The Legacy of Edward Bury


Sadly perhaps, the name of Edward Bury has not achieved the place of distinction it deserves amongst British steam locomotive engineers. Outside this country his influence on steam engine building has been very great indeed, with his techniques developed to their most advanced level in the USA. The largest steam locomotives in the world, the Union Pacific Railroad’s “Big Boy” 4-8-8-4 articulated giants were using techniques which, basically at least, would have seemed familiar to Edward Bury. Bury was the commercial driving force behind the locomotive building firm of Bury, Curtis & Kennedy of Liverpool. This company moved very rapidly into the field of locomotive construction, especially following the successful completion of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. It was George and Robert Stephensons’ most serious early rival, although there were a number of other contractors in those early days. Edward Bury’s designs differed from those of Stephenson mainly in the use of lightweight bar frames, a feature decided upon not so much for technical reasons, but in order to allow Bury, Curtis & Kennedy to undercut Stephenson’s prices.

For a while, Edward Bury’s designs were popular and successful on this country’s railways, notably on the London & Birmingham Railway, and many achieved lengthy service by contemporary standards. Typical of the bar framed designs of the 1830s and 1840s, was the famous old Furness Railway locomotive No.3, affectionately nicknamed ‘Coppernob’. Built in 1846, this locomotive was shipped from Liverpool to Barrow-in-Furness, and used for passenger and goods workings in the Furness and south Lakeland area for many years, before finally being withdrawn in 1900. It exhibited all the characteristic features of the Bury type; spidery looking barframes, four large coupled wheels, cylinders slung under the smokebox at the leading end, and carrying the semi circular (in plan) ‘Haystack’ firebox at the rear. (The polished metal cleading of this latter feature giving rise to its fairly obvious nickname).

Coppernob at York NRM

However, in the main, the bar framed design did not meet with much success elsewhere in Britain, and even on the Liverpool & Manchester and London & Birmingham lines the design was replaced by the Stephensons’ ‘Planet’ and ‘Long Boiler’ types as the most popular standard gauge steam engines in this country. The Stephenson and all typically British locomotive designs used steel plate to form the backbone of the locomotive, with horn guides for the axleboxes and other features cut out of the steel plate.

The bar framed locomotives had their spine built up from strips or bars of square section steel, leaving slots for the axleboxes in the conventional manner – the ultimate development of this form of construction was the one piece frame castings used in the 20th century US steam locomotives, which also included cylinders and other pieces of equipment cast on to the main frame.

Although Bury’s ideas seem to have fallen on stoney ground here, a second school of locomotive thought had been established which met with almost immediate and lasting success overseas, particularly in North America. In the former colonies across the Atlantic, the introduction of the steam locomotive in any form could conceivably have come about through illegal activity, since only a few years before the ‘Stourbridge Lion’ ran on the tracks of the Delaware & Hudson Canal Co. ‘s railroad in Pennsylvania, it was an offence in this country to transmit any information about the development of steam power. Not content with a mere £200 fine, the government added a one-year prison sentence as part of the punishment for anyone guilty of 18th and 19th century industrial espionage!

However, of course, as we all know, details of the inventions of James Watt, Trevithick and others, including Edward Bury, did spread to the colonies, and Bury’s acorn seemed to propagate almost immediately, since only the third locomotive to operate in North America, the De Witt Clinton showed evidence of his influence – and this was only 1831l.

The archetypal US 4-4-0 with cowcatchers, ornate bell and enormous chimneys, and with their tenders and fireboxes full of wood, also introduced the bogie or lead truck. This was a very necessary feature of those early designs to guide the coupled and driving wheels over some very roughly laid tracks – a feature of US railroad tracks, which really did not improve significantly until well into the second half of the 20th century. The 4-4-0 was a Victorian tradition, if not a legend with many railroads, fostering a folklore and many legends of their own, from ‘Casey Jones’ to the ‘General’. The latter had a particularly interesting history, including its seizure by the Union forces during the American civil war, and I believe it took part in a silent movie with Harold Lloyd in the 1920s!! Even in normal service, the elaborate ornamentation of some of those mid-nineteenth century designs reached almost indescribable levels, with gold plated scrollwork, and paintwork with colours and lining schemes that would have done justice to any regal palace.

By later standards, such locomotives were small – even at the turn of the century, Pacific and 2-8-0 types were almost ‘commonplace – yet it was with these diminutive 4-4-0s that the vast Midwest and western regions of the USA were opened up. With the help of land grants of vast tracts of countryside on either side of the railroad, from the Government Land Office, possibly the most outstanding achievement was the linking by rail of both the east and west coasts at Promontory, Utah on May 10th 1869. rom this time, railroading in the USA entered a period of explosive growth, comparable with the Railway Mania period in this country, as the Government tried to encourage settlement of the West.

In terms of locomotive development though, from that time on, there was little resemblance. Where in this country the railways constructed there own motive power, in the USA, the contractors were relied on to a much greater extent, producing designs from their own drawing boards that could be bought ‘off the peg’ by the expanding railroads. Naturally, there were exceptions. The products of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Altoona Shops, or the Norfolk & Western’s plant at Roanoke, Virginia come most easily to mind. Even in the sphere of technical development, the contractors were often first to produce innovations – an approach not unknown in this country, but to a much lesser extent. Another major difference between the home country and the colonies’ designs was in the simple idea of recognition. Here, we have become used to referring to a locomotive type either by the railway on which it ran, or the locomotive engineer in charge of motive power on that line: in the USA the practice has been to refer to the manufacturer. Some of these companies are still household names to this day, even in this country – remember Baldwin, Lima and the American Locomotive Co. (Alco)? These were the greatest North American steam locomotive builders, and they had built on the foundations laid by Norris of Philadelphia, and the West Point Foundry, who, as specialist designers and builders could supply the locomotives in greater numbers than the railroads, who were then free to concentrate on the business of carrying passengers and freight.

NYC_Niagara_1by Otto Perry 30:6:1956

Alco built NYC “Niagara” 4-8-4 – one of the largest fixed wheelbase bar frame locos ever built – seen here in 1956. (Photo: Otto C. Perry/Denver Public Library)

The typical bar framed American locomotive at the zenith of its development followed two main patterns; one the rigid frame passenger type, which had progressively been enlarged to a 4-4-2 and then a Pacific 4-6-2, and ultimately the Niagara class 4-8-4s of the New York Central and Union Pacific railroads. These latter locomotives were not perhaps the largest rigid frames type, but they were certainly one of the most attractive and powerful US passenger types. As early as 1903, Pacifics of a similar size to the BR Standard ‘Britannias’ of half a century later were being built for US railroads, and by 1914, the most numerous and successful Pacific, the Pennsylvania’s K4 had emerged and was being built in considerable numbers and varieties until 1929. Some of these had been built with poppet valve gear, roller bearings, and a variety of other details, but surprisingly they still retained hand firing for a grate area of 70 sq. ft.  In that year too, a neighbouring road, The New York Central was beginning to achieve success with its own development of the Pacific type, placing an extra pair of carrying wheels under the firebox to carry a larger grate and providing the first Hudson, passenger type.  The four-wheel trailing truck however was not a new idea, having first seen the light of day on a 2-8-4 freight engine designed and built by the Lima Locomotive Works — demonstrating at least one innovative approach by a US contractor that was successfully employed on many railroads. The NYC Hudsons were first built as a conventional locomotive type, but as America was entering an era of streamlining, just like our own, some later engines were given a quite dramatic casing to haul the famous ’20th Century Limited’ from New York to Chicago.

Streamlining of steam passenger types, especially of the most famous trains, was common to a number of eastern and Midwestern railroads, including the Norfolk & Western’s ‘J’ class and the Chicago & North Western’s bright yellow Pacifies, or the Pennsylvania’s brunswick green engines of the same type but given an even more dramatic styling, looking for all the world like everyone’s idea of a toy train. Further west, streamlining was less evident , but the locomotives were equally stylish , as in the Southern Pacific’s ‘Daylight’ GS-4 4-8-4s, resplendent in a red, orange and black livery. The American passenger locomotives of the 1940s weighed about twice as much as their equivalents of forty years earlier, and developed up to three or four times as much power, with the 4-8-4s producing around 4,000 to 5,000 hp at the drawbar.

The largest US passenger type was probably the Santa Fe’s oil burning 3776 class 4-8-4, 35 of which were built by Baldwin in 1943/44, whilst the most intensively used were undoubtedly the NYC Niagaras. Freight locomotives developed along slightly different lines, and whilst the longest rigid frame types were the Union Pacific’s 4-12-2, used to power and assist westbound freights over the Sherman Hill, Wyoming, still larger designs were built using two sets of coupled wheels, with the leading engine pivoted. These articulated locomotives were invariably known as Mallets, although a true Mallet was a compound engine, frequently carrying the low pressure cylinders on the pivoted front engine unit, and the high pressure on the rigid rear frames. The originator of the system of articulation which bears his name was a Frenchman, M. Anatole Mallet. As with the rigid frame types, there were again a great many varieties of wheel arrangement chosen for the Mallets, from 0-6–6-0, adding pony trucks to front and rear in combinations of two and four wheels, and on the Chesapeake & Ohio at least a six wheel trailing truck on its massive H-8 class 2-6-6-6.


Union Pacific “Big Boy” No. 4000 in 1941 (Association of American Railroads / UP Photo)

The haulage power of these locomotives was prodigious, and not unnaturally, many were to be seen on the eastern coal roads, as the Norfolk & Western, Baltimore & Ohio, and the ‘ transcontinental’ lines to the west, the Rio Grande and the Union and Southern Pacifies. The B&O’s ‘EM’ class 2-8-8-4 was one of the giants, measuring some 125ft. long, with two sets of eight coupled drivers, 5′ 4″ in diameter – just imagine a 115 sq. ft. firebox, or if you prefer, almost three times the size of a ‘Britannia ‘. And, their weight – 451 tons (English tons that is!) , or if you prefer, or 1,010,700 lbs complete with a twelve wheeled tender.

Biggest of them all, the UP’s 4000 class, the ‘Big Boys’; 130 It. long, including tender, these 4-8-8-4s sported a 5′ 8″ driving wheel, sixteen in all, to carry the locomotive’s 772,000 lb weight (345 tons), and with its tender totalled no less than 1,120,000 lb (500 tons), or the equivalent of around five ‘Britannias’. Built by Alco in 1944, these locomotives had definitely reached the maximum development of the American locomotive, and at just over 16ft. high, and 11 ft. wide, they were rapidly encroaching on the extreme limits of the generous US loading gauge for standard gauge track. They may not have been everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ and their appearance, like so many US types, was described unsympathetically as ‘ugly’, but like it or not they were impressive and dramatic and maybe it would not have proved possible to build such a large and necessary machine economically using the traditional English plate frame.

Edward Bury’s legacy has been some of the largest and most powerful steam locomotives ever to take to the rails, though even with his ‘economical’ construction methods (mind you, that’s a little doubtful considering the size and weight of a one piece mainframe and cylinder casting for an articulated giant!), they were eventually ousted by the diesel. In the twenty six years between 1929 and 1955,50,954 steam types were scrapped as the diesel emerged from the shadows of the first streamlined Zephyrs – experimentally introduced on the Burlington line to take over not just the principal passenger services, but suburban and freight workings as well. Fortunately many of these giants of steam, both rigid frame and articulated power have been preserved, and in some way they represent a tribute to the technical innovation of Edward Bury over one hundred and fifty years ago.