|C&A No. 1, Robert L. Stevens a/k/a John Bull and two open coaches as it looked in 1831,|
It’s a double anniversary today for John Bull, a little steam engine who definitely could. On September 15, 1831 it ran for the first time—a test run—on this side of the Atlantic in New Jersey. Exactly 150 years later it became the oldest operable steam locomotive in the world when the Smithsonian Institution fired it up and ran it out on September 15, 1981.
Only a year after the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&0) tested Peter Cooper’s American built engine in 1830, New Jersey’s fledgling Camden and Amboy Railroad ordered a locomotive for its service from Robert Stephenson and Company (C&A) in Newcastle, England, builders of the most modern and sophisticated engines in the world. Upon completion and testing the engine was disassembled and crated up and dispatched to the States on a Trans-Atlantic Packet.
The crates were disembarked on September 1. The parts arrived without plans, drawings, or assembly instructions of any kind. It was left to C&A engineer Isaac Dripps to figure out how the hell to put the damn thing together and get it to run. He must have been pretty good because the company was able to run their tests in just two weeks. The test proved two things—that the engine did move very well, at least over short distances, on rails, and that the boiler did not blow up.
The company was scrambling to lay track and operating limited passenger and freight operations with horse drawn cars. As a marketing and public relations ploy it was decided to run an excursion over the test track with the new engine on November 12. State legislators, local dignitaries, and Napoleon’s nephew Prince Achille Murat and his American born wife, Catherine Willis Gray were among the guest passengers. Mme. Murat was so eager to be remembered as the first woman to ride a steam-powered train in America that she jostled ahead of other ladies to step into one of the open coaches first. And it must have worked, because here we are remembering her.
A few weeks later, the engine finally entered revenue service. The company designated it as No. 1 and named it Robert L. Stevens after the president of the C&A. Railroad employees, however, were soon calling the engine Old John Bull in honor of its English origins. That was soon shortened to John Bull. Over time the nick name supplanted the official name.
When John Bull first chugged through New Jersey it was configured, using the Whyte notation system for a steam locomotive, a 0-4-0 meaning if had two powered axles and no unpowered leading or trailing axles. But this alignment proved unstable on the American primitive road bed and the engine literally fell of the tracks on several occasions. American road beds were not well engineered—tracks were often literally just laid down on unprepared ground. Wooden rails were topped by thin strips of iron and not well tied. Ground underneath the rails often gave way or washed out, the rails broke or warped, and for lack of good ties tended to spread from the designed gauge. All of this would have shocked the experienced engineers laying building rail ways in Britain.
The solution was to distribute the weight of the engine over a longer base. To do that a leading truck—an assembly consisting of an unpowered axle with smaller diameter wheels connected to the frame and pushed in front of the locomotive—to help guide the engine into curves. That required the original front axle be uncoupled from the rear axle leaving only the rear one engaged. John Bull was transformed into a 4-2-0—a locomotive with two unpowered axles, one powered main axle, and no trailing axles.
|John Bull as modified to a 4-20-0 configuration with enclosed cab and tender, widened funnel, and safety features.|
This was just the first in a series of alterations and adaption to the engine over its years of service. Later a pilot and cowcatcher—a device unheard of in England where cattle and sheep tended to be well penned—were added to the front of the leading truck. Then a wooden cab was constructed for engine driver and the trailing coal tender was enclosed. A warning bell and headlamp were affixed for operation in foul weather or dark. Finally the original straight smoke stack was replaced with a diamond funnel meant to reduce the number of burning cinders raining down on the passengers in the early open carriages.
John Bull saw hard service on the C&A. It was in regular service hauling mostly passenger carriages. In September 1836 the engine and two coaches were shipped by canal to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where it became one of the first locomotives to operate that far west. After a few years larger and more modern engines were built for service on the main line and John Bull became a yard switch engine, a job it spent most of its active service. In the end, it was converted to a stationary engine to power a saw mill and as a water pumper.
After 35 years of hard service John Bull was retired by the C&A and sent to storage at Bordentown, New Jersey in 1866. And there it sat, miraculously escaping being scrapped. The C&A was absorbed in 1869 by the United New Jersey Railroad and Canal Company which was gobbled up by the rapidly expanding and consolidating Pennsylvania Rail Road (PRR) two years later.
The old engine might have just rusted away had not some Pennsy executive come up with a novel idea—restoring the old engine and putting it on display at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The engine was restored to what railroad engineers thought it might have looked like in 1833—the cab and enclosed coal tender were removed, the modern funnel replaced by a straight pipe. In an exhibit that famously looked relentlessly forward and celebrated America’s exploding industrial capacity and innovation, the John Bull stood out as a bit of nostalgia and proof of how far and quickly things had changed.
The exhibit was such a success that in 1883 the PRR it again in at the National Railway Appliance Exhibition in Chicago.
In 1884 John Bull was sold to the Smithsonian Institution to be the first major exhibit in chronicling American transportation and industrial evolution. It went on static display on December 22, 1884 in the brand new East Hall of the Arts and Industries building—the engine’s home for the next 80 years.
|As restored for the 1893 run to the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago.|
Twice it escaped static display. An astonishing plan was concocted to take the engine to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. With help from Pennsy engineers, John Bull was restored to operating conditions. After it passed a 50 test spin, officials went ahead with plans to send it to Chicago under its own power pulling two vintage coaches on which dignitaries—including President Grover Cleveland and the governors of the states it would travel through—would be given rides. It left Jersey City on April 17 and arrived in Chicago on April 22 having traveled at an average speed of 25-30 miles per hour. This was a far longer trip than any it had seen in active service decades earlier.
John Bull was used for excursions at the fair and then returned to Washington, D.C. again under its own power in December.
It sat idly in the Museum until 1927 when it was dispatched to Baltimore for the Fair of the Iron Horse celebrating the centennial of the B&O since its original engine Tom Thumb had not been preserved. For this outing a replica of the original tender was built since the original had deteriorated so badly that it was scrapped in 1910. The old engine was showing its age and everyone expected that this would be its last time under steam.
For John Bull’s own centennial in 1931 the Smithsonian hoisted it up and had the driver wheels turn by compressed air in a new static display and PRR 1836 coach was attached behind the tender. The unveiling was broadcast live on CBS radio.
In 1933 the engine returned to Chicago for another fair—the Century of Progress—but this time it was hauled there and back on another train. Meanwhile the Pennsy built a working replica at its Altoona shops which was used in the 1939 New York World’s Fair while the original stayed behind this time at the Smithsonian.
In 1964 the Smithsonian moved he engine to it new facility, the National Museum of History and Technology now known as the National Museum of American History where it sat motionless for another 17 years.
As John Bull’s 150th birthday approached museum officials planned to upgrade the exhibit and more clearly highlight the engine’s age and significance. Someone wondered if maybe, just maybe, the old boy could run again. Almost everyone was skeptical. But for the first time since ’31, it was hoisted up and attached again to an air compressor which showed that the axles still turned freely and the gears were in good order. Special testing on the boiler including X-ray inspection, metallurgy tests, and ultra-sound conducted by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company showed that the heart of the old machine was still basically sound. The company rated it as safe for operations at pressures up to 50 pounds per square inch (psi). When originally delivered in 1831 it had been rated for operations up to 70 psi.
Museum official decided to give it a test after additional restoration work. On a stretch of nearly deserted Virginia track and amid some secrecy, John Bull was successfully run over a short distance on October 14, 1980. Encouraged, more work was done.
|Under steam again in 1981,|
Then on September 15, 1981, exactly 150 since its first official trip and amid much hoopla John Bull ran for a few miles on a branch line near the Potomac River in Washington. It became the oldest operable steam engine and the oldest self-propelled vehicle in the world.For the last 33 year the old boy has slept in the Museum. Will he ever awake again? Who knows? But I wouldn’t bet against