Monday, April 09, 2012

Railroad Pioneers, 2: The West Point Foundry Locomotives


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 SpringN.Y., located about seven miles north of the Bear Mountain Bridge, and shipped to various parts of the country.
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 republic.
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.
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 partner, William Young, an ironmaster from BelfastIreland, was named the Association’s first foundry superintendent.
The site for the foundry near the hamlet of  Cold SpringN.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 CharlestonSouth 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 HamburgS.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 steamboat engines.
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 passengers. 
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. 

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. Among its officers and investors were names well known in the world of finance, including Jay, Fish, King, Stuyvesant and Schuyler.
One obvious 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. 
      Designed by 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. 
      Fortunately, 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.
      Engine driver 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 coaches.
      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 them. 
      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 in Chicago. This replica is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in DearbornMichigan.

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