The Case Of The Vanishing Locomotive

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As the time approached for putting the new locomotives into actual operation, tension would certainly have run high. But the engineers’ plan to use the America on the railway’s remote “summit” section afforded the chance for a private test run. Moreover, the date set, July 26, was a Sunday; the local populace would be otherwise occupied. A handful of company officials and employees would constitute the only audience for this momentous—but unpredictable and risky—event.

At the appointed hour the firebox was stoked, steam was raised, and, with an unknown man at the throttle, the America was put into motion—making transportation history, whether acknowledged or not. How far? How fast? How many runs? Who was the first locomotive engineer? The answers to these questions may never be discovered, for on that day the America BLEW UP , and those present agreed to say nothing of what they had witnessed, beyond a small circle of company insiders.

There remained, of course, the Stourbridge Lion , which, unlike the America , had been conspicuously set up in the middle of town (in Honesdale). There it stood, the focus of much attention and curiosity, hour after hour, day after day. In later years it was remembered “as looking like a mammoth grasshopper . . . and the front was ornamented with a large, fierce-looking face of a lion.” As a result, “it was an object of great dread” to local passersby.

There was, in short, no possibility of conducting a closed trial of this second locomotive. Company officials would have to run it in a very public way or else face unwanted questions (perhaps including some about the America ). So run it they did. Surely they were fearful; Allen’s much later account describes a prevalent “impression” of impending disaster. And for those few who knew the fate of the America thirteen days before, the anxiety must have been extreme. Still, as Allen put it, “there was no other course but to have the trial made.” He himself would emerge as martyr or hero; at the time he could not have known which.

Because the Lion succeeded—in historic, if not operational, terms—any public memory of the America would gradually fade. Moreover, the personal memories of those most closely involved would be carefully suppressed. Yet this does not mean they forgot, as the carved box so clearly testifies. At some point later on, one of them sat down with tools and materials to create a private memento of what must have been a searing experience for all. A dream had died there on the “summit” above Honesdale, and now it would have its appropriate coffin. Preserved by means unknown through several succeeding generations, the box would eventually surface, in the spring of 1981, in a small antiques shop on New York’s Upper East Side.

Most likely, its maker was David Matthew, known for his skill in drafting as much as for his mechanical expertise. Probably, the recipient was Jervis, since his is the only name it carries. They were two old friends and colleagues who shared a painful secret, which now, more than 150 years later, need be a secret no more.