The roundhouse dates back to the early years of the railroad industry
with the first known of its kind said to have been built in Derby,
England in 1839. As steam locomotives grew in size so did
the building. Early roundhouses were designed with only a few stalls,
while newer structures could hold more than two dozen steam locomotives
and acted more like a warehouse than a maintenance/storage building.
Steam locomotives, devices that would literally drive and power the American railroad industry for its first 130+ years of existence actually has its origins in England. Originally built by Richard Trevithick and Andrew Vivian in 1804 for the
narrow gauge Penydarren tramway in Wales the contraption was first
tested in America in August of 1829 when Horatio Allen, a chief engineer
for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company (later the Delaware &
Hudson Railway) tested an early English steam locomotive design on a
16-mile stretch of track the company owned between Honesdale and
The locomotive used was named the Stourbridge Lion, which was a very simple two-axle machine with a vertical boiler, and it was employed to move coal from the mines at Carbondale to Honesdale. Until the 20th century virtually all steam locomotives coal as their primary fuel source (although very early designs, like 4-4-0 Americans used wood) with large tenders of water to produce the necessary steam. The operations of steam locomotives are relatively simple, which I will try to explain just briefly. Fuel, usually either coal or oil, is fed into the firebox where the resulting hot gas enters boiler tubes, known as flues, to heat the surrounding water turning it unto steam. From this point the steam is fed into the pistons whereby it expands and drives the steam locomotive’s rods (those massive steel shafts which are attached to the wheels) and propels it forward.
The hot gases are then carried into the smoke box where they are
funneled into the smoke stack and out of the locomotive. A quick note
about the "modern" steam locomotive smoke stacks, most carry grating or
some other type of screening to help reduce the amount of cinders
(especially in the case when wood was used as fuel) which are projected
into the air and can cause brush fires. The roundhouse's primary function was for storage and
maintenance of steam locomotives. However, since most steamers operated
in only direction, forward, turntables were placed front and center of
the roundhouse. So the building not only performed light maintenance
duties but also allowed the locomotives to be turned if needed and the
semi-circular design made things that much easier.
Unfortunately, the roundhouse was a very costly maintenance expensive
since steam locomotives had to stop often to refuel and required many
more man-hours to maintain than diesels. Because of this virtually
every yard across the country contained a roundhouse of some size to
provide general locomotive maintenance and turn them if needed. However, by the dawn of reliable diesel locomotives in the late
1930s and early 1940s it was clear that not only steam was on the way
out but also their homes, the roundhouse.While the building continued
to be used through the 1950s, '60s, and even '70s by the 1980s it was
more of an endangered species than an everyday aspect of railroading.
Since diesels required much less maintenance and could operate in either
direction there was little need for a dedicated maintenance facility
and turntable every 100 miles or so. When required, railroads found it
much easier and less expensive to turn locomotives by using a "wye", or a
"Y" shaped track that branched from a spur or main line and allowed the
unit to be facing the opposite direction once it had returned back to
the track from where it had started. Today, you can still find not only preserved or standing
roundhouses but also "new" versions of them. Railroads still use the
building's function as means to get locomotives out of the weather and
for minor maintenance issues but today they are more commonly known as engine
houses and can be just a single stall or a large warehouse-type
building on Class I systems. For Class Is they are usually based within
a major engine terminal so as to consolidate as much maintenance into one confined location as possible.
If you are interested in fallen flags and classic systems before the modern merger movement took hold I would suggest purchasing one, or all three volumes of Mike Schafer’s Classic American Railroads series of books. The publications feature a wealth of information and are loaded with coloredphotographs covering names like the Baltimore & Ohio, Santa Fe, Pennsylvania, Milwaukee Road, and lots more. If you have any interest in most famous bygone railroads which once operated in the U.S. I would strongly recommend picking up one, two, or even all three of Mr. Schafer’s book. I truly cannot say enough just how enjoyable and fun they are to read and peruse through.