America's First Steam Engine Article

 Full Steam Ahead:

How Americans got off their Horses and got Moving!

Kevin Frasca


In an episode of the classic children's television show, Thomas the Tank Engine once said "Little engines can do big things."  This is a perfect way to describe the humble beginnings of the locomotive industry.  Nowadays when steam engines are brought up, the natural image is of the classic train huffing and puffing, possibly even saying "I think I can, I think I can," as it makes its way across the countryside.  In today's world, cars get you wherever you need to go and planes take you across the globe, while trains are left mostly to subway systems or commuter rails.  Even where there are cross-country trains, they have evolved far beyond the classic steam engine, like the TGV in France that reaches speeds of well over 300 miles per hour, roughly 30 times faster than early American trains.  With humble beginnings in northeastern Pennsylvania, already a state rich in historical significance, steam engine locomotives have played an integral part in adding chapters to both American and technological history.


            Trains came along as a result of the invention of the steam engine, which was developed during the industrial revolution.  British engineer George Stephenson, renowned as being the "Father of the Railways," completed building the first steam engine locomotive in 1814. The first practical use of these locomotives came 11 years later in 1825.  The locomotive credited for being the first steam engine in America was also a British train, shipped to New York from England in 1829.  Though it was not American-built, it was the first such locomotive to operate on American soil.  This locomotive was the Stourbridge Lion, and it marked the official beginning of an American industry that would lead to vast advancements in the decades that followed.



  Stourbridge Lion.jpgA sketch of the Stourbridge Lion, the first steam engine locomotive to operate on American tracks in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.


            The Stourbridge Lion was one of four locomotives to be originally ordered from England, but it was the only one that ended up actually operating.  It was also not the first locomotive to be sent from England, that title goes to the Pride of Newcastle, which arrived nearly two months before.  The Stourbridge Lion was named for the location of its manufacture and the lion that was painted on the front.  The design was very simple, and utilized simple thermodynamic principles.  The pistons in the engine were connected to walking beams mounted above the boiler.  A driving rod was then connected to both the front and rear axles, which was how the locomotive utilized the steam engine to produce motion by turning the wheels.


In the years prior to the engine's arrival, William Wurts, a Philadelphia merchant, realized that there was a lot of value in the anthracite coal fields in the area around Carbondale, Pennsylvania.  At the time, New York City was struggling with restrictions on the import of British bituminous coal, which they were dependent on.  Wurts thought of the idea of building a canal to connect the coal fields of Carbondale to Kingston, New York where it was then taken by canal to supply the city with coal.  Out of this idea came the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, which was opened to navigation in 1828.  The company then went on to build a railroad, on which originally ran unpowered trains that utilized gravity to carry the coal over the Moosic mountains to the canal at Honesdale.  It was that the historic maiden voyage of the American steam engine took place.









           A present-day recreation of a train at the Steamtown Historic site in Honesdale.


          Honesdale, Pennsylvania has come to be known as the birthplace of American railroading because it is the site of the very first run of a steam engine locomotive in the United States.  Located outside of Carbondale not far from the New York state border, Honesdale was an important location in the transport of coal both before and after the steam engine.  It began as the site of the gravity railroads, where coal would arrive from the mountains to be shipped in a canal.  Later, the state of Pennsylvania authorized the construction of a railroad to be used by steam engines.  This ran from Honesdale to Kingston, New York, and the company hoped its construction would make it possible for coal to be transported to the canals faster.  It was on this track that the steam engine would enter into American history.


The historic first run of the Stourbridge Lion took place on August 8, 1829 in Honesdale.  This milestone journey totaled 6 miles roundtrip as the train made its way to and from nearby Seelyville.  The engine itself performed well in its first test, but it ran on a track that was built to support 4 tons, when the Stourbridge Lion weighed nearly 7.5 tons.  This could possibly be the reason that the Stourbridge Lion did not go on to carry passenger trains.  The actual Stourbridge Lion engine has mostly been lost.  By 1845, only the boiler remained.  Some parts of the train are currently in possession of the Smithsonian Institution, although there are some doubts as to the authenticity of these parts as some may be from replicas that were created in the years following the 1829 test run.  Before discussing how American locomotives evolved from this point forward, it would be best to introduce the mechanics of the steam engine itself.


            To understand steam engines, it is important to understand a key concept of thermodynamics: the Carnot cycle.  This cycle is a simplified model for the thermodynamic processes that occur in an engine, assuming no heat is lost from the overall system.  It is a multi-step cyclic process involving the expansion, compression, heating, and cooling of a gas.  In the context of an engine, heat flows from high temperature to low temperature through a working body, thus transferring energy out of the engine.  This energy is what drives motion in steam engines.  From this cycle comes the theorem that no real engine can be more efficient than a Carnot engine, meaning that the Carnot cycle is an ideal situation where no heat is lost. I real situations, heat is lost which means there is actually less energy available to drive the engine than what goes into the system.


Steam engines not only powered trains, but steamboats and factories as well, making them a major aspect of the Industrial Revolution as a whole.  Therefore, to understand the importance of steam locomotives, it is important to know how a steam engine works. High pressure steam enters from the boiler in which it was created, which shifts the piston to the right side of the cylinder, also pushing exhaust out of the engine.  The slide valve then shifts allowing new high pressure steam to fill the right side of the cylinder, pushing the piston back over to the left, again releasing exhaust steam.  The constant release of exhaust steam causes steam locomotives to need to take on more water to create more steam whenever they stop at another station, and also causes the characteristic "choo-choo" sound associated with trains.  The moving of the piston is what ultimately allows for the turning of the train's wheels and thus motion to occur.


steamengine.gifSimplified diagram of a steam engine, showing all of the key components that utilize steam to drive motion.  It is this design that allowed for the original trains, like the Stourbridge Lion and Tom Thumb, to be devoleped.



            Further developments in American steam engine locomotives followed soon after the arrival of the Stourbridge Lion.  One of the more notable engines that followed was nicknamed Tom Thumb because of its small size.  Peter Cooper, a merchant from New York City, built Tom Thumb because the directors of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had investigated the tests of the Stourbridge Lion, and decided there was nothing to lose in investing in a second model.  Cooper bought a small steam engine, built a boiler out of iron, and used two old musket barrels for boiler flues.  Tom Thumb was meant simply to show that rotary motion could be achieved without using a crank, and that short turns could be made.  Cooper did not intend for the engine to be for actual service.  That would not be the case, however, in the historical account of this real life "little engine that could."


            Just 395 days after the Stourbridge Lion's run, Tom Thumb officially began the first trip by an American-built locomotive, journeying from Baltimore to Ellicott's Mills.  The engine carried six men plus an addition passenger car with 36 men.  The trip in total took 72 minutes, with the train averaging 5.5 miles per hour.  What was more interesting was the return trip.  On this trip, Tom Thumb demonstrated its ability to take short turns by taking them without slowing down much below 15 miles per hour, and reached a maximum speed that day of 18 miles per hour.  It was a peculiar event, though, that solidified Tom Thumb's place in history and removed all doubt that trains would soon take over as the best mode of transportation of the day.


            At the halfway point of the ride, while refueling, proprietors of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad, Stockton and Stokes, who were confident that horses still had superiority over this young form of technology, challenged Tom Thumb to a race.  The men with Tom Thumb accepted the challenge and agreed to race against the horse.  At times, the race was neck and neck, but eventually Tom Thumb took the lead.  Despite this, a band driving a pulley slipped from the drum, which caused the engine to malfunction, and allowed the horse to win the race.  Even though the horse won, Tom Thumb demonstrated the capability to move faster, and it would only take a slight tweak to prevent a similar malfunction to exterminate the doomed transportation method of horse-drawn railroads.  To further cement the horse's ultimate loss in this battle, Tom Thumb's engine was measured to have 1.43 horsepower.


  baltimore-and-ohio-railroad-map.jpgA map of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, showing railways that connect 12 states across parts of the mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions of the United States, including much of Western Pennsylvania.


            The development of the steam engine dramatically improved the ability to travel.  As the models moved forward, it became easier to connect larger areas in a shorter amount of time.  The Baltimore and Ohio railroad itself connected several states in the northern United States, reducing travel times between these places from days to hours.


            The transcontinental railroad was a major development that continued this improved form of transportation.  By 1869 when the railroad was completed, 4 decades had elapsed since the initial run of the Stourbridge Lion.  By this time, steam engines and trains were no longer an experimental idea, but they were becoming a very important method of travel.  The railroad, which spans much of the western half of the country from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Sacramento, California, was built during the Civil War to unite the East and the West.  Ironically enough, it was built as two separate railroads heading east and west, with the celebratory connection at Promontory Point, Utah.  It revolutionized the westward migration that was in progress in the United States.  No longer would migrants need to withstand months of hazardous travelling in covered wagons on the Oregon and California Trails. 


            Skipping ahead into more recent history, the simple model of the steam engine and the idea of the train have evolved considerably since the day the golden spike was driven at Promontory Point.  The classic view of trains, as well as the prominence of air travel, may make trains seem outdated.  This, however, is not the case.  We see them everywhere.  Subway systems and commuter lines around city suburbs are, of course, trains.  Shades of the transcontinental railroad exist in Amtrak, which still utilizes the railway to connect cities across the country.  Then there are the "bullet trains" that can reach speeds well above the typical train or automobile.  For example, the TGV in France can make an 8-hour cross-country road trip from Avignon to Paris last just 3 hours, reaching speeds well over 300 miles per hour.  The trains themselves weren't even the only things that were evolving.


            In the early twentieth century, the railroad itself began to change.  Up until this point, trains ran on tracks made of two rails for the two sets of wheels.  Now, there were some tracks that consisted of only one rail which the train balanced on.  This development would lead to the monorail design more often used today in which the train actually runs above the ground. 




An example of a modern monorail; this one at Pennsylvania's Hershey Park.


Modern monorails can be seen as "Highways in the Sky" as the Walt Disney World Resort refers to them.  A train will look like it is hugging the track, which is elevated above ground level.  Monorails are typically used like subway systems, or as quick transit at attractions.  Hershey and Lancaster both have monorail systems: Hershey for Hershey Park and Lancaster for Dutch Wonderland.  They can be a part of the overall entertainment of a place like this since they are still not that commonly used.


            Trains, especially the typical steam engine, have also made a lasting impact on pop culture.  The film industry, for instance utilized the steam engine in two of its very early developments.  The 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery" is considered a filmmaking milestone, introducing a lot of what were at the time innovative techniques, centered around the robbery of a steam engine. The film even contained color before color-film was invented, as some of the filmstrips were hand-colored.  At 12 minutes long, the film was one of the first narrative films of significant length.  The 1895 short film, "The Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat Station" depicting an oncoming train, astounded audiences so much that it is rumored that the first audience actually ran away from the oncoming train thinking it was real.


            Who knew that so much could come from what originated as a simplistic thermodynamic model.  This simple model was brought to life first in England, and later in America in the form of locomotives and these locomotives went on to revolutionize travel as they were part of an early step in making the globe smaller.  From simple test runs and horse races, to railroads connecting two halves of the nation, from barely going above 15 miles per hour to speeds up to 20 times that fast, the steam engine certainly has come a long way since the Honesdale test ride of the Stourbridge Lion.  All it proves is that Thomas was right, little engines can do big things.

Atack, Jeremy. "The Regional Diffusion and Adoption of the Steam Engine in American Manufacturing." The Journal of Economic History. 40 (1980): 281-308. JSTOR. Penn State Lib., University Park, PA. 4 Feb. 2010.   <>

Crosby, David. Scranton Railroads. San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.

Gretton, Frederick T. P & L.E.R.R. Locomotive. 1888. Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. 4 Feb. 2010 <;g=allimages;xg=1;q1=first%20steam%20engine%20locomotive;rgn1=ic_all;sid=53e95645095aa64d14d4477a4f1a525c;c=accd;c=aeforbes;c=aerial;c=allegob;c=chartres;c=chatham;c=cma;c=cmaharris;c=consol;c=cp;c=darlbroadsides;c=darlfamily;c=darlimg;c=drisbach;c=fairbanks;c=fcox;c=friedberg;c=fwag;c=gn;c=gret;c=gt;c=gwletters;c=hebrewinstitute;c=hjhz;c=iks;c=jal;c=jben;c=ka;c=kauf;c=kobus;c=lysh;c=mest;c=pfwcrr;c=pghprints;c=pghrail;c=pointpark;c=pps;c=rr;c=rushchina;c=rust;c=shourek;c=sketchbook;c=smoke;c=spencer;c=stalinka;c=stotz;c=switch;c=thornic;c=trim;c=uapitt;c=ue;c=unionarcade;c=upgarchives;c=urban;c=vezelay;c=visuals;c=wmpennhotel;c=yeats;size=20;lasttype=boolean;view=entry;lastview=thumbnail;subview=detail;cc=gret;entryid=x-msp328.b001.f21.i01;viewid=GRET0055.TIF;start=1;resnum=1>

Hoexter, Corinne K. "A Colorful Corner of Pennsylvania." New York Times. 31 May 1987: A21.

Kerr, Doug. Honesdale, Pennsylvania. 2009. 11 Feb. 2010. <>

Kinert, Reed. Early American Steam Locomotives. New York: Crown Publishers, 1962.

Lamb, J. Parker. Perfecting the American Steam Locomotive. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. 4 Feb. 2010 <>

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Temin, Peter. "Steam and Waterpower in the Early Nineteenth Century." The Journal of Economic History. 26 (1966): 187-205. JSTOR. Penn State Lib., University Park, PA. 9 Feb. 2010.  <> 


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1) In the caption under the map of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company Railroad and Connection systems, it says the trail will be highlighted in yellow, but I'm not seeing any yellow.
2) I like starting it out with the thomas the tank engine quote
3)I know its mostly supposed to be about the first train in PA, but maybe talk about how it started in England a little more? Obviously still keeping the focus on Pennsylvania
4)I like that you included a sketch of the stourbridge lion
5)I like that you mention the fact the possibility of some of the parts of the stourbridge lion still existing
6) I kind of lost you when you're explaining how steam engines work. obviously you have to explain the process as if someone does not know anything, but make this paragraph as easy to follow as possible
7) Maybe expand on its use in factories/steamboats a little bit
8)The diagram of the steam engine process really helps illustrate that paragraph
9) I like that you mention the speeds of the first steam engine at 5.5 mph and 18mph. It really puts into perspective how far they've come.
10) The story about the train racing the horse is a nice addition
11) The picture of the B&O railroad is really skewed
12) Noting how horsepower was measured is a nice touch
13) good mention of bullet trains

First paragraph is a good idea, but a bit choppy. It should culminate in something related to PA. The transition out of the TGV is so sudden (transition needed). More is needed on D&H ordering the trains, preferably with sources. Make them be the actors in the sentences instead of using the passive voice. Beef up the actual run in Honesdale. Actual descriptions would be fantastic to have. The explanation paragraph with the choo-choo was good; the previous one with the theorem needs some simplification. The legacy section is ok (needs more visible sourcing though). What's missing though is having a fair amount about the actual Stourbridge Lion. Unless I'm having stroke or something, I'm only finding a couple of brief paragraphs on what should be the biggest part of the article. THAT is the biggest thing to work at. I'll be glad to read this again.

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America's First Steam Engine