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July 2024
16min read

The John Bull Steams Again

In early September of 1831, Isaac Dripps, master mechanic of the nascent Camden and I Amboy Railroad, stood staring at a miscellaneous assortment of bolts, levers, and pipes I that he was expected to assemble into a working locomotive. The engine had been ordered by the New Jersey line from Robert Stephenson of Newcastle, England, then the world’s leading locomotive builder, who had shipped it across the Atlantic in parts, accompanied by nothing much in the way of instructions. Dripps, who was barely out of his teens, had never seen a locomotive before, but he set to work, and within two weeks he had the John Bull ready to run—a clear augury of how successfully we Americans would take to this English invention.

The engine ran and ran and ran, pulling passengers at speeds up to thirty-five miles per hour, but finally in 1849 she was demoted to humble shop duty. By this time, however, railroads had begun to transform the nation, and the John Bull’s owners realized they had something of a marvel in their hardy pioneer. So they never sent the engine to the scrap heap and, in 1876, they cleaned her up and sent her to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Nine years later, they presented her to the Smithsonian Institution, and there she rests today, the oldest operable locomotive in the world.

She is currently in the care of John H. White, Jr., the Smithsonian s Curator of Transportation, and it was up to him to decide how her 150th anniversary should be marked this September. In this article, he describes the audacious plan he finally lit on, a plan not merely exciting to the participants, but one that helps fulfill what White sees as the historian’s challenge: “To break through barriers that make us see artifacts of the past as remote, obscure relics. A sensitive observer must come to understand them as ordinary objects that were once undistinguished participants in everyday life. Only if we can understand material culture in this sense can we interpret the past beyond the antiquarian level.


Raising the dead is normally the business of those possessing supernatural powers, but occasionally ordinary men are associated with such arcane enterprises. My involvement in resurrecting the venerable John Bull constantly evoked for me the classic theme of death and rebirth. To rekindle motion and warmth in a long-silent vessel and have it move and speak again has a magical quality.

My earliest impressions of the John Bull in no way suggested that one day I would be at her throttle, clicking over the rails with steam up; such a thought would indeed have seemed the ultimate fantasy. I first inspected the engine twenty-three years ago when I began work as a museum aide. I was only a temporary summer employee, a young man and very conscious of my humble station amongst the scholars and patricians who managed the old U.S. National Museum, a major branch of the Smithsonian Institution. Chief among its sacred possessions was the John Bull. Donated in 1885, it was the first engineering relic accessioned by the museum, and it stood in the pale gloom of the Arts and Industries Building’s East Hall. This vast Victorian structure, opened to the public in 1881, had all the gaiety of a Romanesque cathedral. Even on a bright summer day, the interior lighting was only a somber glow from clerestory windows, fifty feet or more above. The setting was one of reserve and old-fashioned dignity; “Do Not Touch” signs were really not required.

I was curious about the mechanical arrangement of the engine, which was like nothing I had seen before. One could see a fair amount from the floor, yet I yearned to climb over and under every inch of this rumpled black ark. But there were always too many staff members wandering about the floor. One evening, though, I stayed late to finish some filing. The offices were closed, the exhibit halls empty. On my way out I was passing the locomotive—then the sole example in the Smithsonian collection—when the happy thought occurred to me: I was alone with my alluring friend. I was in no hurry and it was still fairly light outside on that early summer evening. And so in a half hour of uninterrupted study I solved the mystery of the drop-hook valve gear by lifting and shifting the levers and connecting linkage. Soon, mounting the footplate seemed perfectly natural. Next I tried the throttle lever, but it was frozen tight and would not budge. Finally I succumbed to the major temptations: the whistle and the bell cords. The whistle was, of course, silent, but the bell gave forth a merry peal. With that I beat a retreat and headed home.

The summer job led to a permanent position and soon I was the John Bull’s caretaker. I came to know its history and basic dimensions almost by heart—but I never was quite able to perceive it as an actual working locomotive. Once, early in my training as a curator, I saw in the Egyptian Gallery of the British Museum the body of an ancient Pharaoh. He was remarkably well preserved and yet I walked away with no sense that this dry, blackened corpse had really been a living human being. I could not overcome the conviction that what I had seen was more a grisly papier-mâché representation of death than anything to do with the world of the living. I suppose ancient kings and locomotives are not comparable, but I equated the old Pharaoh with the John Bull . At least I did until October 14, 1980.


My thinking began to change as the 150th anniversary of the John Bull approached. Just how should we celebrate the event? We had to do something about the birthday of the oldest complete locomotive in North America. First thinking on the subject was conservative. A ceremony beside the engine, with a new label, some sherry, invited guests, a short speech by the director, followed by a news release. All tasteful and modest. Perhaps we could pipe in some compressed air and blow the whistle. Maybe we could put in a bigger line and make the wheels go around. And now the thinking began to get bizarre: maybe the John Bull wasn’t like the old Pharaoh, maybe it could be steamed up and run in public. But this was wild and foolish. It was surely anti-preservation. We don’t use artifacts, we conserve them. It would be expensive. It would be dangerous. It would be undignified. The dead are forever dead. Don’t tamper with history. Forget it.

But the idea became obsessive, and at last I gave in. One morning in the first days of 1980 I asked my long-time associate John Stine to meet me on the main gallery floor just to have a look at the John Bull. There was nothing unusual in that; we routinely inspect major specimens to make sure each part is secure and that they look presentable. But when I began to ask about house jacks and a ready source of compressed air, John realized this was not the beginning of an ordinary day. Was I really intending to… ? Yes. Now John is one of the most resourceful technicians on our staff. He can pull together materials and labor with amazing speed and is a master at circumventing the bureaucratic procedures that deaden or kill too many projects. Later the same day I noticed two big jacks and a pile of short timbers nestled to one side of the engine. Just before quitting time, John asked me to come downstairs. He and Larry Jones, another technician and a first-class mechanic, had removed both cylinder heads. I was delighted to find the interior surface shiny and free of pitting. They had already jacked up the rear drivers and, with gentle application of a long two-by-four used as a bar between the spokes, demonstrated how freely she would turn over. We decided to make an air test as soon as the more suspicious gaskets were checked or replaced. Most of these dated, I presumed, from 1927 when the engine was last under steam as part of the Baltimore & Ohio’s centennial pageant.

After a few more days of fussing we were ready. A rented air hose wound a serpentine course between the cases across the tool-exhibit floor to the Power Hall, where it was connected to a house air pipe. Early on the morning of January 9, before most employees were present and hours before the public was admitted, we opened the air valve. We were dealing with the original wrought iron boiler built by Robert Stephenson & Co. in 1831, and while I was wondering what problems had developed during its long hibernation, the pressure mounted inside its rusty, dull brown walls. We began to notice some small leaks, but none from the boiler shell itself. They seemed to be around fittings that could be tightened or regasketed. So far, all the news was good.

When the gauge registered forty-two pounds, the rear safety valve began to rattle and lifted slightly a few seconds later. The compressor was holding its own against the leaks, assuring us that nothing was radically wrong. I had intended to conduct only a leak test that first day, but John and Larry had more ambitious plans. With the jacks and timbers already in place, the rear wheels could be lifted from the rails with a few clicks of the ratchets. Why not? The day before, they had doused all the bearing and running surfaces with oil. I was persuaded to crack the throttle and see what would happen. In the excitement of the moment I nearly forgot how to engage the valves, and after some fumbling with the levers and reach rods, John and Larry coached me from the floor at the head end of the engine. We finally got her in gear. The safety valve began to rattle, and I tugged at the throttle before it lifted again. Air surged down the dry pipes through the valve ports and into the cylinders. An instant later the old fossil roared back to life. After a hoarse bark of exhaust and a great cloud of dust from the stack, she settled down to a quiet ticking sound no louder than a well-oiled steeple clock.

News of our experiment reached the front office, and our new deputy director came downstairs. I invited Doug Evelyn to climb up on the deck for a closer look. After a demonstration he asked to handle the throttle. How do you say no to the boss? Doug would be called a fast runner if he were a railroad man; the engine came to life with a burst of rapid chugs and made a terrifying—at least to me—lurch forward. Fortunately the cable holding the front wheels to the rails held, and the blocks and jacks didn’t fall over. After an awful moment of rocking to and fro, the air pressure fell off to a few pounds and the wheels slowed down. Our wild ride was over just in time. Doug wanted to know why I looked so strange.

Although the air tests and visual inspections were reassuring, they were also superficial and in no way proved the feasibility of operating the engine under its own power. I sought an expert opinion—and who could be more expert in such matters than the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company? Their director of marketing development, John Eklund, thought it was a great idea, and after a few weeks of negotiations he convinced the Hartford’s management to lend us their best inspection team gratis. These gents normally deal with such ultrasophisticated pressure vessels as the massive boilers that produce steam for generating stations. Their equipment and methods are equally advanced, but they looked on the John Bull as a challenge. Before the flying team came to Washington, Hartford sent a young man from their Baltimore office to make a visual inspection. David Spinelli would, in fact, be on hand for a whole series of tests and proved wonderfully patient and helpful to us. He was definitely not a “fast runner”; befitting his profession he was a man of utmost caution and rarely was given to any undue optimism about the trustworthiness of a fire tube.

In March the Hartford team did their duty. Sheets of photographic film were laboriously placed around the boiler. The X rays showed no serious cancer. Each rivet was tested. An ingenious electronic device traveled through the boiler tubes recording the precise wall thickness. The final report, though couched in the most cautious language, remained positive. Next, we resorted to old-fashioned hydrostatic tests. The first two were minor disasters as water sprayed from a dozen places. John and Larry dried themselves and worked on doggedly—a thicker gasket here, more compound or a new set of bolts there. Fearful of putting too much pressure on the soft wrought iron bolts, we removed many and replaced them with modern steel ones. Certain fittings also had to be replaced for safety. We installed modern safety valves and feed-water check valves, reseated the throttle, and mounted a second steam gauge near the original, even though the old one was reasonably accurate. All this work was done with the utmost care to conserve and preserve the original machinery. No new holes were drilled. Nothing was welded or changed. Every single part removed will be replaced after the anniversary trip. I was determined to do nothing that would diminish the John Bull as a historic specimen.

With every reasonable stationary test behind us, it looked certain the engine could be operated safely. Nevertheless, it struck us as more than advisable to take the great grandfather of all American locomotives out for a trial steaming up. Since no one could predict just how she would react to fire and water in her belly, it seemed prudent to seek as remote a spot as possible for the wet run. Months before, the Chessie System had agreed to our staging the public event on their Georgetown branch and they would most likely have consented to an earlier trial. But their tracks ran through a much-used National Park that begins in densely populated Georgetown—too many joggers, cyclists, children, and dogs. We needed something out in the country but not too far away. I asked my friend James Bistline, an official of the Southern Railway System, if we could borrow their Calverton branch. After he recovered from the shock of learning why we wanted it, he said he would find out. The line sees only one freight a week so it posed no major problem for the operating department. But the lawyers were worried. Would we “indemnify, defend and save harmless the Southern Railway System in perpetuity. …” Our legal department added another thirty or so pages to the already massive document, and once enough boiler plate had been created, both sets of counsel gave their reluctant blessing to the operation of a 149-year-old steam locomotive over a common carrier railroad.

Meanwhile Jim, John, and I looked over the Calverton branch. It was perfect. Calverton, Virginia, is about fifty-five miles southwest of the city, and the track runs roughly ten miles to the county seat of Warrenton over nearly level ground through beautiful farm land. No big towns, no major highway crossings, and very few people. The local fire and rescue companies were willing to cooperate. Neither had heard of the John Bull, but since the Southern had run excursion trains over the branch in recent years, the local people understood what was needed to service a steam engine. Bill Smith, chief of the Catlett Volunteer Fire Department, assured us we would have all the water we needed and his men would put out any brush fires we might ignite. Mary Embry of the Cedar Run Rescue Squad promised to be there in case of an accident.

The official (but, as we have seen, the second) live steam trial of the John Bull will take place on September 15, 1981—the day the Smithsonian Institution has chosen to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the locomotive. She will pull an 1836 railway car northward along the Potomac River from downtown Washington over the tracks of the Chessie System’s Georgetown branch. Plans for more permanent commemoration of the anniversary include the issuing of a special U.S. postage stamp, the filming of a documentary movie, and publication by the Smithsonian Press of a handsomely illustrated book written by our author

The John Bull: One Hundred and Fifty Years a Locomotive.

Rather than wait until other events or inside support groups came up with new ways to obstruct the experiment (the Smithsonian insurance office raised a last-minute objection but too late, we were on the road) we settled on October 14, 1980, for the wet run. To save money we would do our own rigging. Eric Gaardsmoe and Richard Farr, both of the Smithsonian staff, offered their expertise and muscle to move the engine in and out of the building. John, Larry, and our labor force all pitched in. We removed the cowcatcher, smokestack, and the copper safety cover pipes to lower the engine’s height, and eased back the partially stripped locomotive on a wooden crib. Heavy rollers permitted the rig to move over the terrazzo floors to the east freight elevator. Down she went to the basement and along a hallway to the loading dock. Monday, October 13, was a holiday, and while the museum floors above us were packed with tourists, we were busy inching the John Bull onto a flat-bed trailer. The smokestack, tools, oil, and other small parts went into my aging blue pickup truck. While this was taking place, a second crew and truck were at our Silver Hill, Maryland, warehouse loading the tender. Weeks before, we had started work on the replica tender—a 1930 reconstruction of an 1876 replica. The original water tank was hopeless so it was removed and two 250-gallon fuel oil tanks took its place. Once loaded, the tender was brought to Fourteenth Street, near the museum, where it would join the locomotive for the journey south.

Our curious caravan was on the road by early afternoon. As the truck pulled over the bump of the driveway apron, I thought I heard the bell peal softly. Was the old girl glad to be outside under the open sky after all her years as a shut-in? I was struck to see the engine pass the Washington and Jefferson monuments; both the classical revival in architecture and the introduction of steam railroads occurred during the same decade.

The trip took two hours. We were blessed with a beautiful fall day. We were also blessed with a fine unloading site at Calverton, where a wye track unites the branch with the main line. One leg of the wye had a broad, flat gravel area just right for unloading. While this was under way, I went off in search of firewood and found a local farmer willing to sell me a truckload at an inflated price. When I returned, the tender was already on the track and the engine was being eased along the trailer bed with a hand-powered cable come-along.

Not long after unloading, an employee of the Southern stepped over to ask if we actually intended to run that old thing. When I said yes, he shook his head. Boy, she looks mighty broken down to me, he said. Now if you got up a steel frame, a new boiler, and some roller bearings you might have yourself a good-running little engine. Happily, our chief of conservation didn’t overhear those remarks.

The late-afternoon light painted the engine a golden orange as we hurried to reassemble her before sunset. We finally had to resort to a portable generator, and while we fastened down the last pieces, John went off in search of the fire chief. The fire company had a meeting that evening and he didn’t arrive until about 10:30. John wanted to introduce the water through the rear inspection plate just below the throttle. This was a mistake, for removing the plate tore the gasket. In all the supplies we brought with us, no one had remembered to include a roll of sheet gasket. But we had a tube of compound sealer that a Washington supply man had praised to the heavens. It was late. Nothing was open. We were fifty miles out in the sticks. So we tried it; it might work. We put a heavy coat on both sides of the torn gasket and rebelled the plate. Bill Withuhn, a Cornell graduate student who was working with me as a Fellow, advised us to overfill the boiler so that we would have plenty of water to cool her down. We filled the boiler and prepared to light off. As the wood took to flame, pale gray smoke almost immediately wafted out of the stack. She had a beautiful natural draft.

A night-long vigil began. We bedded down in a rented motor home parked next to the engine. I could see her from my bunk window just a few yards away in the pale moonlight—with the sight and smell of wood smoke and the faint glow of the fire on the ground under the ash pan, who could sleep? Every few hours we would go out and drop in more logs. By 4:00 A.M. the warmth had reached the full length of the boiler. By daybreak we were all up and moving. We piled in a good load of wood and watched the gauges. One of the needles lifted off the peg. Steam at last! The needle kept inching up. The fire crackled and the water made muffled surging sounds as it turned to steam. But when the gauge registered twenty pounds, the gasket under the rear inspection plate cover ruptured. The wonder compound melted into a worthless red goo and blew away with the escaping steam and water. Damn it! It was seven o’clock; the director and his entourage were due at ten to see an operating engine. We could drive back into town for gasketing but the morning traffic rush would soon be under way and we could figure on a three- to four-hour round trip. John volunteered to go look around in Manassas, the closest suburban community of any size. After he left, we pulled the burning logs out of the firebox, propped open the safety valve, and opened the right-hand blowoff. The water had to drop below the level of the inspection plate.

About an hour and a half later John returned. Success in Manassas. A local plumber had saved the day. While we fashioned a new gasket, John went off to raise the fire department—we needed more water. After a long wait we decided to try to refill by hand. With the help of a plastic wastebasket and a large funnel we managed to raise the water to a safe level before the volunteers returned. A new fire brought us back up to twenty pounds in about an hour. All eyes were on the new gasket. The edges curled but it held. By ten the gauges registered fifty pounds and the safety opened with a roar.

The great moment had arrived. Steam was up, the track was clear, it was time to see if the John Bull was indeed the oldest operable locomotive in the world. Two blasts on the whistle, John began working the bell rope, we latched the valve into forward position, and I tugged at the throttle. It didn’t want to move. I gave a more definite pull.

We were moving. Out of the stack came an eruption of scalding water, steam, and soot. The boiler was overfull so she was priming badly, but after the first few exhausts expelled most of the surplus water we rolled slowly around the curving track on a slight downgrade. I shut off steam and we coasted to a stop. By god she works! I reopened the throttle valve and we went down the track over the switch and stopped again. I couldn’t have been more delighted. All those months of planning, talking, and working. A dream had come true.


We continued short practice runs back and forth between the parking area and the switch. Every member of the four-man crew took his turn at throttle, bell, and foot brake. This last station was actually rather pleasant, being elevated some ten feet above the ground on the roof of the tender. The view was wonderful though occasionally cinder-laden. After our confidence grew, we took the engine downgrade and over the highway crossing. Now, ready for a more adventuresome ride, we headed for the next village, Casanova. Several autos followed us, loaded with museum staff and friends. They clocked our top speed at fifteen miles per hour. The trip seemed very long and I could hardly believe it was only two miles. We passed a field where several horses were grazing. Like their ancestors, they wanted nothing to do with our panting and screeching behemoth, and they galloped away in panic. The engine ran straight and true with only a moderate rocking motion, but the open cab exaggerated the sensation of speed. The steady grade exhausted the steam. We had been firing too timidly and were down to twenty pounds by the time we reached Casanova. Throughout the trip we had to keep reminding each other to watch out for the levers. While the engine is running, the two large reversing levers are in a constant and deadly scissoring motion, totally unprotected and just about the most lethal devices one can imagine having on an open-deck locomotive.

For the moment I was more worried about backing down the grade to Calverton than getting entangled in the levers. We worked just enough steam to get her moving. Then we began to work the brakes. The effect was hardly noticeable. She just rolled downgrade, daring something to get in the way. I tried not to think about headlines like ANCIENT LOCOMOTIVE RAMS SCHOOL BUS Or COLLISION WITH GASOLINE TRUCK TORCHES NATIONAL TREASURE. One trip down was enough to convince me to stay on the level until we did more work on the brakes.

By suppertime we were left alone with the engine. Bill took his boy home so he would not miss another day of school. John and Larry and I decided to take a break and refuel ourselves after a long and exciting day. Now it was dark and we were ready to drop the fire and blow down the boiler so the truckers would find a cool engine to reload in the morning. But there was still some wood left and a fair head of steam showing on the dial. What about one last run—a moonlit ride on an open-deck woodburner? We put a big flashlight in the headlight case and built up the fire. Once under way we were amazed by the dense shower of fine sparks flowing out of the stack. Now I know what Charles Dickens saw when he looked out a coach window at “a whirlwind of bright sparks, which showered about us like a storm of fiery snow.” This magical ride began a new phase in my twenty-year association with the John Bull. I could no longer think of the engine only as a symbol of America’s industrial past. I now can see her as a working piece of machinery, used by ordinary people as a tool to ease the burden of everyday life. The people are long gone but the locomotive remains, a link with a distant past.

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