LOWER HUDSON VALLEY
It may come as a surprise, but the earliest steam
locomotives built in the United States were
assembled in the lower Hudson Valley.
Between 1830 and 1832, a half-dozen railroad engines were
constructed by the West Point Foundry at Cold Spring, N.Y., located about seven miles north of the Bear Mountain Bridge, and shipped to various parts of
The presence of this industrial enterprise in Putnam County was one consequence of the
War of 1812. During that conflict, sources of heavy
weapons were in short supply. Two foundries, one in Georgetown in
the District of Columbia and the
other in Pittsburgh,
were major suppliers of cannons to the military and naval forces of the young
The British seizure of Washington shut down the Georgetown foundry. No large foundry
existed anywhere in the northeastern portion of the new nation. Unhappy with
the imbalanced weapons procurement system and the limited number of reliable
foundries, after the peace treaty of Ghent was
signed in 1815 Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act.
This legislation changed the method
of buying arms and ammunition. Hereafter, the government would work more
closely with suppliers of heavy weapons, even advancing funds for equipment and
prepayment of orders. It was the beginning of a close relationship that would
eventually grow into the military-industrial complex President Dwight
Eisenhower would later warn about.
The West Point Foundry was the brainchild of Gouverneur
Kemble, eldest son of prosperous attorney and merchant Peter
Kemble and scion
of a wealthy New York family
with roots going back to Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant.
A Columbia College graduate, he started in the
business world as a mercantile agent. In 1811 and 1812, he served as U.S. Consul
at Cádiz in Spain,
where he had the opportunity to study the Spanish
government's technologically advanced processes for casting cannon. During the Barbary Wars,
he was assistant naval agent to Commodore Stephen Decatur. negotiating the
release of captured American seamen. While abroad, he studied the best European
iron technology for manufacturing cannons in existence at that time. His
expertise in this field no doubt contributed to his decision to
establish the West Point Foundry.
In 1817, along with partners--mostly
friends and relations from other wealthy New York families with names like
Gouverneur, Brevoort and Renwick--Kemble assembled a consortium of ten
investors to be called the West Point Foundry Association to produce artillery
pieces and other items.
Incorporated on April 15, 1818, in Albany and
capitalized at $100,000, among the initial investors in the foundry was U.S.
Army Gen. Joseph G. Swift, the first graduate of West
Point in the class of 1802, which numbered only two cadets.
The second cadet in the class was Simon M. Levy, a Jew from Baltimore.
Gouverneur Kemble’s brother William would be the
Association’s sales agent, headquartered in New York City. Another
Young, an ironmaster from Belfast, Ireland,
was named the Association’s first foundry superintendent.
The site for the foundry near the
hamlet of Cold Spring, N.Y., was selected because of its proximity to sources of
iron ore in what is today’s Clarence Fahnestock State Park in Putnam County and
in Orange County across the river. Nearby
were ample hardwood forests from which the charcoal needed in the smelting
process could be made. A swift-flowing stream, Margaret’s Brook, running
through the site was an added advantage.
Despite the lack of local
ironworkers and skilled craftsmen, the West Point Foundry’s business grew,
thanks to immigration. Soon the foundry was manufacturing steam engines for steamboats, gears, water pipes,
and other cast iron products, in addition to heavy artillery.
The Best Friend of Charleston
Railroad and canal fever was infecting the country. In Charleston, South Carolina, the South Carolina Canal and
Railroad was chartered to tap burgeoning upcountry cotton plantations. The new
line would link the port city of Charleston with Hamburg, S.C.,
136 miles to the northwest.
After devising a wind-propelled railcar and a locomotive
powered by a horse on a treadmill, both of which were unsuccessful, the railroad
company decided to order a locomotive from the West Point Foundry in New York at a cost
of $4,000. The transaction was a first for both parties.
The foundry had inspected and tested the British Stourbridge
Lion upon its arrival in New
York in 1829 and had built several
Featuring a vertical boiler, the locomotive, named
the Best Friend of Charleston, was shipped to Charleston. On Christmas
Day in 1830, with cannons firing salutes from the first car, the four-ton
locomotive pulled five coaches carrying 141 festive local citizens.
Eschewing the comfort of one of the carriages, a third
person shared the open operating deck of the locomotive with the engineer and
fireman. He was the line’s new chief engineer, Horatio Allen--the same Horatio
Allen who had so bravely driven the Stourbridge Lion a
year earlier in its first run in Pennsylvania.
According to an account in the Charleston
Courier, the passengers "flew on the wings of wind" and the
engine "darted forth like a live rocket, scattering sparks and flames on
either side." It marked the first commercial use of a locomotive built in North America.
Six months later in the evening of June 17, 1831, the Best Friend
of Charleston was making her way through the lush South Carolina countryside outside of Charleston pushing a
flat car covered with a thick bed of sand. On it was a cast-iron brazier in
which pine knots burned brightly. This primitive “track illuminator” marked the
first use anywhere of a railroad engine headlight.
Annoyed by the high-pitched whistle of the safety valve,
the fireman tied down the valve lever. After a few minutes of quiet, the
locomotive set another record. The resulting tremendous explosion made it the
first locomotive to blow up in North America, and left a badly scalded
engineer and wood passer.
A South Carolina Railroad mechanic named Julius Petsch
took the mangled remains of the Best Friend and put them
together so ingeniously the railroad named him its "Master of
Machinery," the first American to bear this title.
The rebuilt locomotive was appropriately renamed Phoenix. The railroad announced
that hereafter a "barrier car" would be placed between the engine and
passenger cars. "Loaded with six bales of cotton," the railroad's
advertisement said, "it will protect travelers when the locomotive
explodes," a sentiment that could have hardly offered much reassurance to
In the meantime, another locomotive, the West
Point, the second railroad engine built by the foundry for which it
was named, had been delivered and was put into service.
The West Point was
a significant improvement over the Best Friend. It had a
horizontal boiler that gave it greater clearance in passing under bridges and
overpasses.The line to Hamburg was
completed in 1833 and would become the first link of the future Southern
Railway, which built a replica of the Best Friend of Charleston train
in 1928 and exhibited it throughout the South.
The replica Best Friend of Charleston train
is temporarily on loan to the Norfolk Southern Railway and displayed in
their office building in Atlanta. Its permanent home is Charleston in the Best Friend of
Charleston Museum at The Citadel Mall.
Adam Hall, a West Point Foundry mechanic, and John B. Jervis, legendary
engineer from the Delaware and Hudson Canal, the 3-1/2-ton locomotive lacked
a few needed refinements, most notably a spark catcher in the smokestack.
On August 9,
1831, a distinguished group of New Yorkers, including New
York governor Enos Throop, members of the legislature, and
the mayors of Albany and Schenectady, found seats
within or on top of three bright yellow stagecoach bodies that had been
converted into railroad coaches.
the long strips of leather riveted together that served as springs on
stagecoaches had been retained and gave railroad passengers a gently rocking
ride. Unfortunately, the coaches were loosely coupled by heavy chains. Following
a stagecoach custom that would become an early railroad custom, conductor John
T. Clark sounded a loud blast on a tin horn to signal departure.
David Matthew, also from the West Point Foundry, opened the throttle. The
locomotive started with a jerk that threw the front seat passengers in the
coaches into the laps of the passengers across from them. Some hastily
installed pieces of fence rail were added to stiffen the link between the
Passengers who elected to ride atop the coaches had an even rougher ride. As the locomotive
gathered speed, sparks and embers from the smokestack showered down on
A stop at a water tank to take on
water mercifully gave the rooftop passengers the opportunity to wet down their
smoldering hats and garments. It was a maiden trip everyone would remember.
Upon its return to the capital, the De Witt Clinton was
shipped to back to the West Point Foundry for reworking.
On April 19, 1847, the Mohawk and Hudson’s name was changed to the Albany and Schenectady Railroad and folded into the New York Central Railroad.
The New York
Central built an operational reproduction of the DeWitt
Clinton, complete with three carriages, for the 1893 Columbian Exposition
This replica is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
The DeWitt Clinton
The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 brought prosperity
to the entire Mohawk Valley and soon attracted the
attention of bankers and Wall Street. By 1831, the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad
Company, with Stephen Van Rensselaer as its titular head and John Jacob Astor
as a director and major stockholder, completed the 16-mile rail line linking Albany and Schenectady.
officers and investors were names well known in the world of finance, including
Jay, Fish, King, Stuyvesant and Schuyler.
reason for building the Mohawk and Hudson line was the series of more than a
dozen locks in the Erie Canal between Schenectady and Cohoes, the canal's
eastern terminus. These caused interminable delays for canal travelers between
the two cities.
The DeWitt Clinton of
the Mohawk and Hudson was the first steam locomotive to operate in New York and
the third locomotive built by the West Point Foundry. It was named in honor of
the governor of New
York responsible for the Erie Canal and
who had died in 1828.
Labels: Lower Hudson Valley, Technics