Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2079:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a lost locomotive. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Read any older history of America's railways and it says that the Stourbridge Lion was America's first locomotive. But all that changed when John Demos and Robert Thayer made a startling discovery. More on that in a moment; but first, a little background.

Great Britain had begun building steam locomotives in the early nineteenth century, and we were soon looking over her shoulder. If steam railways could be made to work, our huge continent needed them. We'd already pioneered steamboat travel, but that didn't help when we left our navigable canals and rivers.

The first serious attempt to create steam-powered rail service in America began in 1828. A very bright young engineer, John Jervis, decided he could bring coal from across Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountains by rail. So he sent an assistant off to England to buy locomotives. The fellow initially sent two back to New York.

One was the Stourbridge Lion, an older design. The other was new. It'd just been designed by rail pioneer Robert Stephenson and was later renamed the America. It arrived in January, 1829; and the Stourbridge Lion followed four months later. Jervis suspended each in the air and fired it up to be sure the wheels turned. Then he took both to Honesdale, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware & Hudson Canal. He kept the Lion there, and sent the lighter America off to an inland stretch of track for its tests.

In August, the Lion made a public test run to cheers and firing of celebratory cannon. At first it wasn't obvious that its great weight had crushed the track it left behind. When newspapers caught wind of that, the stock of Jervis's company plummeted. In the end, he retired the Lion. It never did see service.

And what about the America? It vanished into western Pennsylvania. Years later, when the dismantled Lion found its way to the Smithsonian, curators found that the parts didn't fit together. After another half century, they learned that some of those pieces were from the lost America -- one cylinder, for example.

Finally, Demos and Thayer made their astonishing discovery: They found a small coffin-shaped carved wooden box -- a kind of memento. Carved on its top is the image of an embryonic train. The box is also inscribed: "John B. Jervis, 1829, D&H Canal Company" on one side -- "America" on another. And, hidden away on the bottom of the lid are the words, "Blew up July 26, 1829."

So it all clicks into place: Someone is halfway revealing a grim secret: the America's boiler exploded! If that'd been known, the whole venture might've died. But the secret never leaked.

The few who knew were probably sworn to secrecy before the Lion made its run. In the end, Jervis really did pioneer railways in the United States. But which locomotive first did service? Well, all we're really sure of is that it was neither the Lion nor the America. And we are left peering through a veil -- still having to guess exactly what did happen almost two centuries ago.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

J. Demos and R. Thayer, The Case Of The Vanishing Locomotive ... And The Birth Of The Railroad Revolution In America. A Mystery Solved. American Heritage, Vol. 49, No. 6, Oct. 1998, pp. 91-95.

For images of the America and the Stourbridge Lion, see J. B. Snell, Early Railways. (New York: G. P, Putnam's sons, 1964) pgs. 26 and 30.

I am grateful to British rail historian Ray State for additional counsel. State points to evidence that suggests the wooden coffin might've been carved a half-century after the fact, but that it still appears to represent the fate of the so-called America correctly.

Below: Images of the two locomotives from a 19th-century issue of Scientific American. State has unearthed evidence that shows both of these to be erroneous in several details.
Locomotive America
The lost locomotive, Robert Stephenson's America., originally (and more properly) called The Pride of Newcastle.

Stourbridge Lion
The Stourbridge Lion.

Finally, the British builder John Rastirck constructed four locomotives for Stephenson, three intended to be used by Jervis's railway, and one which survives in Great Britain. State has generously provided a marvelous photo of that fourth engine, the Agenoria, which might provide the most realistic impression of what the Stourbridge Lion might've looked. CLICK HERE

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.