Monday, April 16, 2012

Railroad Pioneers, 3: Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb Locomotive


The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 brought unanticipated results beyond its planners’ dreams.
Within a year, 42 barges were towed eastward each day, carrying a thousand passengers, 221,000 barrels of flour, 435,000 gallons of whiskey and 562,000 bushels of wheat.
Shipping costs from Lake Erie to New York City fell from $100 a ton to only nine dollars.
Badly undercut commercially and facing economic catastrophe, rival cities on the East Coast desperately attempted to retaliate by exploring the possibilities of digging their own canals to compete with the Erie.
Boston’s canal would have been prohibitively expensive because the city was even farther from the wheat fields of the West. Its capitalists shifted their investments into manufacturing.
Lacking routes through the rugged Appalachians that would match New York’s easy access through the Mohawk Valley to the fertile West, Philadelphia's investors put their money into coal mining.
Although Baltimore was actually closer to Western agriculture than any other city, the cost of digging a canal still proved to be unaffordable. In 1827, the Maryland legislature chartered a railroad to be called the Baltimore & Ohio, making it the first chartered railroad in the United States.
On July 4, 1828, Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, broke ground for the B&O in a celebration that included fireworks, floats and speeches.
Initially the B&O planned to use horses as motive power, even though locomotives had already demonstrated their superiority in England for a quarter-century. When horses proved to be impracticable, the B&O turned to a New Yorker for help.

An Inventor to the Rescue
Peter Cooper, whose ancestry included Dutch, English and Huguenot roots, had grown up in Peekskill, N.Y. After helping his father with at hatmaking and brewing, young Peter moved to New York City to become a coachmaker’s apprentice. Next, he invented and sold a cloth-shearing machine.
In 1821, Peter Cooper bought a glue factory at Sunfish Pond, a sylvan setting of clover fields and buttonwood trees between today’s Fourth and Lexington avenues and 31st and 32nd streets, near the village of Kip’s Bay. After cattle yards and slaughterhouses opened nearby and produced a steady supply of cows' hooves, Cooper set about devising new methods for using such byproducts.
He soon became the principal supplier of glue, gelatin, household cement, isinglass and neat’s foot oil to the city’s factories and merchants. He also became the city’s largest polluter. Sunfish Pond had to be drained and filled in 1839.
Convinced the new B&O railroad would cause real estate values to skyrocket, Cooper purchased 3,000 acres near Baltimore. In the course of draining swamps and leveling hills to develop his property, he found iron ore. Ever enterprising, he built furnaces and a foundry with the intention of forging rails to sell to the new railroad.
When the B&O encountered problems with motive power, Cooper, who had his money invested in the railroad and who had several inventions already to his credited, offered to create his own engine.
“I believed I could knock together a locomotive which would get the trains around,” he later recollected for the Boston Herald in 1882, a year before he died, “so I came back to New York and got a little bit of an engine, about one horsepower, and carried it back to Baltimore.
"I got some boiler iron and made a boiler about as big as an ordinary wash boiler and then how to connect a boiler with the engine I didn't know. I had an iron foundry and some manual skill in working it. But I couldn't find any iron pipes. The fact is that there were none for sale in this country.
“So I took two muskets and broke off the wood parts, and used the barrels for tubing to the boiler. I went to a coachmaker’s shop and made this locomotive, which I called the Tom Thumb because it was so insignificant. I didn't intend it for actual service, but only to show the directors that it could be done."
On a blazingly hot August day in 1830, with Cooper at the controls the Tom Thumb hauled a coachload of officials on a 13-mile demonstration trip to the end of the B&O track at Ellicott’s Mills (today called Ellicott City). A measured mile was covered in 3 minutes and 20 seconds, which translates into s speed of 18 miles an hour.
On the return trip to Baltimore, a horse-drawn coach was encountered plodding along the adjoining double track. Someone proposed a race. It turned out to be a disaster when the leather belt powering the auxiliary blower fanning the locomotive’s fire slipped from its drum. The horse-drawn coach won the informal race, but results of this doleful contest was quietly hushed up.
After new of the successful locomotive test was announced, investors rushed to purchase millions in B&O stock and bonds. The railroad used the proceeds to buy Peter Cooper's iron rails, earning him his first fortune. From the start, the B&O was a commercial and financial success and devised many new managerial methods that would become standard practice in railroading and modern business. The B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore is a mecca for train buffs from all over the world.
With the Tom Thumb, the B&O became the first railroad to operate a locomotive built in America, to earn passenger revenues and to publish a timetable (May 23, 1830). It built the first passenger and freight station (Mount Clare in 1829). On December 24, 1852, it became the first rail line to reach the Ohio River from the eastern seaboard.

Railroads Come to the New York Area
Railroad construction in New York City began in 1831 when John Mason, president of the Chemical Bank, and two Harlem landowners, Benson McGowan and Thomas Addis Emmet, were granted a charter for a New York & Harlem Railroad. The Common Council granted the NY&H the right to operate horse-drawn cars over a double track from City Hall to the Harlem River along Fourth Avenue. Construction began in February of 1832. Rails were not nailed to wooden ties but bolted to one-foot-square granite blocks. Because the rails were well above street level, crosstown traffic became a nightmare.
Horses pulled coaches up the Bowery from Prince Street to 14th Street and then along Fourth Avenue to 27th Street, where the NY&H built a passenger depot, plus a produce terminal and stables for the line’s horses. By the autumn of 1833, the tracks had reached 32nd Street, where they encountered a major obstacle: a hill of dense, unyielding black mica schist. The tunnel through it—still in existence--took until 1837 to complete.
The NY&H operated its first steam locomotive in June of 1834. It exploded on the 28th of the month, causing railroad management to return to horse-drawn cars for the next three years. The line resumed the use of steam motive power in 1837.
In the meantime, tracks were laid on wooden ties through the town of Yorkville near 86th Street. In 1836, another tunnel had to be cut through the hill called Mt. Pleasant, between 92nd and 94th streets. Here the railroad opened a hotel in hopes of attracting visitors to the bucolic surroundings.
A 658-foot-long timber viaduct allowed the line’s rails to reach its northern terminus at the Harlem River in 1837.Three years later, the NY&H constructed a bridge across the Harlem River at 131st Street and began its push northwards through Westchester County. A new kind of train passenger, the commuter, now came into existence.
Tuckahoe was reached in July of 1844; White Plains on December 1 that same year; Pleasantville in October of 1846; Mount Kisco the following February. The line plodded on through Putnam and Dutchess Counties, reaching Croton Falls on June 1, 1847 and Dover Plains on December 31, 1848. It reached its new northern terminus, Chatham Four Corners (now Chatham), 131 miles from New York City, on January 19, 1852.
The idea of a direct, water-level railroad along the east bank of the Hudson River had been suggested as early as 1832 and rejected. It was inconceivable a railroad could compete with the luxurious steamboats offering low fares and fast travel. The success of the NY&H changed the climate of opinion.
The Hudson River Railroad was granted a charter by the legislature on May 12, 1846. Its success owed much to English-born merchant and banker James Boorman, who proposed hiring John B. Jervis, of Croton Aqueduct fame, as the chief engineer.
The usual controversy over motive power ensued. The city finally authorized in 1847 the operation of trains and the laying of track north from Canal Street and from Spuyten Duyvil. Construction of the Hudson River line progressed at a fast pace, thanks to the money and talent behind it.
The segment extending from Canal Street to Poughkeepsie was opened on December 31, 1849. Builders reached East Albany on June 12, 1851, and regular service was offered on October 8, although passengers had to cross Spuyten Duyvil Creek on a ferry until a bridge was opened in 1853. The total cost of the line came to $11,328,990.
Because of continuing steamboat competition and despite its superior design and many innovations, especially in motive power, the Hudson River Railroad failed to earn a profit until 1865, one year after a rapacious Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had enough money to match his ambitions, acquired control of the company.

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