The first locomotive to run on rails in America
August saw the anniversary of the first locomotive to run on rails in America and it was manufactured right here in the Black Country. This article from 1978 tells the fascinating story of the Stourbridge Lion.
Stourbridge, the town which gave its name to all kinds of decorative and ornamental glassware, also became a centre for railway engineering in the early nineteenth century, for some of the world's first locomotive engines were being made there a hundred-and-fifty years ago.
In 1827 the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, Pennsylvania, became interested in the new development of the steam engine for traction and locomotive use, which was taking place in England at that time. The main reason for their interest was the hauling of coal from the company's mines near the town of Honesdale. In the January of 1828 they sent over to this country a deputy engineer, Horatio Allen, to make exhaustive enquiries concerning the use and power of the engines, and the rails upon which they were to run. The company must have placed considerable faith in Allen's judgment in relying upon him to decide on the suitability of the locomotives. He also carried in his pocket orders for rails and four engines, which must have been quite a gamble, for at that time not a single steam locomotive had ever been seen in the United States.
Horatio Allen's first enquiries led him to the Newcastle works of the Stephenson family, where Robert the son of George Stephenson, was engaged with his father in producing an engine for the projected Liverpool and Manchester railway line, which later was to become the famous Rocket engine. It is quite possible that as they were so involved with that task they were not able to undertake the supply of four locomotives, and so only one, the America, was ordered from them. Allen was without doubt sent by them to the town of Stourbridge, where John Urpeth Rastrick was in partnership with James Foster, the owner of the great ironworks of John Bradley and Company. George Stephenson and Rastrick have often been stated to have been rivals, but this cannot be correct, for in 1825 they worked together on the promotion of the Liverpool and Manchester railway, and in 1829 Rastrick was one of the judges who decided in favour of George Stephenson's Rocket. winning a prize of £500 for the best locomotive engine.
John Urpeth Rastrick, 1780—1856, was a brilliant engineer, born in Morpeth, Northumberland, where he worked with his father, also an engineer, He had made a study of civil engineering, and at the age of twenty-one he entered the Ketley ironworks in Shropshire to learn more about cast iron, which was rapidly coming into use for all kinds of machinery. He later joined a Bridgnorth company, where his knowledge of cast iron and civil engineering enabled him to bridge the River Wye at Chepstow, with a cast iron bridge spanning 112 feet.
After taking out a patent for a steam engine in 1814, he eventually went to Stourbridge, where the firm of Foster Rastrick and Company was formed. Although busy with this company, he still continued to practice civil engineering independently, and was often engaged in reporting to Parliamentary committees in support of railway companies and projected railway lines. The canal companies always offered intense opposition to railway construction, but Rastrick's considerable knowledge and his calm behaviour as a witness gained him respect everywhere. He became a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, and in 1837 was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Such was the man to whom Horatio Allen came, and from whose company he ordered three locomotives of the same type as that which he was constructing for the Shutt End railway at Kingswinford. This was the famed Agenoria, which ran on that railroad for some forty years and is now a most treasured exhibit at the York Railway Museum,
Although the Stephenson built engine, the America, arrived in New York some months before the Rastrick locomotives, it was not put into service as Allen seemed to favour the Stourbridge Lion as being the best of the four. After its arrival at New York, it was assembled in the workshops of the West Point Foundry, and set up on blocks as a stationary exhibit, adjacent to the works in Beach Street, New York City. There it was shown to the astonishment of great crowds of people who came to view the iron monster. With its turning wheels, the up and down motion of its walking beams, and the hissing and chuffing steam which it produced, the like of it had never been seen in America. It was given the name of Lion by reason of a fierce lion's head which was painted upon the front of the boiler. The cost of this engine to the company, delivered, was 2,915 dollars, and it weighed about eight tons.
The Lion replica locomotive, made from the original plans and capable of running under steam, seen here in the workshops of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad. It has recently been on tour in Canada. Photo: Courtesy Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
About three miles of track had been laid at Honesdale and this crossed the Lackawaxen creek on a trestle bridge some thirty feet in height. The rails were of wood construction, the running surface of which was faced with wrought iron strips, two and one-half inches wide and half an inch in thickness, which were secured to the rails with stout wood screws. After being transported up the Hudson river, and thence by canal to Honesdale, it arrived there in the July of 1829, where it was prepared for its trial run. Horatio Allen had supervised the unloading and the placing of the engine upon the rails, and the trials were due to take place on the 8 of August, 1829.
When this became known crowds of people assembled to witness the event, most of them firm in their opinion that the contraption would never work. A vivid description of the trial was published in the Wayne County Citizen for the centenary celebrations in 1929. It reads as follows:
Horatio Allen was now on his iron steed; as he drew in the iron reins, he voiced a hope in his soul that she would move. It was a momentous occasion. Then there arose a noisy burst of steam from the nostrils, a grinding of iron feet on its pathway of steel, and with a great throb shaking her iron framework the Lion-horse, with Horatio Allen on its back was off! And the new Age of Transportation was ushered in — the age of the ox-cart was out.
That crowd of pioneer Americans, ready to cheer or jeer, had watched with intense interest the preparations of America's first engineer. They had followed with doubtful expectation every movement, and when the Lion sprang into action, the jeers turned to cheers, the pent up emotion of that pioneer crowd broke forth in one resounding cry that echoed back from cliff to cliff in the valley of the Lackawaxen River. Flags were waved, cannon sounded, hats were thrown into the air, for pioneers though they were of the ox-cart age, they realised that a new epoch in transportation had arrived; an epoch that eventually led up to the tri-motored airplane, cutting the air at two hundred miles an hour, and the great airship, mammoth birds of the sky, hundreds of feet long, that skim the uncharted heavens.
The crowd continued to cheer and to watch in wonder bordering on awe as the iron steed snorted along the ribbons of wood and steel, crossed the bridge over the river, and disappeared from sight. Many thought that it would not return, but after due time with Allen at the throttle and riding backwards, the curious contraption pulled up again at the hamlet of Honesdale where the crowd was still assembled, amidst a great burst of applause, approval, admiration and compliments to the engineer who had made the trip alone. The people had feared that anyone who rode on the engine would have been killed with him.
After another trial it was decided by the company that the light wooden rails would not stand up to the continued use of the locomotive, and the haulage of coal, so it was put into storage in a shed at Honesdale. There it remained until 1849, and the company removed it to their workshops at Carbondale, Pennsylvania, where the boiler was removed and put to use and other parts were removed and separated, some being irretrievably lost.
The original relics of the Lion as they stand in the Hall of Transportation at the Smithsonian lnstitute, Washington. Photo: Courtesy Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
In 1889 another firm acquired the boiler and deposited it with as many of the other parts of the engine that they could find, at the Smithsonian Institute at Washington. There it was partially reconstructed, and it stood in this form for many years in the Hall of Transport, along with other historic exhibits including the Wright brothers' plane. The Delaware and Hudson Railroad Company have built a full scale replica of the Lion from the original plans. This is usually kept at the Company’s works at Honesdale. The original boiler and many of the other parts of this Stourbridge made locomotive still occupy an honoured space in the Smithsonian Institute.
August 2, 1979 marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of that historic event.