19th Century Locomotive History


     It’s hard today, to believe back in the early days of the birth of then steam locomotive, that they believed the locomotive was irrelevant. The fear of explosion was always present. An explosion usually was an operator error. In my readings for my railroad books, later in the article you’ll read about one of these operator error accidents. Let’s just say that bad decisions can blow up in your face.

     Although met with resistance and skepticism, with refinements, improvements, and new safety equipment, his locomotive helped shape the world.

     Peter was the son on a Revolutionary War Officer. With only one year of formal education, he became one of the most important inventors, businessmen and philanthropist of his era.

       Peter Cooper

Unknown photographer   '

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons


     At the age of seventeen, he apprenticed at a coachmakers shop. Through hard work and determination, the coachmaker extended a salary. After his apprenticeship was complete, he was offered a loan to start his own coach making business. He declined and sought his future in manufacturing and sales. 2

     After various adventures, he turned over a fledging company to his son and son-in-law to start Canton Iron Works. Built on 3,000 acres of property in Baltimore.

     The company was built to supply the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company which was to be built. Due to the English standards of laying track, it was an appalling route. The English were used to laying track straight and flat. The land that the railroad was built on was hilly and had a lot of twists.                         

     Good thing this was to be built in the United States.

     The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had put out a notice in the paper for a steam locomotive to be built by an American manufacturer. The locomotive would be required to meet their track specifications. It would also be required to be available for trials by June 1831.

     The best locomotive to meet all their specifications would be paid $4,000 with second place being $3,500. 3

    So, Peter started building a coal burning locomotive, which could pull a load of 40 people at a speed of 10 mph. The locomotive received its name from the locomotive’s own physical characterizes. Christened Tom Thumb due to an upright boiler, short wheelbase, and geared drive.


Tom Thumb

Baltimore County Public Library

Public Domain, Wiki Commons


     There was a few who were not impressed with the Iron Horse. Peter Cooper and Tom Thumb was challenged to a race by a horse-drawn car operator. The race was on. Thumb was in the lead, but a belt slipped, causing it to lose power, allowing the horse-drawn carriage to win the race.


The Iron Horse Wins

Public Domain, Wiki Commons


     But all was not a total loss, the demonstration was successful. The railroad ordered trails for a full working engine the following year. 4

     Even though Tom Thumb fulfilled its purpose, it never went into full service. It was scrapped in 1824. Tom Thumb's legacy was that is wasn't long before the locomotive replaced the horse and carriage.


Replica of the Tom Thumb

Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons


     Later on Peter founded the Cooper Union.  An institution offering free courses in science, engineering and art.   

     At a reception for him, reflecting back on his life. He summed up his philosophy: “I have endeavored to remember that the object of life is to do good.”

     After Tom Thumb made its mark on the world, another locomotive came upon the scene. It was given the title of the first American built locomotive to haul a revenue passenger train.

     The locomotive was “Best Friend of Charleston” for the Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. The 0-4-0 was built by the New York West Point Foundry.

   On December 15, 1830, the locomotive pulled a passenger train full of paying customers. It did not last long; in June of 1831 it suffered a catastrophic explosion. The engineer did not like the racket of a steam relief valve that kept venting off the boiler's access steam. So, he tied off the shutoff valve so he wouldn’t have to listen to it. A relief valve is just that. When the boiler started reaching its high-pressure limit, the relief valve would open to allow the excess pressure to be released. When he tied off the valve, it was like a balloon, if you kept blowing air into it, and if you didn’t stop blowing, it would pop.

     Well, this is what happened to the boiler, but it’s pop was a lot louder and deadlier. The engineer didn’t have to listen to that noisy relief valve or anything else ever again. 

     That same year, Robert Stevens was the founder of the Camden and Amboy Railroad in New Jersey. He commissioned George Stephenson of England to build a locomotive for the railroad.

     So, in 1831 Stephenson sent the locomotive, “John Bull” as it was later christened, to America. Only thing was, it had to be sent disassembled.

     Upon arrival in America, an engineer for the company, Isaac Dripps and his crew were tasked with it's assembly. This was a monumental task, due to Dripps had never assembled one before and it was sent without any drawings.

     This is a picture drawn by Dripps in 1882 as to what the locomotive looked like upon reassembly.

Isaac Dripps, Public domain,  via Wikimedia Commons



     After reassembly the locomotive was tested, and it had a deafening roar to it and reached a top speed of 15 mph.

     John Bull did not originally have a cab for the crew to escape the elements. This was built along with adding a front carriage with wheels (later called a truck).

     The front carriage was added due to the tracks of the Camden and Amboy Railroad were rough and uneven. Due to John Bull was very rigid it did not respond well to the inferior tracks. The condition of the tracks caused the locomotive to derail a lot. The forward carriage allowed the locomotive to be less rigid, causing it to derail less. 


Andy Dingley (scanner), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


   The locomotive served the railroad, and later the Pennsylvania Railroad for approximately thirty tears until 1866. Later in the 1860’s it was sent to the Smithsonian Institute for display.

     Leading up to 1981 when the Smithsonian was making preparations to celebrate John Bull’s 150th anniversary. Seeing how good of shape it was in, they had it inspected. Along with some minor repairs it was fully operational.

     So, for the anniversary celebration it was placed upon the old Georgetown Branch Line and made its run to Washington D.C.                                          





  1. The History of the Tom Thumb Steam Engine and Peter Cooper, First American-Built Steam Locomotive.com
  2. The Liberator, Boston, Massachusetts 22 June 1831
  3. 19th Century Locomotive History, Thought.com
  4. John Bull Steam Locomotive (2-4-0), American-Rails.com

 5. Encyclopedia  Britannica.com