Skip to main content

The Death Of Steam

March 2023
1min read

John H. White, Jr., replies : I was mistaken in stating that steampower was dominant on U.S. railroads as late as 1955. According to Census Bureau statistics, the numerical balance in favor of steam was last held in 1951, when 22,590 steamers and 19,014 diesels were in service on U.S. railroads. By 1955 that balance decidedly favored the “growlers,” when 26,563 diesels and 6,266 steamers were listed. However, I did not state that the conversion from the old form of locomotive to the new form took place between 1955 and 1960. Mr. Nelson either misread or misinterpreted my text. Nor is he correct in asserting that a rapid conversion began following the 1939 EMD freight-diesel demonstration. The railroad industry had by this date exhibited a mild enthusiasm for diesel switching engines, but freight and passengers remained solidly in the domain of King Steam. In 1941, two years after the EMD tour —a success wildly proclaimed by the manufacturer but considerably less enthusiastically received by the railroad industry—orders for new freight diesels were modest. At this time, 12 percent of the switching, 7.7 percent of the passenger work, and a meager 0.2 percent of the freight haulage was performed by diesels. By the end of World War II the skepticism of the railroad industry had begun to give way, and during the late 1940s many major railroads announced plans to go to diesel. The Santa Fe was an early convert because of its water-supply problems; steamers were thirsty beasts, consuming about a hundred gallons per mile, and the problem of obtaining large supplies of suitable water in a desert setting is easy to understand. The good performance of these Santa Fe units demonstrated the diesel as a reliable form of power for the punishing trade of railroading.

The diesel locomotive has proved itself a remarkably efficient servant on railways worldwide, and it has been credited as the salvation of American railroads in the postwar era. At the same time, care must be taken not to denigrate the steam locomotive as a hopelessly inefficient anachronism that should have seen sent to the boneyard decades before its demise in 1960. These machines might not match their successors in terms of thermal efficiency, but they were powerful, rugged, and reliable, and were an indispensable element in the American economy for 125 years.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "July/August 1996"

Authored by: The Editors


Authored by: The Editors

The Art of the American Road Map

Authored by: The Editors

How America’s Oldest Newspaper Cheated Death and Why It Matters

Authored by: The Editors

Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House

Authored by: The Editors


Authored by: The Editors

Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America

Authored by: The Editors

A Portrait of the Definitive American Desert

Authored by: The Editors

George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and Variations on “I Got Rhythm”; James P. Johnson: Yamekraw

Authored by: The Editors


Authored by: Fergus M. Bordewich

AFTER CENTURIES OF CONFLICT OVER THEIR RIGHTS AND POWERS, Indian tribes now increasingly make and enforce their own laws, often answerable to no one in the United States government. Is this the rebirth of their ancient independence or a new kind of legalized segregation?

Featured Articles

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.