The Case Of The Vanishing Locomotive

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The transportation revolution of nineteenth-century America, and the opening of its interior heartland; the advent of large corporate enterprise, and the growing power of the profit motive; the building of the earliest railway systems, and the arrival from England of two steam locomotives, the first ever seen in the Western Hemisphere; the initial success of one of these, and its enormous fame thereafter; the unknown fate of the other, followed by its virtual disappearance from the historical record . . .

 

The transportation revolution of nineteenth-century America, and the opening of its interior heartland; the advent of large corporate enterprise, and the growing power of the profit motive; the building of the earliest railway systems, and the arrival from England of two steam locomotives, the first ever seen in the Western Hemisphere; the initial success of one of these, and its enormous fame thereafter; the unknown fate of the other, followed by its virtual disappearance from the historical record . . .

And . . . the recent recovery of a small mahogany box, intricately carved and symbolically shaped to the form of a coffin: in effect, a memento mori. Here are the ingredients of a compelling “railway mystery” that has resisted solution for more than a century and a half. Until now.

Let the box unfold the story.

Start on top, with the outside of the lid. There are no words here, but rather a carefully fashioned image. To the left: a locomotive in profile, with boiler, wheels, connecting rod, steam chamber, smokestack. To the right: a tender car, mounted with coal box and water barrel. In the center: a human figure, caught in an action pose, clearly the engineer. Along the upper rim: a wavy trail of smoke and steam.

In short, a steam-powered engine running on track. As the eighteenth century drew to a close, nothing of the sort existed—not in America, not anywhere else. Except on the oceans, the only tractive power known to humans was their own muscle or that of animals. And so it had always been.

But a change of measureless dimensions was looming just ahead. It began with a spreading effort to develop long-distance roadways— turnpikes , as they were known. It continued into a frenzy of canal building, culminating with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. These were, however, surface improvements; in each case the motive energy came from people and their livestock. Steamboats, for river travel, appeared almost concurrently and became the first conveyance with a mechanized power source. But it was only with the invention of railways that human history entered a genuinely new age of land-based travel and transport.

The America —the first engine to be built, arrive, and be “demonstrated” under steam—seems suddenly to have vanished.

Moreover, the new transportation systems were both cause and effect of sweeping innovations in business enterprise. Banks, corporations, and other forms of financial partnership would serve to underwrite the projects that rapidly transformed the countryside. The same institutions would in turn feed hugely on the profits realized from the transportation bonanza.

From all this came the mighty, modernizing force we know today as the Industrial Revolution. Its centerpiece, its single most essential link, was the railroad. And its loudly beating heart was the steam locomotive.

Turn the box, to its nearer side. Three words appear there: THE IRON HORSE .

 

The locomotive would displace, would dethrone, the horse in the world of human transport. But the process of that displacement was fitful and slow. Indeed, railways did not presume any particular power source. Horses could pull wheeled cars on sections of embedded track. And stationary steam engines, equipped with cable and rope, might serve the same purpose. The locomotive had, then, to prove its mettle against other, more familiar competitors.

Its first small successes came in the mining regions of north-central England. There, near the start of the nineteenth century, mine owners and operators began using steam tramways to haul coal from open pits to the loading piers on nearby rivers. From these would gradually develop the earliest freight and passenger railroads, such as the Stockton & Darlington (begun in 1825) and the Liverpool & Manchester (1830).

The guiding spirit behind both ventures was a self-taught engineer named George Stephenson, assisted by his son Robert. It was a Stephenson engine, the Rocket , that emerged victorious over several other prototypes in a famous “trial” held at Rainhill in the English Midlands in October 1829. For such achievements George Stephenson has been remembered ever since as the father of the steam locomotive.