America's first native locomotive loses a smackdown race to a draft horse. Embarrassment does not alter the course of history.
The city fathers of Baltimore were plenty worried about the financial future of their bustling burg in the late 1820s. The National Road
and its eastern connections had linked the city's harbor to Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), on the Ohio River in 1818. The federally financed wagon road was the best, quick link for moving products and raw materials between the young nation's East Coast and the burgeoning interior.
But Baltimore was losing business to a new competitor: canals. The Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, gave New York City access to the Great Lakes. The proposed Chesapeake and Ohio Canal would link Washington, D.C., to the Ohio River. (Using Canada's St. Lawrence River to reach the Great Lakes was out of the question: The War of 1812 was a recent memory, and real peace -- and boundary settlements -- were still decades away.)
Thomas Carroll of Carrollton (Maryland), a nonagenarian who had signed the Declaration of Independence, led a group to establish the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1828. They planned to beat the competition by jumping to a superior technology.
Locomotive steam engines that could move along a track and haul passengers or freight were a new idea. England's first steam railway had just opened in 1825. The B&O intended to haul its carriages with sturdy horses.
Or maybe wind power. But the experiments with sail cars were a flop ... literally. It's pretty darn hard to tack on a track, and the cars frequently toppled over.
Engineer Peter Cooper thought he could build a locomotive that would impress the B&O barons. His Tom Thumb was basically a miniature locomotive. The boiler was no bigger than those found in large kitchen ranges of the time, and Cooper repurposed musket barrels for boiler tubes.
The B&O arranged a demonstration of the Tom Thumb on the 13 miles (of a projected 379) of track it had completed by 1830. Hauling a car full of 40 officials, dignitaries and social notables, the little loco covered the distance from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills in an hour, reaching the unheard-of speed of 18 mph. Gracious!
On the return trip, the train was met, on the adjacent track, by a similar open-air passenger car hitched to the best draft horse of a local stagecoach company. The iron horse and bio-horse were to race.
The horse-drawn car pulled ahead first, as the tiny engine struggled to build up steam. Then it got going. Soon it was chasing the horse. Then it pulled even, and sure enough the little Tom Thumb pulled ahead. A cheer arose from the crowd.
Then: Murphy's Law. A drive band slipped in the locomotive's works
. The engine slowed to a crawl. The horse car pulled ahead. By the time Cooper (who was a railroad engineer in both senses of the word) repaired the damage and got the engine going again, it was too late. The horse was too far ahead, and it won the race.
Aah, but he who laughs last laughs best. It was easier to increase the horsepower of a steam engine than to up the horsepower of a horse.
An improved locomotive reached the ferocious speed of 30 mph in a speed test at Baltimore
in 1831. The B&O stopped using horses to pull its carriages on July 31 of that year.
The railroad announced a competition
for a locomotive specifically designed for the steep, curvy route it contemplated though the Allegheny Mountains. By 1832, the B&O stretched 137 miles west from Baltimore -- the world's longest stretch of railway.
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