Skip to main content


More On Matthew

March 2023
1min read

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.

First Frost

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 "February/March 1985"

Authored by: Deborah O’keefe

They were called “friendly visitors” and they indeed visited, but could they really be considered friendly?

Authored by: Coley Taylor

The years the famous writer spent in their town were magic to a young boy and his sister.

Authored by: Oliver E. Allen

On the eve of the Normandy invasion, a training mission in the English Channel came apart in fire and horror. For years, the grim story was suppressed.

Authored by: Rebecca Martin

Israel Sack made a fortune by seeing early the craft in fine old American furniture

Authored by: James Card

A little-known ancestor of the nightly news comes to light

Authored by: William Serrin

At a time of crisis for American labor, an organizer looks back on the turbulent fifty-year career that brought him from the shop floor to the presidency of the United Automobile Workers.

Authored by: Lones Seiber

The GIs came home to find that a political machine had taken over their Tennessee county. What they did about it astounded the nation.

Authored by: Lynne Cheney

He built a career and a fortune out of shocking his fellow Americans

Authored by: Robert Uhl

A young artist takes on a venerable genre

Featured Articles

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.

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

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.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.