Fact Or Fable, Locomotive Story Rolls On

BACk STORY

In 1830, The Tale Goes, A First-of-its Kind Train Lost To A Horse-drawn Equivalent

November 08, 2009|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

Twenty-nine Novembers ago, I wrote a story for The Sun about New York tinkerer Peter Cooper and the circumstances surrounding his building of the Tom Thumb, the nation's first steam locomotive, which rolled over the rails of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the nation's first common carrier railroad, founded in Baltimore in 1827.

The genesis for my story was a B&O Museum exhibition, "Cooper's Locomotive," that opened that autumn and had been researched and curated by John P. Hankey.

Hankey, then 27 and the museum historian, had spent a considerable amount of time researching the Tom Thumb story in Baltimore, New York City and Washington.

What Hankey came up with challenged the popular story of the tiny Tom Thumb pulling a carload of railroad company directors on a return trip to Baltimore from Ellicotts Mills, racing against a horse-drawn B&O car in August 1830.

With steam and smoke pouring from its stack, the Tom Thumb pulled away into the lead and for a glorious moment or two was about to vanquish its equine challenger, until a leather blower belt slipped off a wheel, causing the engine to limp to a stop as the horse galloped by in triumph.

However, all was not lost, because the incident proved that steam power could successfully be used to haul trains and the days of horse-drawn trains on the B&O were drawing to a close.

For years, the great race, immortalized in paintings and drawings, had become enshrined in the hearts and minds of students of railroading and American industrial history.

It was Hankey's contention, however, that it never happened because he couldn't find substantial evidence of the event.

His theories on the matter thus earned him pariah status from railroad management who didn't like him fiddling with, much less questioning, the historical accuracy of a story that had long become an institutionalized B&O chestnut.

That was then, and this is now.

"Such myths in those days were sanctified by the old B&O, and now we're able learn what really happened," said Hankey, who writes widely on railroad history and is a cultural resource and management consultant.

Former Sun reporter James D. Dilts in his 1993 book, "The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad," shed more light on the Tom Thumb story.

In 1868, John H. B. Latrobe, the B&O's longtime chief counsel, gave an address at the Maryland Institute in which he was the first person to recall the race between machine and horse. He said he had been aboard the train that day.

Dilts suggests the race most likely took place on Sept. 20, 1830, when Charles Carroll of Carrollton celebrated his 93rd birthday by taking a ride on the B&O.

Latrobe mentioned a "gallant gray of great beauty and power" that was owned by Stockton & Stokes, who operated stagecoaches. The horse was attached to a B&O horse car and met Cooper's engine at Relay House.

The horse had galloped a quarter-mile ahead by the time the locomotive began to move and steam ahead.

"The blower whistled, the steam blew off in vapory clouds, the pace increased, the passengers shouted, the engine gained on the horse, 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," said Latrobe.

Then the band slipped off the blower and the "engine for want of breath began to wheeze and pant," Latrobe said in the address.

In an attempt to replace the band, Cooper, who was both engineer and fireman, "lacerated his hands."

The horse passed the engine and by the time it got under way, the "horse was too far ahead to be overtaken, and came in the winner of the race. But the real victory was with Mr. Cooper, not withstanding," said Latrobe.

Dilts suggests in his book that the race didn't make it into the newspapers of the day because the "press may have considered it unremarkable. Stagecoaches and steamboats raced routinely, in Baltimore and elsewhere, but only made the papers if an accident resulted."

What Dilts does say in his book is that the day Charles Carroll of Carrollton was aboard, the Gazette reported that speed trials were conducted "during which the engine's 'connecting band' (the belt powering the fan blower) broke."

In 1871, William H. Brown, who had been present when the B&O's First Stone was laid in 1827, published his book "The History of the First Locomotives in America."

In a piece Hankey wrote that was published in 2003 in "American Civil Engineering History: The Pioneering Years," he relates that Brown wrote to Latrobe hoping that he'd confirm the story for his book. In turn, Latrobe suggested he write to Cooper.

"He basically couldn't remember a thing about the episode (it had happened nearly 40 years earlier)," wrote Hankey.

Cooper, who had built the Tom Thumb for the B&O, was contracted to build six engines, but was later let out of the contract.

"It was one of his few defeats as an entrepreneur. The first working locomotive he built was also his last," Dilts wrote.

Cooper, who said, "I naturally had a knack for contriving," founded the Canton Co. in Baltimore in 1829.

He also developed the I-beam which allowed multistoried construction, funded the Trans-Atlantic cable, and opened Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City in 1859.

Cooper also patented a "condensed" gelatin food product that we know today as Jell-O.

A new film documentary, "Mechanic to Millionaire: The Peter Cooper Story," produced by The Gardner Documentary Group in New York City, will have its Maryland premiere at 1:30 p.m. next Saturday and Sunday at the B&O Railroad Museum, 901 W. Pratt St.

The event, which is open to the public, is free. For further information call Kathy Hargest, 410-752-2462, ext. 207.

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