top of page

Ye Olde Steam Engines

I have long had an interest in rail transportation. As a boy I would refer to myself as "Big Choo Choo Man" (don't ask me why!) and build model railroad tracks up and down my parents' home hallway. Of course, one end was always Sacramento and the other Omaha to denote the respective terminuses of the Transcontinental Railroad. Growing up in Tennessee and now residing in Georgia has given me the opportunity to learn about the Great Locomotive Chase, and even see the General and Texas in person! Today I would like to share about some of America's earliest steam engines that I've gotten to see in person - some you may have heard of before, while others you may not have heard of before.

Railroading in America really began with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, chartered in 1827 by some Baltimore merchants to travel west to the Ohio River. Their goal was to hopefully compete with the water-based canal system that seaports such as Philadelphia and New York City used to transport goods. One of the supporters of the new enterprise was none other than Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll! Ninety years old at the groundbreaking ceremony in 1828, he was the last surviving signer alive. He considered supporting the new railroad the second most important act in his life.

The original Sturbridge Lion

The first steam engine that I would like to highlight is the Stourbridge Lion which is on display at the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. It was built in 1828 by Foster, Rastrick, and Company in England and named for the British town where it was built. The engine was bought by John Jervis for his Delaware and Hudson Canal Company and first run on August 8th, 1829. While never put into regular service, the Stourbridge Lion, according to signage at the Museum, is significant in American history as it is the "first steam locomotive to run on a commercial railroad in the Western Hemisphere". Unfortunately, over the years various parts of the engine were either stripped or vandalized. All that remained by 1890 (when the Smithsonian bought it) is the boiler, cylinder, and beams as pictured above.

* * *

Tom Thumb replica

The second steam engine I'd like to highlight is the Tom Thumb. It was an experimental test engine of sorts built and designed by Peter Cooper for the B&O Railroad. You may know Cooper better for his invention of instant gelatin or Jell-O. Anyways, the Tom Thumb carried B&O top brass from Baltimore to Ellicott's Mills, Maryland on August 28, 1830. It traveled at a breakneck 10-14 miles per hour! The engine intermittently hauled passengers until the following spring, for which it can lay claim to the first successful American steam locomotive. While no authenticated documentation has been found to support this claim, the Tom Thumb supposedly raced (and lost to) a horse-drawn car. Unfortunately, the original Tom Thumb was salvaged for parts in 1834. However, a replica was built in 1927 for the Fair of the Iron Horse (think: B&O RR publicity event!) and the replica thankfully survives at the B&O Railroad Museum.

* * *

The original John Bull

The third steam engine I'd like to highlight is the John Bull, displayed in Washington, D.C. at the National Museum of American History. The John Bull was built in England and shipped over to New Jersey for initial operation in September 1831. The destination railroad was the Camden and Amboy (C&A RR), the Garden State's first railroad. It's amazing to think that the engineer who assembled the John Bull, Isaac Dripps, had no drawings...or instructions of any sort on how to put the machine together! Following a publicity run in November 1831 on which Napoleon's nephew rode behind the engine, the John Bull was put in storage for two years until the rest of the railroad track had been laid. Officially, John Bull was named the #1 Stevens, after the Camden and Amboy Railroad president Robert L. Stevens. However, the men who ran the machine more often referred to it as the ole' John Bull, a nod to the name of a man who frequently personified England in cartoons of the time. John Bull stuck.

Unsurprisingly, the quality of railroad track in America was less than desirable and the John Bull was prone to derailment. To change this tendency, the C&A added two front guiding wheels in addition to the four main wheels underneath the broiler and a cowcatcher to conveniently relocate any animals that may be obstructing the track. I'm not sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if the John Bull is one of the first - if not the first - steam engine in America to boast a cowcatcher.

The John Bull remained in service until 1866 when it was retired. Soon after, the C&A RR was merged into the larger Pennsylvania Railroad system. The Pennsylvania understood the historical significance of the engine, saw the possible publicity, and put it on display at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The Smithsonian acquired the John Bull in 1883, though the Pennsylvania Railroad did borrow the engine in both 1893 and 1933 for fairs in Chicago. After that, the Smithsonian decided that the engine was becoming too fragile for external trips! However, as 1981 approached there was interest in celebrating the engine's 150th birthday. Checks were made and it was discovered that the John Bull was in surprisingly good shape. With much excitement, care, and documentation, the John Bull ran on its' own power on track in D.C.! This event made the John Bull the oldest operable steam engine in the world. The National Museum of American History has uploaded to YouTube some fantastic clips of the John Bull in action; check out my Resources section at the bottom of this article for the link!

* * *

The fourth and final steam engine I'd like to highlight is the John Quincy Adams, on display at the Carillion Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio. It has the distinction of being the oldest steam engine built in America! The unique "grasshopper" design - due to vertical broiler and cylinders - was the brainchild of watchmaker Phineas Davis. The engine, along with several others named after early American presidents, was built in July 1835 especially to haul passengers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. On August 25, 1835, the first trains chugged into Washington. Appropriately, the George Washington led the parade, but the John Quincy Adams was second in line. As time progressed and more powerful engines were developed, the John Quincy Adams was retained for switching duties. For the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago - the same fair that the John Bull was at - the Baltimore and Ohio re-built the John Quincy Adams to resemble the Traveler, an earlier locomotive in the Railroad's history. From my perusal of the Internet, it does not seem like many folks at the B&O either knew or cared about the engine's real identity. After consideration of inclusion in the 1927 Fair of the Iron Horse, the John Quincy Adams was sent to the junkyard. In 1947, when Edward Deeds was hunting for a historic locomotive to display in his new museum, the Baltimore and Ohio was evidently like, "Yeah sure! Feel free to take that Traveler junkheap if you want!" It was only during the restoration process that Deeds uncovered the true identity and historical significance of the engine. While static on the tracks, the Carillion Historical Park has restored the engine enough to the operational status of its' grasshopper-like cylinders. It's quite something to see these big rods go up and down, up and down! If you're interested in seeing the display for yourself but are currently unable to visit in person, check out the YouTube video I've linked in my resources section at the bottom of this article. It's quite fascinating!

* * *

I hope you have enjoyed this fast-paced scan through American history of this country's earliest steam engines. Which one was your favorite? Did I leave any out? Let me know in the comments below!


Stourbridge Lion - Wikipedia and B&O Railroad Museum

John Bull - Wikipedia, Smithsonian, and YouTube


bottom of page