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What is it about Trains and Steam Locomotives?

What is it about trains? Why do we watch as they roll by us as we travel our highways and roads? Most people in America, Canada, Britain – and elsewhere – have seen trains their entire lives, and yet, more often that not, still give a train more than a glance as it goes by. Why? Trains are pretty mundane as far as how many there are, where they go, and what they do. There are thousands of trains of all sizes and capabilities and there are thousands of miles of train tracks going everywhere. So what is the big deal about trains?

Let’s Go Back…

It’s hard for us today to conceive what it was like when the first steam locomotives appeared in England. What Richard Trevithick achieved in Cornwall, England in 1803 was, to say the least, austere when compared to later steam behemoths. It might not have appeared to be much but it was the genesis of a social revolution the likes of which the world had never seen.

It was yet to be believed, but soon villages and markets that were only rumored would be within travel distance. Cities would explode with populations that could travel to find work. But that was yet in the future.

When James Watt invented the steam engine, he knew that at some point it would be introduced into the world to power motive devices (locomotives) but he didn’t approve of the earliest designs British engineers offered for a mobile steam engine. He liked Trevithick’s design for a locomotive and the design was awarded a patent. Many early designs were put forth but the rear-wheel-driven locomotive was the most common. But Trevithick’s award-winning design wasn’t actually a locomotive on rails. His first design for a “road carriage”.

Next Step

The first steam-powered carriage got a lot of attention. British entrepreneur Samuel Homfray paid extra attention. He asked Trevithick to construct a “road carriage” that would run on his rails and haul coal where horses once now the job. The “Coalbrookdale Locomotive” was created to haul loads of coal 9 1/2 miles over his private industrial line, from a river pier to a steel production plant.

Where ships, river barges, and pole boats once were the mainstay of transportation, a new and more powerful means to move goods came into being. And this was only the beginning. Interest in the new technology grew by leaps and bounds, eventually roping in the entire British – and then the American – economy. Ironically, its inventor, Trevithick, sold all his interest in the patents and designs feeling that nothing valuable would come of it

Bing, Bang, Boom!

England and the rest of Europe had been through another in an ongoing series of what we now call the Napoleonic Wars. The latest one being the War of 1812, when Napoleon Bonaparte’s France invaded Russia. The war, indeed the series of wars, had disrupted economies and the progress of all technology that wasn’t for the military.

France’s rivalry with Britain meant it was eager to explore this new technology of steam-powered locomotives. Stationary steam engines were used in industrial settings, powering many factories and foundries. This technology was well known and used in France. But they were far behind the British in putting a stationary steam engine on wheels. Elsewhere on the European continent, only Germany was catching up.

By 1823, engineering, materials, and a better understanding of steam power had improved to the point that a next generation of steam locomotives were coming down the tracks. British engineer George Stephenson is credited with creating the first railroad line when he laid rails between Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington, England.

One First after Another

The Stockton & Darlington Railway was built to bring coal from mines inland to the port at Stockton, on the River Tees. Construction costs had ballooned, so the first train was hurriedly scheduled after the new railroad’s only steam locomotive arrived. On September 27th, 1825, “Locomotion #1” pulled 12 wagons of coal, 21 empty coal wagons fitted with seats and a new passenger coach.

The coach was absolutely stuffed with investors and politicians while towns people clambered all over the coal wagons – both full and empty. Over 500 people were pulled just over 8 miles at a blistering top speed of 15 miles per hour that day. That train was the first to pull passengers by steam and the first to pull freight on a public railway.

George Stephenson was not only the chief engineer of the pioneering Stockton & Darlington Railway, but his firm built Locomotion #1. By the time of his death in 1848, George Stephenson was known as the “Father of the Railways” in Britain.

The Watchers

Peter Cooper, an American engineer and inventor, watched the developments in England and decided he could do better. He created the first American steam locomotive in 1830 and called it “Tom Thumb”. When Cooper rolled his technological marvel out for America to see, America wasn’t having it. Horses were strong and canals were the future. Who needed anything this complicated?

So Cooper’s Tom Thumb was challenged to a race by carriages pulled by horses, a traditional horse-drawn streetcar. Mechanical trouble hit the tiny Tom Thumb and the horse-drawn train won that race. That didn’t stop the confidant Cooper from making a few improvements to his design and selling it to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The B&Os second locomotive was built by the B&O in its own Mt. Clair shops. Numbered as #2, it was called the Atlantic. After that, there was no looking back!

Bigger, Better, More!

Our brain is wired to take what we have and tinker…improve…change…so mankind developed larger and more powerful steam engines throughout the Industrial Revolution while civilization laid steel rails everywhere it could – and even a few places it shouldn’t have. The steam locomotive, as it became larger and larger, and more ubiquitous, pushed the world at a dizzying pace into modernity.

It was a time of fast paced change. A person born in Boston when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 could have, as a teenager, traveled from Boston to New York City in 6 days – if they had a good horse. And if it had not rained recently. The best of roads were simply dirt byways. At the end of this person’s lifetime they could make the trip in comfort, with someone else doing the driving, in one day. By railroad.

Getting from point A to point B became safe and much faster for people – and goods. The only thing truly holding the steam locomotive back was the lack of rails to run on. In 1861, at the beginning of the American Civil War, there were over 30,000 miles of railroad tracks laid throughout the country, although 21,000 of those miles were in the Northeast and New England. It’s one of the factors that helped the Union win the war.

In the 15 years after the end of the Civil War the number of track miles in the United States tripled. Tripled. With the increase in track mileage came an increase in power and durability for the machines that ran on that track. Locomotives had grown from relatively small, underpowered, technological wonders to smoke-belching behemoths capable of pulling loads unimaginable just a few years previously.

The Love Affair Begins

Never before in the history of the world had such a dramatic shift taken place as took place during the Industrial Revolution. Those things that once were thought impossible were becoming an everyday part of American and European life. Much of it driven first by the steam engine and then by the natural extension of the steam engine, the steam locomotive.

Old men could sit on porches and talk about the good ol’ days of horses and buggies, but from the 1850s on it was clear that the future was the railroad.

This was the start of America’s love affair with trains. Not just trains, but locomotives. The amazing giants that pulled the trains and made lots of noise, smoke, and steam; the steam giants that brought grandma to you in the summer and carried exotic things from elsewhere in mysterious boxcars. In many towns across the nation the very fabric of life often revolved around the timely arrival and departure of the train. The stationmaster and telegrapher were very important people in town.

America needed the Steam Locomotive

Invented in Britain. The first rails were in Britain. Then France and across Europe. But in America the technology found a wide open future. America and the steam locomotive were made for each other. As railroads began laying rail, the West was beginning to open up. Vast distances with fantastic scenery awaited the adventurous.

The allure of faraway, marvelous lands drew people like moths to the flame. That flame, fed first by wood, then coal, powered a steam locomotive. Everywhere across the land, railroad towns popped up like lilies in a field. Without the steam locomotive, America would never have become the land it was able to become in such a short period of time. This added to the steam locomotive’s importance and value to the nation as a whole.

For 100 years, few people in America – from the 1850s through the 1950s – had not ridden on a train. From small commuter trains to the huge 4-8-8-4 Big Boy that rumbled down the tracks until the diesel engine took over, nothing was quite as impressive or singularly important to the nation as the steam locomotive. The steam locomotive opened up the nation for settling and new markets for products and was a major factor in winning two World Wars. All of it added to the mystique of the steam locomotive.

Young Boys grew up wanting to be an Engineer

Many generations of Americans, Canadians, and British (truly people all over the world) grew up seeing a steam locomotive engine running the rails. Until the 1930s when the diesel-electric engines first began to appear, the “Iron Horse” was the most prevalent form of transportation in the nation. Children boarded trains for trips to summer camp and freight made its way from Maine to Southern California faster than anyone could imagine just a few years before.

Trains were everywhere, hauling everything and everybody, and they weren’t going to go away. Steam locomotives were burned into the American psyche like the 4th of July and Apple Pie. Young boys wanted to be a Big Boy engineer when they grew up. Firms that made toy trains became household names in America.

Train trips were special events in everyone’s life. Traveling to weddings, vacations, and on business was now possible. By train, because the nation’s roads were still not quite up to snuff at the time. This was before the Interstate system, and before standard safety features on cars. Trains became a part of our DNA during this period, and while steam doesn’t power freight trains today – the trains have never stopped being a part of us.

Steam Locomotives as Peak America

The British began the steam locomotive revolution, but the beast truly found a home, and a people who would take it to peak power, in America. Indeed the steam locomotive is peak America… the America we like to think of when recalling our past and our ancestors. Hard-working, inventive, always striving, always pushing the envelope, improvising and then, when something more efficient comes along – we go with that, but we don’t forget where we came from. And that’s the genesis of