The Case Of The Vanishing Locomotive


But throughout those years proponents of locomotives faced skepticism—and outright, deeply felt opposition. Canal owners, teamsters, shipowners, and others wished to fend off a potentially dangerous rival. Landowners worried that railway lines might have to cross their estates. Farmers objected that their livestock would be frightened. Ordinary citizens were frightened too: Locomotives traveled too fast, made too much noise, and posed severe risks of fire and explosion. The metaphor of the iron horse itself carried an ambivalent charge—of keen interest and hope admixed with underlying doubt and terror.

Turn the box through another partial rotation. Its underside reads as follows: JOHN B. JERVIS 1829 D&H CANAL COMPANY .

An ocean away the forces of change engulfed the new republic of the United States. Transportation growth, mining enterprise, industrial development: All were joined under the banner of “internal improvements.”

Individuals with money and ambition rushed to catch the wave of business opportunity. Among them were three brothers from Philadelphia: Maurice, William, and John Wurts. Around 1820 the Wurtses began scouting the mountainous region of northeastern Pennsylvania, and in short order they found what they were looking for: huge deposits of hard coal, the fuel that would feed steam engines and drive the entire process of industrialization. By 1823 they had pooled assets with other investors to exploit their important discovery. The resulting Delaware and Hudson Canal Company would quickly become one of the largest corporations in the country. Its first president was the mayor of New York City (Philip Hone), and its advocates included the governor of New York (DeWitt Clinton) and a future President of the United States (Martin Van Buren).


The founders of the D&H formed a bold plan to sell their fuel in the burgeoning markets of East Coast cities. The means to this end would be a new transport system linking the Pennsylvania coalfields with the Hudson River some ninety miles above New York City. Most of the intervening area could be covered by a canal. But the initial seventeen-mile section, over the crest of the mountains, was impractical for water travel.

To carry out their project, the company’s directors hired a small staff of engineers, led initially by Benjamin Wright (chief engineer of the Erie Canal) and then by John B. Jervis (formerly Wright’s assistant). Raised on a farm in upstate New York, Jervis had begun his career while working as an axman on the canal projects of his home region. Still a young man on taking charge of the D&H in 1827, he would in years to come be regarded as one of the most distinguished engineers of his generation.


Jervis’s scheme for the mountainous stretch was a railway composed of alternating planes and levels. The planes would climb (or descend) in varying degrees; stationary steam engines, set at fixed intervals, would supply the necessary power for them. On the levels, however, Jervis proposed to use locomotives. All this was without precedent in America, but Jervis persuaded his employers on the D&H board to proceed nonetheless. Indeed, his personal sights—and hopes—were set very high. Success with the railway would, he wrote, “form a new era in the internal improvement of our country.”

First, there was money to raise and work to do on the long canal. The company’s directors used their political connections to gain large public loans: five hundred thousand dollars from the New York State Assembly early in 1827 and another three hundred thousand two years later. They secured additional support through a public stock offering. As a result the D&H became, by some accounts, the first American company to reach a million-dollar level of capitalization.

Meanwhile, the building of the canal and the gravity railroad (as it was called) went ahead smoothly enough. In the Pennsylvania hills mining operations were also soon under way. Small settlements began to sprout in all the affected areas—at Wurtsboro and Port Jervis, New York, and, most especially, at Honesdale and Carbondale, Pennsylvania, terminal points for the proposed railway. Increasingly, as the decade advanced, the year 1829 loomed as a likely starting date for full-scale company operations.

Turn the box once again. On its farther side, note the single word AMERICA .

For some time Americans had been watching the progress of railway development in England. As early as 1805 an American inventor named Oliver Evans had built a steam-powered wagon that briefly rode the streets of Philadelphia. But Evans did not follow up on this experiment, and English primacy in locomotive invention remained unchallenged.