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The Case Of The Vanishing Locomotive

June 2024
12min read

. . . and the birth of the railroad revolution in America. A mystery solved.


The transportation revolution of nineteenth-century America, and the opening of its interior heartland; the advent of large corporate enterprise, and the growing power of the profit motive; the building of the earliest railway systems, and the arrival from England of two steam locomotives, the first ever seen in the Western Hemisphere; the initial success of one of these, and its enormous fame thereafter; the unknown fate of the other, followed by its virtual disappearance from the historical record . . .


The transportation revolution of nineteenth-century America, and the opening of its interior heartland; the advent of large corporate enterprise, and the growing power of the profit motive; the building of the earliest railway systems, and the arrival from England of two steam locomotives, the first ever seen in the Western Hemisphere; the initial success of one of these, and its enormous fame thereafter; the unknown fate of the other, followed by its virtual disappearance from the historical record . . .

And . . . the recent recovery of a small mahogany box, intricately carved and symbolically shaped to the form of a coffin: in effect, a memento mori. Here are the ingredients of a compelling “railway mystery” that has resisted solution for more than a century and a half. Until now.

Let the box unfold the story.

Start on top, with the outside of the lid. There are no words here, but rather a carefully fashioned image. To the left: a locomotive in profile, with boiler, wheels, connecting rod, steam chamber, smokestack. To the right: a tender car, mounted with coal box and water barrel. In the center: a human figure, caught in an action pose, clearly the engineer. Along the upper rim: a wavy trail of smoke and steam.

In short, a steam-powered engine running on track. As the eighteenth century drew to a close, nothing of the sort existed—not in America, not anywhere else. Except on the oceans, the only tractive power known to humans was their own muscle or that of animals. And so it had always been.

But a change of measureless dimensions was looming just ahead. It began with a spreading effort to develop long-distance roadways— turnpikes , as they were known. It continued into a frenzy of canal building, culminating with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. These were, however, surface improvements; in each case the motive energy came from people and their livestock. Steamboats, for river travel, appeared almost concurrently and became the first conveyance with a mechanized power source. But it was only with the invention of railways that human history entered a genuinely new age of land-based travel and transport.

The America —the first engine to be built, arrive, and be “demonstrated” under steam—seems suddenly to have vanished.

Moreover, the new transportation systems were both cause and effect of sweeping innovations in business enterprise. Banks, corporations, and other forms of financial partnership would serve to underwrite the projects that rapidly transformed the countryside. The same institutions would in turn feed hugely on the profits realized from the transportation bonanza.

From all this came the mighty, modernizing force we know today as the Industrial Revolution. Its centerpiece, its single most essential link, was the railroad. And its loudly beating heart was the steam locomotive.

Turn the box, to its nearer side. Three words appear there: THE IRON HORSE .


The locomotive would displace, would dethrone, the horse in the world of human transport. But the process of that displacement was fitful and slow. Indeed, railways did not presume any particular power source. Horses could pull wheeled cars on sections of embedded track. And stationary steam engines, equipped with cable and rope, might serve the same purpose. The locomotive had, then, to prove its mettle against other, more familiar competitors.

Its first small successes came in the mining regions of north-central England. There, near the start of the nineteenth century, mine owners and operators began using steam tramways to haul coal from open pits to the loading piers on nearby rivers. From these would gradually develop the earliest freight and passenger railroads, such as the Stockton & Darlington (begun in 1825) and the Liverpool & Manchester (1830).

The guiding spirit behind both ventures was a self-taught engineer named George Stephenson, assisted by his son Robert. It was a Stephenson engine, the Rocket , that emerged victorious over several other prototypes in a famous “trial” held at Rainhill in the English Midlands in October 1829. For such achievements George Stephenson has been remembered ever since as the father of the steam 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.

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.

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.


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.

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