The Case Of The Vanishing Locomotive

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So it was that in January 1828 the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company sent a young engineer named Horatio Allen to arrange the purchase of several English-made locomotives. Allen reached Newcastle in February and after months of careful investigation contracted for one engine from the Stephensons and three more from another company called Foster and Rastrick.

The Stephenson engine was ready first. Christened the America but also known as the Pride of Newcastle , it was shipped from London that November and reached New York on January 15, 1829. Four months later, on May 13, a second engine, the Stourbridge Lion , arrived from Foster and Rastrick.

Soon thereafter, with public curiosity sharply on the rise, the D&H arranged to demonstrate its two locomotives. Again the America went first; New York newspapers described its being put in motion (with wheels raised off the ground) before an enthusiastic crowd that included “his Excellency the Governor, several judges of the courts, the gentlemen of the D&H Co., and a large number of others.” A day later the same public “experiment” was made on the Stourbridge Lion , with equally satisfactory results.

The following weeks were used for mechanical fine-tuning and for planning operational details. A letter from Allen to Jervis, dated June 22, noted their agreement to put the America “on the summit,” while “the other engine (the Lion ) had better be taken to the head of the canal [at Honesdale].” By early July all was in readiness for transferring both locomotives upriver to the nearer end of the newly made canal. Company records show their safe arrival via packet boat and the start of their further journey.

But from this point the story—the official story—is dramatically interrupted. According to a later company history, “On July 16, the locomotives cleared from Eddyville . . . [but] no record of the arrival of the America at Honesdale has been found, and no mention of it in the correspondence that exists in regards to the unloading of the Stourbridge Lion . The history, therefore, of the America from the time it started up the canal remains a mystery.”

It appears that the America was the focus of an early corporate cover-up. How else to explain its absence from the records?

In short, the Stephenson engine—first to be ordered, built, and paid for, first to arrive, and first to be “demonstrated” under steam—seems suddenly to have vanished. Its several firsts, plus such technical considerations as its apparent mechanical superiority and significantly lighter weight, point to the America as the likely choice to be first also for a trial run. Yet according to all subsequent accounts, that historic honor went instead to the Stourbridge Lion .

On the morning of Saturday, August 8, 1829, before a large crowd of excited onlookers drawn from Honesdale and the surrounding countryside, Horatio Allen climbed aboard the Lion and took the controls. Years later he would remember the moment for admiring audiences. In one grandiloquent version he began as follows: “When the imagination has attained to some of the scene, let us seek to go back to a time when only one of these iron monsters was in existence on this continent.” (Had he forgotten entirely about the America ?) He continued: “The impression was very general that the iron monster would either break down the road or that it would leave the track and plunge into the creek. My reply to this apprehension was that it was too late to consider the probability of such occurrences; that there was no other course but to have the trial made of the strange animal which had been brought here at such expense, but that it was not necessary that more than one should be involved in its fate: that I would take the ride alone. . . . Preferring, if we did go down, to go handsomely and without any evidence of timidity, I started with considerable velocity, passed the curve over the creek safely, and was soon out of hearing of the cheers of the large assembly present. At the end of two or three miles, I reversed the valves and returned without accident to the place of starting, having thus made the first railroad trip by locomotive in the Western Hemisphere.”

The completion of Allen’s ride let loose a burst of local celebration, marked not only by “cheers” but also by volleys from “a large cannon,” one of which misfired and seriously injured a young bystander.