19th Century Locomotive History

Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb Races a Horse

Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb Races a Horse. U.S. Dept. of Transportation

In the early years of the 19th century locomotives powered by steam were thought to be impractical, and the first railroads were actually built to accommodate wagons pulled by horses.

Mechanical refinements made the steam locomotive an efficient and powerful machine, and by the middle of the century the railroad was changing life in profound ways. Steam locomotives played a role in the American Civil War, moving troops and supplies. And by the end of the 1860s both coasts of North America had been connected by the transcontinental railroad.

Less than 40 years after a steam locomotive lost a race to a horse, passengers and freight were moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific over a rapidly growing system of rails.

Inventor and businessman Peter Cooper needed a practical locomotive to move material for an ironworks he had purchased in Baltimore, and to fill that need he designed and built a small locomotive he called the Tom Thumb.

On August 28, 1830, Cooper was demonstrating the Tom Thumb by hauling cars of passengers outside Baltimore. He was challenged to race his little locomotive against one of the trains being pulled by a horse on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

Cooper accepted the challenge and the race of horse against machine was on. The Tom Thumb was beating the horse until the locomotive threw a belt from a pulley and had to be brought to a stop.

The horse won the race that day. But Cooper and his little engine had shown that steam locomotives had a bright future. Before long the horse-drawn trains on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad were replaced by steam-powered trains.

This depiction of the famous race was painted a century later by an artist employed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Carl Rakeman.

The John Bull

The John Bull, photographed in 1893. Library of Congress

The John Bull was a locomotive built in England and brought to America in 1831 for service on the Camden and Amboy Railroad in New Jersey. The locomotive was in continual service for decades before being retired in 1866.

This photograph was taken in 1893, when the John Bull was taken to Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition, but this is how the locomotive would have looked during its working life. The John Bull originally had no cab, but the wooden structure was soon added to protect the crew from rain and snow.

The John Bull was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in the late 1800s. In 1981, to celebrate the John Bull's 150th birthday, the museum staff determined that the locomotive could still operate. It was taken out of the museum, put on tracks, and as it belched fire and smoke it ran along the rails of the old Georgetown branch line in Washington, DC.

John Bull Locomotive With Cars

The John Bull and Its Coaches. Library of Congress

This photograph of the John Bull locomotive and its cars was taken in 1893, but this is what an American passenger train would have looked like circa 1840.

A drawing that could be based on this photograph appeared in the New York Times on April 17, 1893, accompanying a story about the John Bull making a trip to Chicago. The article, headlined "John Bull On the Rails," began:

An antique locomotive and two antique passenger coaches will leave Jersey City at 10:16 this forenoon for Chicago over the Pennsylvania Railroad, and they will form part of the World's Fair exhibit of that company.
The locomotive is the original machine built by George Stephenson in England for Robert L. Stevens, the founder of the Camden and Amboy Railroad. It arrived in this country in August 1831, and was christened John Bull by Mr. Stevens.
The two passenger coaches were built for the Camden and Amboy Railroad fifty-two years ago.
The engineer in charge of the locomotive is A.S. Herbert. He handled the machine when it made its first run in this country in 1831.
"Do you think you'll ever reach Chicago with that machine?" asked a man who had been comparing the John Bull with a modern locomotive that was hitched to an express train.
"Do I?" answered Mr. Herbert. "Certainly I do. She can go at the rate of thirty miles per hour when pressed, but I shall run her at about half that speed and give everybody a chance to see her."

In the same article the newspaper reported that 50,000 people had lined the rails to watch the John Bull by the time it reached New Brunswick. And when the train reached Princeton, "about 500 students and several professors from the College" greeted it. The train stopped so students could board and inspect the locomotive, and the John Bull then proceeded onward to Philadelphia, where it was met by cheering crowds.

The John Bull did make it all the way to Chicago, where it would be a top attraction at the World's Fair, the 1893 Columbian Exhibition.

Rise of the Locomotive Industry

A Booming New Business. Library of Congress

By the 1850s, the American locomotive industry was booming. Locomotive works became major employers in several American cities. Paterson, New Jersey, ten miles from New York City, became a center of the locomotive business.

This print from the 1850s portrays the Danforth, Cooke, & Co. Locomotive and Machine Works in Paterson. A new locomotive is displayed in front of the large assembly building. The artist obviously took some license as the new locomotive is not riding atop train tracks.

Paterson was also home to a competing company, the Rogers Locomotive Works. The Rogers factory produced one of the most famous locomotives of the Civil War, the "General," which played a role in the legendary "Great Locomotive Chase" in Georgia in April 1862.

A Civil War Railroad Bridge

The Potomac Run Bridge. Library of Congress

The need to keep the trains running to the front resulted in some amazing displays of engineering prowess during the Civil War. This bridge in Virginia was constructed of "round sticks cut from the woods, and not even divested of bark" in May 1862.

The Army boasted that the bridge was built in nine working days, using the labor of the "common soldiers of the Army of the Rappahannock, under the supervision of Brigadier General Herman Haupt, Chief of Railroad Construction and Transportation."

The bridge may look precarious, but it carried up to 20 trains a day.

The Locomotive General Haupt

The Locomotive General Haupt. Library of Congress

This impressive machine was named for General Herman Haupt, chief of construction and transportation for the U.S. Army's military railroads.

Note that the wood burning locomotive appears to have a full tender of firewood, and the tender bears the marking "U.S. Military R.R." The large structure in the background is the roundhouse of the Alexandria Station in Virginia.

This nicely composed photograph was taken by Alexander J. Russell, who had been a painter before joining the U.S. Army, where he became the first photographer ever employed by the U.S. military.

Russell continued taking photographs of trains after the Civil War and became the official photographer for the transcontinental railroad. Six years after taking this photo, Russell's camera would capture a famous scene when two locomotives were brought together at Promontory Point, Utah, for the driving of the "golden spike."

The Cost of War

The Cost of War. Library of Congress

A devastated Confederate locomotive in the railroad yard in Richmond, Virginia in 1865.

Union troops and a civilian, possibly a northern journalist, pose with the ruined machine. In the distance, just to the right of the locomotive's smokestack, the top of the Confederate capitol building can be seen.

Locomotive with President Lincoln's Car

Locomotive with President Lincoln's Car. Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln was provided with a presidential rail car to ensure he could travel in comfort and safety.

In this photograph the military locomotive W.H. Whiton is coupled to pull the president's car. The locomotive's tender is marked "U.S. Military R.R."

This photograph was taken in Alexandria, Virginia by Andrew J. Russell in January 1865.

Lincoln's Private Rail Car

Lincoln's Private Rail Car. Library of Congress

The private rail car provided for President Abraham Lincoln, photographed in January 1865 in Alexandria, Virginia by Andrew J. Russell.

The car was reported to be the most opulent private car of its day. Yet it would only play a tragic role: Lincoln never used the car while alive, but it would carry his body in his funeral train.

The passing of the train carrying the body of the murdered president became the focal point of national mourning. The world had never seen anything like it.

Indeed, the remarkable expressions of grief which took place across the nation for nearly two weeks would not have been possible without steam locomotives pulling the funeral train from city to city.

A biography of Lincoln by Noah Brooks published in the 1880s recalled the scene:

The funeral train left Washington on the 21st of April, and traversed nearly the same route that had been passed over by the train that bore him, President-elect, from Springfield to Washington five years before.
It was a funeral unique, wonderful. Nearly two thousand miles were traversed; the people lined the entire distance, almost without an interval, standing with uncovered heads, mute with grief, as the sombre cortege swept by.
Even night and falling showers did not keep them away from the line of the sad procession.
Watch-fires blazed along the route in the darkness, and by day every device that could lend picturesqueness to the mournful scene and express the woe of the people was employed.
In some of the larger cities the coffin of the illustrious dead was lifted from the funeral train and carried through, from one end to the other, attended by mighty processions of citizens, forming a funeral pageant of proportions so magnificent and imposing that the world has never since seen the like.
Thus, honored in his funeral, guarded to his grave by famed and battle-scarred generals of the army, Lincoln's body was laid to rest at last near his old home. Friends, neighbors, men who had known and loved homely and kindly honest Abe Lincoln, assembled to pay their final tribute.

Across the Continent by Currier & Ives

Across the Continent. Library of Congress

In 1868 the lithography firm of Currier & Ives produced this fanciful print dramatizing the railroad heading into the American west. A wagon train has led the way, and is disappearing into the background on the left. In the foreground, railroad tracks separate the settlers in their newly constructed small town from the untouched scenery populated by Indians.

And a mighty steam locomotive, its stack bellowing smoke, pulls passengers westward as both settlers and Indians seem to admire its passing.

Commercial lithographers were highly motivated to produce prints they could sell to the public. Currier & Ives, with their developed sense of popular taste, must have believed this romantic view of the railroad playing a major part in the settlement of the west would strike a chord.

People revered the steam locomotive as a vital part of an expanding nation. And the prominence of the railroad in this lithograph mirrors the place it was beginning to take in the American consciousness.

A Celebration on the Union Pacific

The Union Pacific Proceeds Westward. Library of Congress

As the Union Pacific railroad pushed westward in the late 1860s, the American public followed its progress with rapt attention. And the directors of the railroad, mindful of public opinion, took advantage of milestones to generate positive publicity.

When the tracks reached the 100th meridian, in present day Nebraska, in October 1866, the railroad assembled a special excursion train to take dignitaries and reporters to the site.

This card is a stereograph, a pair of photographs taken with a special camera that would appear as a 3-D image when viewed with a popular device of the day. Railroad executives stand next to the excursion train, under a sign reading:

247 Miles from Omaha

On the left hand side of the card is the legend:

Union Pacific Railroad
Excursion to the 100th Meridian, October 1866

The mere existence of this stereographic card is testament to the popularity of the railroad. A photograph of formally dressed businessmen standing in the middle of a prairie was enough to generate excitement.

The railroad was going coast to coast, and America was thrilled.

The Golden Spike is Driven

The Transcontinental Railroad Is Finished. National Archives

The final spike for the transcontinental railroad was driven on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah. A ceremonial golden spike was tapped into a hole which had been drilled to receive it, and photographer Andrew J. Russell recorded the scene.

As the Union Pacific tracks had stretched westward, the tracks of the Central Pacific headed east from California. When the tracks were finally connected the news went out by telegraph and the entire nation celebrated. Cannon were fired in San Francisco and all the fire bells in the city were rung. There were similar noisy celebrations in Washington, DC, New York City, and other cities, towns and villages across America.

A dispatch in the New York Times two days later reported that a shipment of tea from Japan was going to be shipped from San Francisco to St. Louis.

With steam locomotives able to roll from ocean to ocean, the world suddenly seemed to be getting smaller.

Incidentally, the original news reports stated that the golden spike had been driven at Promontory Point, Utah, which is about 35 miles from Promontory Summit. According to the National Park Service, which administers a National Historic Site at Promontory Summit, confusion about the location has persisted to the present day. Everything from westerns to college textbooks have identified Promontory Point as the site of the driving of the golden spike.

In 1919, a 50th anniversary celebration was planned for Promontory Point, but when it was determined that the original ceremony had actually taken place at Promontory Summit, a compromise was reached. The ceremony was held in Ogden, Utah.

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McNamara, Robert. "19th Century Locomotive History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/19th-century-locomotive-history-4122592. McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). 19th Century Locomotive History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/19th-century-locomotive-history-4122592 McNamara, Robert. "19th Century Locomotive History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/19th-century-locomotive-history-4122592 (accessed June 2, 2023).