The Case Of The Vanishing Locomotive

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In fact, the Lion’ s success was not as complete as first imagined. The weight of the engine had damaged the track underneath. Company officials felt a “very serious disappointment” and sought to curtail public awareness of the entire “trial.” Even so, news reached Wall Street within weeks and sent the value of D&H stock shares into a steep plunge. The company tried to recoup by substituting horses for the power of the locomotive, but it suffered years of additional difficulty. When at last its mining operations began to yield profit—truly vast profit—the Stourbridge Lion was resting unused in a crude shed beside the track. Still, the Lion has been fully rewarded and recognized by history. Allen’s claim for its being “first . . . in the Western Hemisphere” is echoed today by the Smithsonian Institution, which proudly displays the engine’s complete boiler and other original parts. The same triumphant line appears in textbooks and monographs too numerous to mention.

In 1871 William H. Brown, a pioneer historian of America’s railways, sought to establish an exact record by asking each of the principals “about the first Locomotive imported to this country.” Jervis replied flatly (and falsely) that “the name of the first locomotive ordered from England, and the first in America, was the Sturbridge Lion .” Jervis’s master mechanic, David Matthew, answered with an evasive sidestep: “Sometime about the middle of May 1829 the locomotive called the Sturbridge Lion arrived from England.” Horatio Allen, alone among Brown’s informants, alluded to the America but misdated its arrival by a full eight months and rather cryptically declared that “this . . . was not the engine which made the first run on the road at Honesdale.” Subsequently, Allen would reverse himself by claiming that the two engines had reached New York together and “when the time came that one . . . was to be sent to Honesdale. The Sturbridge Lion was sent.”

Faced with such confusing testimony, Brown could only discount the Stephenson locomotive, while giving full honors to the Lion . It was left to later historians to identify the America by name and establish the date of its arrival. But for them, too, its subsequent disappearance remained a mystery. As one wrote in 1979, “Not having been run, the [ America ] . . . made no particular impression on anyone and was ignored by contemporary writers. It would seem that this is the explanation for the obscurity which has surrounded its fate.”

There is, however, another explanation. Recently recovered documents show beyond doubt that on July 23 both the America and the Stourbridge Lion reached Honesdale, where both were unloaded and both were placed on tracks.

Take up the box once more. Remove the lid, and read what is carved on the underside: BLEW UP JULY 26, 1829.

So we learn at last the fate of the America . First to be tried on track. And also, first to explode.

It appears, moreover, that the America was the focus of an early corporate cover-up. How else to explain its nearly complete absence from the records, and remembrance, of D&H officials? Certainly there was money at stake, a huge amount for the time. The private writings of the Wurtses, all through the period in question, disclose their acute fears for the solvency of the company. And if investors reacted so sharply to the way the Lion had damaged its track, would not the likely response to an engine explosion have been sharper still?

Reputations were at stake as well. Jervis was known, to employers and others, as an extremely sensitive sort, and his name, more than any other, was tightly linked to the railroad project. Allen and Matthew were young men near the start of their careers. The Wurts brothers had marked a course toward the summits of high finance but were as yet just partway there. Mayor Hone had committed his considerable prestige to the fortunes of the D&H. So, too, had other company backers. With all these men, failure—or simply a public perception of failure—might hold grave consequences for the future. To grasp their motives is easy enough; to reconstruct the hidden event itself is more difficult. BLEW UP JULY 26, 1829 is a headline, no more and no less. But if we let our imagination carry us back to those critical summertime months, we can create at least a probable scenario for the America’s violent demise.