February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
David Matthew, the pioneer railway engineer whose drawings appeared in the August/September 1984 issue of American Heritage, is surely an obscure figure, yet one who was involved with great men and great events in American railroad history. His life can be partially reconstructed from fragments found in the railroad trade press.
Born in Scotland about 1810, Matthew came to this country at the age of seven. Around 1826 he became an apprentice at the West Point Foundry’s machine shop, which was then located at the foot of Beach Street and should not be confused with the same firm’s facility at Cold Harbor, some fifty miles up the Hudson. This was among the first great mechanical establishments in the New World, one of the few places our pioneer industrialists could turn to for native-made machinery. When the railway age began in the United States, in 1830, West Point, almost alone among domestic shops, was capable of manufacturing locomotives. So, as a very young man, Matthew found himself in the midst of a technical revolution comparable to the presentday computer age. The ten engines produced at West Point between 1830 and 1835 were pioneers indeed, but only one appears to have been a remarkable success: the Experiment , or Brother Jonathan , was first to incorporate a leading truck, an improvement devised by J. B. Jervis and one that lasted until the end of steam motive power on this continent. Our first full-size commercial locomotive, the famous Best Friend of Charleston , was completed by West Point in June 1830.
Matthew left the foundry to work for the Mohawk & Hudson as an engineer for several years and then early in 1836 was named master mechanic of the Utica & Schenectady Railroad. During his two years there, Matthew claims to have introduced the roundhouse, feedwater heater, handcar, and snowplow. And while the validity of these claims is open to question, Matthew is, at least, in the running.
About 1840 he removed to Washington, D.C., where he divided his time between farming and mechanical work at the navy yard. From there he went to superintend John Watchman’s ironworks in Baltimore, and then on to New Jersey. In the late 1860s he surfaces in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and by the 187Os he had gone all the way west to San Francisco. He is listed as an engineer with the local gasworks in 1888 and presumably spent his final days in the City by the Bay.
There he produced in 1887 his curious Pictorial History of the Pioneer Locomotives , a book made up of tipped-in photographs of his drawings. Along with the four you published in color are several others. Some are nothing more than paste-ups of old timetable covers and engravings, but all of them are worth a look. How long he lived after its publication is unknown. Perhaps a descendant or genealogical specialist can offer more on this common man who manifested such a wonderful pride in the progress of mechanical invention.