Hopkins Thomas Memorial Testimonial


Hopkin Thomas was born at Glamorganshire, South Wales, and remained with his parents on the farm until the reached his 16th year, when he was apprenticed to the Neath Abbey Iron Works, near Neath, to learn the machine trade. It was early discovered that he possessed a fertile mind for the business, and when his apprenticeship was fulfilled, he had obtained a high position among his fellow–workmen.1


In 1834, accompanied by his wife and three children, he left his native place and sailed for this country, landing at Philadelphia, where he readily obtained employment at the Baldwin Locomotive Works. After a short session at these works, he secured a position under Messrs. Garrett and Eastwick, succeeded by Eastwick & Harrison, who afterwards, in conjunction with Mr. Thomas Winans of Baltimore, formed a company, built and equipped the railroads of Russia, and became immensely wealthy. The locomotives used at that day were generally of English pattern, and Eastwick & Harrison contracted with the Beaver Meadow Railroad and Coal Company of Carbon County to build the latter corporation three locomotives, to be used in hauling coal from Penn Haven to Parryville. It was in the construction of these locomotives that Mr. Thomas made known his inventive genius, and as this was the firm’s first attempt at locomotive building, his assistance was very important. The trial of the first locomotive is hereafter detailed by his older associate and follow workman, Mr. Thomas Evans, now living at an advanced age in Hammonton, New Jersey.


When the locomotives were completed, he was detailed, with a force of machinists,  to go to Parryville and erect them on the road, the parts being carried from Philadelphia by canal boat to their destination. When the work was completed, Mr. Thomas was employed by the Coal Company as master mechanic of the road, which position he held until 1841, during which time he invented many patentable devices. His usefulness as a mechanic was fully demonstrated in the running of the new road and the successful working of the mines. When it is remembered that the railroad was one of first in the country, and that every matter was new to the company, the directors found in Mr. Thomas a man capable for every responsibility and difficulty. The machine shop at Beaver Meadow was an antiquated affair, the lathes and machinery being driven by horse-power.


In the winter of 1836, the engine house at Parryville was burned, including two locomotives belonging to the company, and then it was that the master mechanic undertook to rebuild the machines. A description of this part of his history is fully described by his friend, Mr. Evans.


After the completion of the repairs, Mr. Thomas undertook, with his meager facilities, to construct a six-wheel connected engine, which he dubbed the “Nonpariel”, and which was the first combination ever built in America. This machine did good service on the coal road for years, and the fact is now made prominent by the Lehigh Valley R.R. Company having completed a new 46 ton engine at their Weatherly shops, and naming it after the old Nonpariel. Mr. Philip Hoffecker, the master mechanic at these shops, was an apprentice under Mr. Thomas when he built the original Nonpariel, and was present at the funeral of his deceased master. The drawings of the old Nonpariel are still existence and highly valued by the sons of the deceased. He was the first individual who blew a steam whistle in the Lehigh Valley, and being a practical engineer was in the habit of running on the road when occasion required.


After the great flood of 1841, when the coal chutes and canal at Parryville were destroyed, he entered in new partnership with Messrs. Van Cleve and McKean, as contractors in mining and delivering the coal at the Mauch Chunk chutes, in which work he engaged for several years, his inventive genius working to great advantage to the contractors. He invented a double–acting pump for the mines, which was capable of great lifting power, and which is more or less in use today. This partnership yielded  large profits, and Mr. Thomas’ pecuniary circumstances were bright, when he ventured into partnership and built a machine shop at Tamaqua, in which he lost large sums of money. After this disaster, he engaged with the Beaver Meadow Company to repair one of their locomotives at the Jeansville shops, after the completion of which he removed to Reading, and worked his trade for some months.


In February 1853 he removed to this place, and was appointed master mechanic of the Crane Iron Works, continuing in the employee of the company until 1874, only relinquishing work when the infirmities of age necessitated. He was authority in all mechanical details, and his name is known throughout the country as a man of sterling integrity, great inventive genius and the pioneer in locomotive building. His inventions are numbered by scores, many which are used today covered by patents of other parties, as Mr. Thomas seldom entered them, his whole desire being to accomplish his own needs. He was the first person to construct the fire box to burn coal, which invention is still in prominent use by all locomotive builders. It is claimed that he invented the equalizing bar, by which means the weight of the machine is equally distributed to all the drivers; he invented the chilled hub for car wheels, which formerly revolved upon the axle, instead of the axle being stationary and revolving in the box, as now in use.


Of late years he has been confined to his home, and quietly passed away on the morning of May 12th, 1878, in the 85th year of his age. He leaves an aged helpmate and five children: Mrs. James McKee of Philadelphia; Mr. William R. Thomas, formerly superintendent of the Coleraine Iron Works at Reddington, Pennsylvania, and Rising Fawn Iron Works, Georgia, and at present superintendent of the coal department of Oxmore2 Iron Works, Ala., and a man possessing many traits of his father; Mrs. John Thomas of Hokendauqua; Mr. James Thomas, formerly superintendent of the Carbon Iron Works at Parryville, Pa., and now of the Oxmore2 Iron Works, Ala., the most successful works in the South; and Mrs. J. W. Fuller of this place.


Mr. Thomas’ apprentices and workmen are numbered among the most prominent and successful mechanics in the country. Among them are two master mechanics of the Lehigh Valley R. R. Company, Messrs. Philip Hoffecker of the Weatherly shops and John A. Kinsey, of the South Easton shops, who build engines not only renowned for their speed, beauty and graceful combinations, but largely imitated by other builders; Mr. John Thomas, superintendent the Hokendauqua Iron Works; Mr. George Davies, formerly of the Carbon Iron Works; Messrs. John Fritz, Owen Leibert, and Enoch Philips of the Bethlehem Steel Works; Mr. Daniel Jones, superintendent of the Cambria Iron Works, Johnstown, the largest corporation in America; Mr. William R. Jones, superintendent of the Edgar Thompson Steel Works, Braddock, Pennsylvania;Samuel Davis, superintendent of the Thomas Iron Co.’s mines at Port Oram, New Jersey; John R. Tait, foreman Union Foundry, this place; Robert M. Forrest, superintendent machinery at Bodie Mines, Cal.; and many others, of whom we are not conversant.


His old friend and follow workman, Mr. Thomas Evans, of Hammonton, New Jersey, who has been intimately acquainted  for years, thus speaks of his history:


“My first acquaintance with him was in the spring 1839. He was employed with Messrs. Garrett and Eastwick in Wagoners Alley, Philadelphia. The firm had taken a contract to build three locomotives for the Beaver Meadow Coal Company, which was their first attempt at locomotive building. Hopkin Thomas had charge of the fiitting up of the first engine, when I was employed by the firm and placed at work with him. Hopkin suggested a plan for burning coal on the new locomotives, which the firm adopted. When the first one was completed, they made arrangements with the Trenton Railroad to try the new locomotive and invention upon their road. When the day arrived, the firm invited a company of city and railroad officials to witness the trial. Mr. Thomas acted as engineer and myself as fireman. The railroad company was running but two trains a day over their road, starting for Philadelphia in the morning and returning in the evening. We were to leave after the regular train, expecting to reach Trenton not much behind time. We were not very successful, as we just reached Bristol in time to allow the evening train to pass on its return to the city, we returning to Philadelphia at two o’clock the next morning. We could neither burn coal nor wood in the fire box, and therefore the difficulty of generating steam. So we were compelled to renew the new affair and substitute the Oxboro, now in use in wood–burning engines. Mr. Thomas ran this engine about two weeks to allow the railroad company to repair their English engine, which was only one owned by the company, being a small, inside connected one. When the second locomotive was completed, I went up to Parryville with Hopkin to start them upon the road.


“The directors being there to witness the opening of the road, engaged Mr. Thomas as Master Mechanic, and myself as engineer. We took up the arrangement for burning coal, but it took us  until mid-winter before we could make any successful trips. We were determined to accomplish the burning of coal on locomotives, and, after many trials, at last succeeded. This was in the fall of 1836, for in 1837 we had a sad accident. The  engine house at Parryville took fire and burned both engines, as far as fire could do it. The one I ran had wooden spokes and fellies under the tire, and all the iron parts had been heated red hot. After the company heard of the disaster, Presidents Ingham and several of the directors came up to make arrangements to ship the locomotives to Philadelphia to be rebuilt. Mr. Thomas objected, stating that he could rebuild them within the time of their transportation both ways, which had to be done by canal. They thought it impossible to do such work there on the mountain, and insisted upon shipping them. Hopkin  became angry, and declared that they should not take them, stating that his services were useless unless he could accomplish the job. They then consented to allow him to have his own way. He told them to go home, and within ten days he would have one on the road again. We worked night and day, and on the ninth day one was out of the shop, and at the end of eight days the other followed. Then the company found out who they had employed, and he remained in their good graces during his time in their employ.


“When the third engine came up, she was placed on the upper end of the road, between the mines and the head of the planes. The coal was then taken over two incline planes to Black Creek, and by gravity to Penn Haven, and thence to Parryville  by steam; returning we took the empty cars back to Penn Haven, and by mule power to Black Creek; then up the two incline planes, from which point the engines took them to the several mines of the Beaver Meadow Company.


“As to our first experience at coal burning, it is impossible to detail, as we were many times compelled to do things of which we did not know what would be the result, but having the road to ourselves and determined to succeed, we finally accomplished it. Many times it would be midnight before we reached home, although we were due at 6:00p.m. I remained as engineer on the road for eight months, and at one time kept up my fire for six days without allowing it to die out, demonstrating that our object had been fully accomplished, keeping uniform steam and running my trips regularly. You will observe I kept the fire in all night, in the morning cleaning out well and adding fresh fuel. As it was before the blower was invented, I would run her empty a few minutes, then attach to a train ready to commence the day’s work. During our experiments with coal burning one of the main difficulties we had to encounter was to find out what draft was needed, and, after months, Hopkin invented a variable exhaust, by which we could regulate the draft, determining the amount requisite. I consider the above experiments in coal burning the first knowledge obtained, the fundamental principles of which are in general use today, but reduced to mathematical calculations. Ross Winans of Baltimore claims the right of the variable exhaust, but his patent is dated a few years after we used it.


“The next movement was for me to leave the road to be foreman at Beaver Meadow for Mr. Thomas, when he planned and constructed a six-wheel connected locomotive, the first ever made to work satisfactorily in this country. Then it was considered a wonder, having all the weight of the engine for adhesion and taking more than double weight over the road. Also, it was built on the mountains. Even the directors were doubtful that such a job that could be performed outside the cities. Fortunately when she was taken out of the shop, in the presence of the President and Directors, she “moved off gracefully,“ as they expressed it, and made her round trip in due time. That they almost worshiped him, and at the festival, on the occasion, so expressed themselves.


“The Nonpariel was built at Beaver Meadow, and shops consisting of sheds and stables, the machinery being driven by horse-power. The tools consisted of two lathes, one with back gear, the other plain, with foot gearing to be used when the horse was in the stable; work bench with about eight vices; smith shop with two fires; pattern shop, one man, Mr. Philip M. Kinsey; car shop for repair of cars, the whole employing 8 or 10 hands, as hardly a trip would be made unless a runoff or smash–up occurred. The road use them was cross–ties four feet apart: sills 6 x 8’ connected the bed, with flat bars of iron 2-1/.2 x 5/8 inches thick.


“After our experience with the six wheel connected engine, Hopkin invented another plan, with a view of taking the whole weight for adhesion, without the rigid connections. The consortium was one pair of drivers and a truck. The truck wheels connected together with a pair of spur wheels; behind the truck a shaft with cranks to correspond with that of driving wheels, and connected from the main pin and a double journal, on this shaft had another spur wheel geared into the one on the hind truck wheel. It had a face of two inches more than the one on the track wheel, so as to be in full bearing when the truck was on a curve. The truck vibrated on a central bearing. The principle was very good, but the rattling of the gearing with the working of the engine was very unnatural. The company had one built by James Brooks, near Frankford, Philadelphia.


“The mines took much of his attention about this time, as they were the only ones in operation in the region. He invented and made a double–acting pump which worked very satisfactorily, throwing double the quantity of water with the same diameter of working barrel and discharge pipes as a single acting required, drawings of which were made and sent to I. P. Morris & Co., Philadelphia, when the Hazleton & Sugarloaf mines were opened, some which are probably in use at this time.


“In 1840 I left the Beaver Meadow Co. and went to Sugar Loaf as Master Mechanic, and in 1844 went to Hazleton where I remained until 1856, when my health gave out and I had to retire from business.


In reference to Ross Winans, I have to say that soon after I had charge of the works at Hazleton, Mr. Pardee came to the shops one morning, accompanied by a stranger, and introduced him as Ross Winans of Baltimore. Mr. Winans said that he had heard that we were burning coal successfully on our road; that he did not come like a snake in the grass, but for information respecting its practicability, that he would remain several days and witness the operation. I received him as cordially as I could, but at the same time did not have leisure to go with him on the road. I took him to one of the engines which was about starting out, and told him to go on the trip, and that in the afternoon I would accompany him on a second trip and explain, if necessary. What he returned, he was covered with dirt, as he had been examining everything, from the smoke chamber to the fire box. I called at the hotel the same evening, and found him making arrangements to leave the next morning. He remarked it would be useless for him to remain longer, as everything worked admirably, and all was plain to him.”


General William Lilly of Mauch Chunk, some years since wrote of the departed and his friend, Mr. Evans, in settling a dispute has to who was the oldest engineer. It was claimed that Mr. Fred Rustay, of the Lehigh Valley R. R.  was the oldest engineer in United States, but Messrs. Hartleyx, Houston, Lewis, Rustay and Butz all served as fireman under Mr. Evans, and he, now in his 70th year, is, without doubt, the oldest in the land.


 “Louis Hartley, late of Morristown road, Abram Houston, now of the Camden & Amboy, James Lewis, Esq., a resident of Virginia, Thomas Evans, a resident of Hammonton, New Jersey, and Fred Rustay, now of Lehigh Valley road, are all older locomotive men than Butz. Most of them have remained on the ‘foot boards’ until now, and all “pulled the throttle valve” when Butz was pulling the single line of a six-mule team for the Crane Iron Company, when they first broke ground at Catasauqua. So much for the history of the “engineers.”


“The mechanic still lives in the Lehigh Valley that adapted the locomotive to burn anthracite coal, which the records of the Patent Office of 1836 or 1868 will show, and by the ingenious arrangement coal was successfully used on the Beaver Meadow and Hazleton roads fifteen years before it could be utilized for that purpose elsewhere.3


Hopkin Thomas, Esq., now of Catasauqua, was the man that invented the draft-box that performed the work for years to the satisfaction and profit of the above roads. A railroad that could not use the hard coal of Pennsylvania would now be considered far behind the age. Mr. Thomas also invented the chilled cast iron car wheel that is now in universal use all over this and the European Continent. This invention was also patented in 1839. I now believe the patent has expired and the railroads would have the use of this invention without cost.


Mr. Thomas is now a venerable man, full of years and full of honor from the mechanics of the last generation. Had he lived thirty years later, he would now be at the head of the profession of mechanical engineering. He is not a blood relative of Mr. David Thomas, although a Welshman by birth.


The railroads of Pennsylvania owe Mr. Thomas a deep debt of gratitude, and many active and successful railroad men can point back to the day when Hopkin Thomas took them by the hand and started them on their way to prosperity and success that was be reached to buy the iron rail “


At the time of the death of Mr. Thomas, Gen. Lilly, and old friend of the deceased, thus spoke of him:


“On last Monday morning at 5 o’clock one of the great man of the Lehigh Valley passed away. His name was Hopkin Thomas. I have known Thomas for forty years and have always counted him amongst the great minds of this region. He was a modest, unassuming, and unostentatious man. His greatness consisted in his advanced knowledge of machinery and mechanics. Mr. Thomas came to this country from Wales about the year 1839, and was then in the prime of manhood. He was a machinist by trade, and very early employed in Philadelphia at his business, I think for Garrett & Eastwick, locomotive builders, from whose shop he was employed by the Beaver Meadow Railroad & Coal Company as Master Mechanic of the roads and mines. He was a pioneer in the Lehigh region in this business. He invented some of the most useful machinery for railroads and coal mines of his day. He invented an appliance that first successfully burned anthracite coal in the locomotive at least twenty years in advance of all others. He invented and successfully used the chilled the cast iron car wheel in advance of every one. He invented and improved the most successful mine pumps and machinery of his day. In all mechanical matters he was far ahead of his day.”


“As I say above, he was as modest and unassuming as a child, never pushing himself or his ideas upon others, hence he was never a success in a pecuniary way. “Hopkin,” as we all familiarly called him, was kind and true hearted in his social relations, and in his home was a most indulgent father and husband. He lived to a good old age, being nearer 90 than 80 years. He was buried at Catasauqua on Wednesday afternoon. The whole town turned out to his funeral. If we all could do our part in this world as did Hopkin Thomas, we could depart as he did , in peace.”



Ed. Notes


1. The first paragraph of this document was obscured on the microfilm due to an overlap of the previous page (or a torn portion thereof).


2. Reference to Oxmore, Alabama. The site is actually Oxmoor – the accepted spelling found in the Alabama histories.


3.  “records of the Patent Office of 1836 or 1868” – in fact, Hopkin did not patent this invention. He is credited with the invention in the B.M.R.R. Minutes. A similar system was patented by Ross Winans who acknowledges Thomas’ prior art.


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Rev.  November 2009