Steam heats up an American love affair with railroads

On Maryland History

March 01, 1991|By Peter Kumpa

THAT HOARY TALE of a race between a new contraption, something called a steam locomotive, and a gray horse is the best example of why victory does not always belong to the swift. That strange contest, which occurred in Baltimore, effectively marked the end of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad as a horse-drawn line.

It demonstrated convincingly that even a small and dinky experimental steam machine like the Tom Thumb was much superior to animal power. Only a slipped blower band, a trivial accident, allowed the steamer to lose the race.

The initial ideas for a railroad included some sort of steam power to move cars and cargo on rails. If steam could move paddle-wheeled vessels in water, the same power should be able to push iron wheels on a proper roadway. George Stephenson's first locomotive in 1814 was a largely experimental machine, but by 1825 his No. 1 locomotive went into service for the Stockton and Darlington Railroad, a short coal line. It was the first practical steam railroad locomotive in the world.

By 1829, Horatio Allen had transported a small English steam locomotive up and over the newly built Delaware and Hudson Canal into northeast Pennsylvania. At Honesdale, on a crudely constructed track, he turned the wheels of the first steam engine in the United States.

The year before, the Baltimore & Ohio had a team of three commissioners, all young engineers in England, studying rail lines and new steam locomotives. The three rode every new locomotive, checked the smallest detail and sent positive reports back to Baltimore.

It was the celebrated Rainhill competition in England in the summer of 1829 that pitted five new steam locomotives against each other and excited the nascent railroad industry. Stephenson's Rocket won easily. It was practical and efficient. The contest inspired B&O directors to hold a similar contest here.

Enter Peter Cooper. A wealthy New York merchant, Cooper had invested heavily in Baltimore's Canton Co. He had a stake in seeing the company and Baltimore prosper as a transportation center. Cooper had an inventive spirit. Years later, he recalled that the concern over English steam locomotives was whether they could maneuver around America's tight curves.

Cooper brought "a little bit of an engine" with him from New York. Then he set to work at the new Mount Clare shops to build a locomotive. He had an iron foundry, and so he built a boiler. As no pipes were available in the country, he used the barrels of two muskets for tubing. With the help of coach makers, he finished his project, calling it the Tom Thumb "because it was so insignificant."

A major test would be to run the Tom Thumb over to Ellicott's Mills. Over the weekend, however, a thief broke into the locomotive shed and stripped all the copper tubing. It took Cooper a week to repair it before the big test. With 42 directors, officers and curious businessmen aboard, the one-cylinder Tom Thumb made the trip to the mills in one hour and 12 minutes. It returned in 57 minutes.

It was on a test run that the iron horse was challenged by a real animal, "a gallant gray of great beauty and power." Benjamin H. Latrobe later told the story of the contest:

"The start being even, away went horse and engine, the snort of the one and the puff of the other keeping time and tune. At first the gray had the best of it, for his steam would be applied to the greatest advantage on the instant, while the engine had to wait until the rotation of the wheels set the blower to work. The horse was perhaps a quarter of a mile ahead when the safety valve of the engine lifted and the thin, blue vapor issuing from it showed an excess of steam. The blower whistled; the steam blew off in vapory clouds; the pace increased; the passengers shouted; soon it lapped him -- the silk was plied -- the race was neck and neck, nose and nose -- then the engine passed the horse, and a great hurrah hailed the victory.

"But it was not repeated, for just at this time when the gray's master was about giving up, the band which drove the pulley which drove the blower slipped from the drum, the safety valve ceased to scream, and the engine for want of breath began to wheeze and pant. In vain Cooper, who was his own engine man and fireman, lacerated his hands in attempting to replace the band upon the wheel; in vain he tried to urge the fire with light wood; the horse gained on the machine and passed it."

Tom Thumb was back on the track the next day for more trials. The horse was not. Cooper's little experiment continued to perform well. He wrote later that "the result of the experiment was that bonds were sold at once and the road was a success."

The American love affair with railroads had begun.

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