Steam Locomotives, Raw Power In Motion!

Steam locomotives are impressive, captivating, ingenious, complex, and dangerous devices all wrapped within a single frame.  Nothing else in railroading has ever been quite as alluring.  It was largely responsible for driving the American industrial machine although has its origins in England, with the first patented version credited to Richard Trevithick and Andrew Vivian in 1802.  Its initiation here began in 1826 when Colonel John Stevens showcased his "Steam Waggon" (basically a steam-powered horse carriage) on a small circular track at his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey.  In the succeeding years ever-larger types were conceived to handle increasingly greater demand.  The argument persists to this day regarding whose were more impressive, American or British?  Unquestionably, American designs were the most powerful, particularly after the introduction of articulation, which led to enormous variants like the 2-6-6-6 "Allegheny," 4-6-6-4 "Challenger," and 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy."  Today, preserved steam locomotives, both large and small, can be found throughout the country and their sustained popularity has led to numerous restorations.  They remain so well-liked that even Union Pacific maintains a small fleet for public relations.

The Steam Locomotive Is Born...

The development of the steam engine far predated its use in railroad applications as historian Mike Del Vecchio notes in his book, "Railroads Across America."  The very first railroad-type operation occurred in England during 1630 when wooden rails, upon which wooden cross-ties (or "sleepers") were attached for lateral support, were laid down for the express purpose of handling coal.  This rock would prove vital in the steam locomotive's future development.  The first known implementation of iron rails occurred in 1740 at Whitehaven, Cumberland, followed by the flanged wheel's introduction in 1789 at Loughborough, Leicestershire, the concept of William Jessop.  The steam engine is attributed to Thomas Newcomen who received a patent for his design in 1705.  It was later improved upon by James Watt in 1769 who realized expanding steam was much more powerful and efficient than Newcomen's condensing version.  He first employed the engine in steamboats, which eventually found its way to the United States where Colonel John Stevens began using it for the same purpose.

Stevens is also credited with chartering the first railroad in North America when the New Jersey Railroad Company was founded in 1815 (although not actually built until 1832), a future component of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  The colonel's recognition did not end there; he also tested the first type of steam locomotive in the United States during 1826 when he showcased his aforementioned "Steam Waggon" on a small circular track at his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey. But, once more, England is recognized as operating the world's first modern steam locomotive.  Trevithick's earliest example went into service in 1804 on the Merthyr-Tydfil Railway in South Whales where it pulled loads of iron ore along a tramway.  Two decades would pass before the first contemporary design appeared thanks to George Stephenson.  He was born on June 9, 1781 to a very modest family in the small village of Wylam, Northumberland near Newcastle upon Tyne.  Stephenson may have spent his childhood relatively poor but he quickly recognized the value of education, taking it upon himself to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.

In time he became an expert on steam technology and decided to improve upon the early works of others like Trevithick.  In 1814 he designed his very first locomotive for the Killinwood Railway named the Bulcher.  This was followed by a second in February of 1815 and before long Stephenson's durable designs were catching widespread attention.  In 1821, England's first railroad, the Stockton & Darlington (S&D), was authorized through an Act of Parliament to build a 12-mile line intended to connect its namesake towns.  It would once again haul coal, as virtually every other had up until that time.  However, the railroad was also envisioned to serve the public, the first of its kind.  According to Brian Solomon's book, "The Majesty Of Big Steam," the S&D entered service on September 27, 1825 when Stephenson's little 0-4-0 #1, the Locomotion, pulled an impressive 34 cars that day.  He, himself, (who was also the company's chief engineer) piloted the locomotive which featured elements of modern designs, a horizontal boiler and vertical stack.

But it was a later Stephenson design that truly carried the steam locomotive's contemporary inner workings. Credit for the 0-2-2 Rocket has often been given to father, George, although it was actually a joint effort with son, Robert, through their mutually-owned Robert Stephenson & Company (a builder which supplied locomotives to a number of early American railroads).  This particular unit won the legendary Rainhill Trials held during October of 1829 on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.  The competition's purpose, of which four entries took part, was designed to ascertain whether stationary steam engines or moving locomotives were the most economic means of pulling the railroad's trains.  The Rocket attained a top speed of 29 mph and was easily declared the winner in a landslide performance.  As Mr. Solomon notes it featured all of the basic components of the modern steam locomotive including a horizontal " boiler, forced draft from exhaust steam, and direct linkage between the piston and drive wheels."

Making Its Way To America

One of America's earliest transportation companies was the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company, envisioned to haul anthracite coal from eastern Pennsylvania to New York City via the Hudson River.  The operation eventually decided upon canals for this purpose although chief engineer John B. Jervis wanted steam-powered locomotives right from the start. Jim Shaughnessy points out in his book, "Delaware & Hudson: Bridge Line To New England And Canada," that Jervis believed four such contraptions could operate the gravity line's less severe grades.  During a trip to England in the summer of 1828, with help from associate Horatio Allen, he ordered one from the Robert Stephenson & Company based from the same plans as the Rocket while three others were built by Foster, Rastrick & Company of Stourbridge.  The Stephenson unit was named America and the first to arrive, unloaded in New York on January 15, 1829.  The noteworthy Stourbridge Lion was delivered on May 13th. In a strange turn of events, only the Lion was actually tested by the Delaware & Hudson.  The America made a quick demonstration run in New York on May 27th, as did the Lion a day later on May 28th.  After wowing onlookers in an event that could be argued as the first-ever utilization of steam locomotives on American soil, the duo were shipped up the Hudson to Rondout (near Kingston). 

Unfortunately, due to circumstances never fully understood the America failed to reach the D&H property.  The Lion went on to carry out test trials on August 8, 1829, earning it distinction as the first use of a steam locomotive in the United States.   Unfortunately, its ultimate fate was rather unglamorous; it proved too heavy for the track and languished in a shed before finally being scrapped in 1870.  Following its trials American steam technology quickly advanced.  On August 28, 1830, Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb famously raced a horse on the fledgling Baltimore & Ohio.  The little one-ton coal-burner, featuring a vertical boiler, lost the bout (while carrying 30 patrons in a single coach) but had nevertheless proved its viability.  According to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum the locomotive was capable of speeds up to 15 mph.  While it did spend a year carrying passengers from time to time it never entered regular service and was later scrapped in 1834 (a replica is on display at the museum, constructed for the B&O's 1927 Fair of the Iron Horse and based from drawings Cooper had provided in 1875).   Since the Thumb was only an experiment, another locomotive was given recognition as the first American-built design to haul a revenue passenger train.

That honor is bestowed upon the South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company's Best Friend of Charleston, built by New York's West Point Foundry, when the 0-4-0 carried a trainload of paying customers on December 25, 1830.  Unfortunately, the locomotive also earned the sad distinction as being the first to suffer a boiler explosion, which occurred during June of 1831.  As the story goes the fireman became vexed by its constant hissing noise and tightened the safety valve closed (he later died of his wounds). The Camden & Amboy's John Bull, also the work of Robert Stephenson & Company, was another notable early locomotive.  A testament to the high quality craftsmanship the Stephensons incorporated into their product the Bull remained in service from 1831 until 1866.  It was originally designed as an 0-4-0, not unlike their other products from that period.  Over time C&A engineers upgraded the unit with several features commonly found on modern variants such as a cow-catcher, lead pilot truck, covered cab, and trailing tender (fuel storage to operate further between stops).

Unique/Notable Steam Locomotives

The Tender

The Track Pan

Articulated Steam 

ACE 3000 Project 

Belpaire Firebox 

Compound Steam 

Duplex Drive 

Southern Pacific/Overland 4-10-2 

Union Pacific 4-12-2 

Steam Turbines 


Wootten Firebox 

Manufacturers Of Steam Locomotives

American Locomotive Company 

Baldwin Locomotive Works 

Davenport Locomotive Works 

H.K. Porter Company 

Lima Locomotive Works 

Vulcan Iron Works 

Early, Pioneering Steam Locomotives

Best Friend Of Charleston 

DeWitt Clinton 

John Bull 

Stephenson's "Planet" 

Stephenson's "Rocket" 

Stourbridge Lion 

Tom Thumb 

Famous Steam Locomotives

Burlington 4960 

Chesapeake & Ohio 614 

Chesapeake & Ohio 1309 

The "General" 

Great Western Railway 90 

Jawn Henry 

Milwaukee Road 261 

Nickel Plate Road 765 

Norfolk & Western 611 

Norfolk & Western 1218 

Pere Marquette 1225 

Santa Fe 3751 

Southern Pacific 4449 

Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700 

Texas & Pacific 610 

Union Pacific 844 

Union Pacific 3985 

Union Pacific 4014 

Special Excursions/Events

21st Century Steam Program 

American Freedom Train 

Chessie Steam Special 

Union Pacific Steam Program 

Steam Locomotive Operation

The steam locomotive is relatively basic contraption.  Fuel (originally wood or coal, and then later oil) is fed into the firebox where the resulting hot gas enters boiler tubes, known as flues, which heat the surrounding water to form steam. This steam is then fed into pistons whereby it expands and drives the locomotive’s rods (horizontal iron/steel shafts attached to the wheels), propelling it forward. The resulting hot gases are then carried into the smoke box where they are funneled towards the smoke stack and out of the locomotive.  As technologies improved wheel arrangements became increasingly larger and more powerful.  These advancements over the years made them incredibly complex machines.  The period from 1900 through World War II witnessed the locomotive's zenith.  Mr. Solomon notes that the introduction of steel, welding, and improved casting techniques offered stronger designs without increased weight.  There were also component improvements such as better valve gear, larger fireboxes, lengthened boilers, roller-bearings, precision counter-balancing, and feedwater heaters (devices which heated the water before it entered the boiler). In 1925 Lima Locomotive Works, in conjunction with the New York Central, developed the "Super Power" locomotive utilizing a larger firebox for a more economic use of the boiler.  The testbed unit was a Boston & Albany 2-8-2 (H-10a), given an additional rear axle, and re-classified as A-1.  The 2-8-4 demonstrator made a successful test on April 14, 1925 where it out-performed a 2-8-2 within the Berkshire Mountains of northwestern Massachusetts.  Lima, one of the "Big Three" steam builders (others being the Baldwin Locomotive Works and American Locomotive Company), went on to manufacture hundreds of 2-8-4's for various railroads.

There are three basic types of steam locomotive; non-articulated (rigid frame), duplex (divides the wheels' driving force by utilizing two pairs of cylinders under a single frame), and articulated (featuring a pair of drivers under the boiler, the rear is rigidly mounted while the front pivots to negotiate curves). The latter were the most impressive ever built.  The design began when Baltimore & Ohio tested, in conjunction with Alco, the 0-6-6-0 "Old Maude" numbered 2400 in 1904.  The locomotive, a "Mallet" design, was intended for drag service on the West End.  The Mallet was not an American development, the concept of Swiss engineer Anatole Mallet.  It worked by having the two cylinders nearest the cab produce high-pressure steam, which was then pumped into a pair of larger, forward cylinders to produce low-pressure steam.  The result was a locomotive which could generate high horsepower and incredible adhesion.  The B&O was pleased with the results and a number of railroads went on to operate Mallets.  Over time, many (but not all) lost interest since the low gearing did not allow speeds of greater than 25 mph.  In addition, the complexities of compound steam led to simple expansion variants resulting in successful late-era types like the 4-6-6-4, 2-8-8-4, and Union Pacific's 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy."  

Steam Locomotive Terminology

The question is often asked, "What is meaning behind a steam locomotive's numbers and dashes?”  The technical term is the "Whyte Notation," developed by Frederick Whyte, which classifies a locomotive by its wheel arrangement.  The system counts the number of lead wheels (non-powered, found at the head-end to negotiate curves), driving wheels (located directly under the boiler, providing all power and adhesion), and finally the trailing wheels (also non-powered these are located near the cab for support of the firebox and weight displacement), all of which are separated by dashes.   Perhaps the best recognized of the early types was the very successful 4-4-0, nicknamed the American, which came into widespread use during the mid-19th century.  According to Wes Barris' authoritative website, SteamLocomotive,com, there were around 25,000 manufactured from the mid-1800's through the following century .  The American's Whtye Notation is broken down as follows: "4" lead wheels (two axles), "4" drivers (two axles), and "0" trailing wheels.

The iron horse continued to grow in an effort to meet demand.  Other popular 19th century wheel arrangements included the 4-6-0 Ten-Wheeler, 2-6-0 Mogul, and 2-8-0 Consolidation.  These successful designs gave way to the technologically advanced variants of the post-1900 period.  If trackside during the height of steam one was treated to fabulous scenes of Milwaukee Road's blazing fast 4-4-2's (Class A) ahead of the Hiawatha (capable of speeds in excess of 100 mph), Baltimore & Ohio's mammoth 2-8-8-4's (Class EM-1) working drag service over Sand Patch, or charming Southern Pacific 4-8-4's (Class GS) bedecked in a gorgeous two-tone orange livery while hustling the Daylights between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Alas, the cruel irony of these models was that their development coincided with the diesel's arrival.  The earliest appeared during World War I to handle switching assignments.  This changed during the mid-1930s Electro-Motive unveiled units for main line service.

At first they worked passenger trains when the first "E" models arrived on the B&O, Santa Fe, and Union Pacific in 1937-38.  Shortly thereafter Electro-Motive successfully demonstrated their practicality, efficiency, and cost-savings in freight service following successful trails in 1939.  From this point forward the mighty iron horse was on borrowed time.  Only the onset of World War II slowed the conversion and by the 1950's virtually all Class I's were fully dieselized.  Interestingly, a growing interest in the locomotive materialized after its retirement, which has only intensified into the 21st century with the restoration of powerful arrangements like Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 #611, Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy" #4014, and Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 #1309.  A combination of factors can be attributed to this ranging from simple historical preservation to nostalgia.  However, perhaps the greatest of all is the visual aspect.  With its many moving parts synchronously working together the steam locomotive is a true sight to behold.

Top Of Page

› Steam Locomotives

Photography Featured On This Site

Popular Train Ride Events