, Lima, Alco, etc. Many of these companies’ products were owned by almost all railroads, where the manufacturer, being a specialist, designer and builder, could supply in greater numbers than could the railroads, who were left free to concentrate on the business of carrying passengers and freight.
In the early years of the 20th Century, locomotive design in the USA was moving towards progressively larger types, with which, ultimately, that country became world famous. Its largest locomotives though, owed their development to a French engineer. These were enormous articulated designs, capable of hauling the heaviest of loads, and often in many cases, their tenders alone were larger then the largest British Pacific locomotives, indeed, particularly with the articulated types of the Union Pacific and Norfolk &Western Railroads, even the fireboxes could be bigger than an average living room.
The most popular form of articulation in N. America was the Mallet arrangement, whose originator was the French engineer M. Anatole Mallet. Basically it consisted of two separate chassis supplied by a single boiler, the leading chassis being pivoted about, the rear. Principle wheel arrangements of this design were of the order of 2-8-8-2, 4-6-6-4etc. Although originally designed to make use of compounding arrangements, most of the N. American types were simple expansion machines, Such locomotives were designed primarily for heavy freight haulage, although on the Union Pacific, a smaller version of the enormous 4-8-8-4 “Big Boy”, albeit a not much smaller 4-6-6-4 type, was intended for fast, long distance passenger turns. (Long distance on the Union Pacific, was the 5000 odd miles between San Francisco and Chicago). Many railroads in the USA used the articulated types, but there were of course some quite remarkable exceptions. Notably, on the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose rigid frame 4-4-4-4 and 4-4-6-4 locomotives, known forever as Duplexii, were of comparable proportions to the articulated types. Built during the “Streamline Era” and sporting an air smoothed casing, these were really spectacular designs.
Steam in the USA reached its zenith in the, early 1930’s, at the beginning of that decade there wore over 56000 locomotives in service. It was at this time, marking the ·beginning of the “Streamline Era”, that some of the most impressive and largest locomotives were built. The largest, as we have noted, were the mammoth Mallet articulated types, for heavy freight haulage. On the passenger side, as in this country, passenger schedules with improved timings, demanding higher speeds, dictated the design of more powerful locomotives, capable of handling the heaviest loadings. But, whereas in this country passenger locomotive design reached a peak with the heavy 4-6-2 Pacific types, in the USA. passenger locomotives became even larger. Amongst the largest and most impressive of these were perhaps the 4-6-4 Hudson and 4-8-4 Niagara types for the New York Central Railroad.
Classic North American steam locomotives for express passenger or freight services, are perhaps nowhere better illustrated by the streamlined 4-6-4 “Hudson” and 4-8-4 “Niagara” designs for the New York Central Railroad.
Photos: Assoc of American RRs / RPB Collection
Of these, the former was probably the more popular for passenger haulage, the design being used in quantity by most, if not all of the U.S. Class 1 railroads. The New York Central’s design was possibly the most successful, though seeing a variety of improvements and alterations from its first inception, the overall design remained the same, its capacity for sustained high speed haulage of heavy loads was surpassed by few, if any others.
It might well be imagined that all North American steam locomotives were of massive proportions, such however would be far from the case, though it must be said that even the “Branch Line” locomotives were more often than not as large as many British main line types. Again, not all locos. were conventional in design. Apart from the several narrow gauge lines, the USA possessed some quite unique examples in the “Shay” and “Heisler” geared drive locos. intended for use on logging railroads, where the gradients, curves and clearances were often extremely severe.
The changeover from steam to diesel traction was begun earlier than here, but unlike this country, when the final elimination of steam took place, the railroads had a fairly lengthy experience of the new motive power behind them. The first diesel appeared on the Central of New Jersey Railroad in 1925. It was not an immediate success however, its power to weight ratio made it uneconomic, but these were problems of course, that were subsequently overcome, since 27 years later, the number of diesel locomotives outweighed that of steam. An interesting comparison can be made with these figures; in 1929 there were only 22 diesels in service, compared with 56,936steam types, by 1955 diesels were in the majority with 24,786 and only 5,982 steam. For steam, the worst years and complete elimination came between 1955 and 1962. During this period the number of diesels rose by 3,318; steam locomotives being reduced from 5,982 to 51! There are still, at the time of writing, seven steam locos in service on Class l railroads, six of which are narrow gauge types.
Further Reading & Useful Links:
From Railway Matters: New York Central Giants
- Denver Public Library – Railroad Photos
- New York Central System Historical Society
- Union Pacific “Big Boy” – 4-8-8-4 No. 4014