Little Bits of History

Picking Up Steam

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 15, 2015
John Bull

John Bull

September 15, 1831: John Bull takes to the tracks. The steam locomotive was built in Newcastle, England by Robert Stephenson and Company for the Camden and Amboy Railroad (C&A), the first railroad built in New Jersey. Shipping a steam locomotive brought its own problems and it was dismantled and shipped overseas in crates. Once in America, C&A engineer Isaac Dripps rebuilt it to the best of his ability. There were no instructions included with the shipment. It ran for the first time on this date. Robert Stevens was president of the C&A at the time and repaid some political debts by hosting trips on the short test tracks owned by the company. Included were members of the New Jersey legislature, local dignitaries, and Napoleon’s nephew Prince Murat. His wife, Catherine Willis Gray, hurried aboard the train so she could be the first woman to ride a steam locomotive in America.

After these demonstration trips, the locomotive was put in storage until construction on the tracks was completed. Horse-drawn cars were used to help build the first set of tracks which was finished in 1833. C&A used both numbers and an official name for their early locomotives and this was number 1 and named Stevens after their president. While that was the official name, common usage dubbed the engine John Bull, a reference to the cartoon depiction of England named John Bull. In 1836, John Bull and two coaches were shipped by canal to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and became the first locomotive to operate there, as well.

There were modifications made to the engine over time. The tracks in the US were of poorer quality than those in England and the 0-4-0 construction was inadequate to the task, causing frequent derailments. The C&A’s engineers added a leading truck with an unpowered axle which helped to steer the locomotive around curves and helped with the problem. John Bull became a 4-2-0 engine. He was retired in 1866. C&A was merged into different railways over time and in 1876, with the country celebrating its 100th birthday, John Bull was seen as a great display. Modifications were made for the event and then the owners continued to display the engine. In 1885, John Bull was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution.

John Bull was refurbished and remained on display for 80 years at the East Hall of the Arts and Industries building. It would be transported for display outside the building for momentous events. In 1893 it traveled to the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1927, it went to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad celebration in Maryland. While the Smithsonian recognized the historicity of the artifact, they did not have the funds to refurbish it and so John Bull languished for decades. As his 150th birthday approached, they decided to give the engine some help. They got the engine running and in 1981, John Bull became the oldest operable steam locomotive in the world.

A conservative is a man who believes that nothing should be done for the first time. – Alfred Wiggam

The first man gets the oyster, the second man gets the shell. – Andrew Carnegie

What we hope ever to do with ease we may learn first to do with diligence. – Samuel Johnson

The best tunes are played on the oldest fiddles. – Sigmund Z. Engel

Also on this day: I Feel the Need for Speed – In 1881, Ettore Bugatti was born.
What is That? – In 1916, tanks were first used in battle.
Railroads – In 1830, inter-city passenger rail travel began.
Life in a Vacuum – In 1947, RCA released a new vacuum tube.
Doom Bar – In 1816, the HMS Whiting ran aground.

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