Steam Power and Railroad Development

With focus on the 1830s


With the commercial development of the anthracite coal fields in eastern Pennsylvania and with the completion of the canal system by which the coal could be transported at low rates to populated regions of the state, it was now possible to provide low-cost fuel to steam engines. This was extremely important as it freed industry from having to rely on water-power to perform mechanical tasks such as turning a shaft that could, for example, pull a cable attached to empty coal cars up an incline or drive a blower that could provide blast-air to an iron furnace. Or the engine shaft could turn the wheels of a self-propelled vehicle – a steam locomotive, for example, operating on a rail system using iron rails to be produced by the anthracite iron industry which burgeoned in the early 1840s. Or the engine could turn a shaft driving the propeller of a boat – the “steamboat”.



Stationary Steam Engines                         Steam Locomotives                                 Steamboats




Applications such as these were being vigorously pursued in the 1830s. The following table, adopted from Pursell, shows that steam engines were deployed in large numbers in 1838 and that more engines were located in Pennsylvania than any other state.

















New York

























Missouri and Illinois





South Carolina





New Jersey










Rhode Island




















Michigan and Wisconsin





Kentucky (and part of Indiana)





North Carolina















District of Columbia










New Hampshire







Activities to develop the steam engine were on-going for decades  in Great Britain and other European countries, but America was behind up to the 1830 time period (see Industry in Wales – 1800) .  This was about to change as America industrialized. Much of the industrialization activity took place in Philadelphia and vicinity. Hopkin Thomas had come to Philadelphia in 1834 and, as we have reported, was engaged with Garrett & Eastwick for the purpose of developing an anthracite-fired steam locomotive. These pages will summarize the status of steam engine development and railroad development during this period when Hopkin Thomas concluded his stay at Garrett and Eastwick and became involved with the Beaver Meadow Railroad & Coal Company.


Stationary Steam Engines


The development of the technology pertaining to the stationary steam engine is covered with great thoroughness in Pursell’s Early Stationary Steam Engines in America.  The following highlights are from excerpts of this publication which are included herein. 


There was a good deal of communication among the British and Americans interested in utilizing steam power – even in the 1700s. The Newcomen engine, with its bulky structure was never of great interest in America. The developments of James Watt were of great interest, but the emphasis in America eventually was on using high-pressure steam which the firm of  Boulton & Watt did not pursue with vigor because of the danger of steam “explosions”.  Despite the interest of the colonists in applying steam power, the Revolutionary War and The War of 1812, interfered with the importation of both the technology and of the machinery.  With a few notable exceptions – Oliver Evans of Philadelphia being one – few Americans gained notoriety for their work on steam engines until the 1820s – after the effects of the War of 1812 had passed.



Oliver Evans 1755 – 1819


Oliver Evans' greatest contribution to American industry was a high-pressure steam engine.  Unlike low-pressure steam engines, Evans's machine was portable; it could power a wagon to transport 100 barrels of flour from Lancaster to Philadelphia in two days instead of three, tripling profits. He founded Mars Iron Works in 1807 and built the United States' first steam river dredge, the Orukter Amphibolos ("Amphibious Digger") -- a strange but powerful machine which was also the first amphibious vehicle and the first automobile. It had been ordered by the Philadelphia Board of Health in order to clean city waterways.

Evans worked to refine his "Columbian" engine despite others' fears that it was dangerous or impractical, writing a second book, The Young Steam Engineers' Guide, and lobbying Congress for recognition and support when others profited from his innovations. In 1811, he opened a factory to build steam engines in Pittsburgh, creating customized engines for a range of American businesses, from iron mills to paper mills; from waterworks to steamboat companies. In his later years, Evans continued to invent, and became convinced that the government was a necessary partner in the process of technological research and development. Evans died in 1819, having made his mark on the young nation's industries in many ways.





Oliver Evans's High-Pressure Columbian Engine                                                       Orukter Amphibolos


In the period from 1820  through 1830, the use of steam engines flourished. Manufacturing of engines spread from the cities of Philadelphia, New York and Pittsburgh to other parts of the country where textile mills, sugar mills, cotton gins, mining operations and the like benefited from their use. Improvements in the design of the engines was incremental – structural improvements to boilers and cylinders being the most important in raising the operating pressure and hence, power output.  The most notable contribution to the development of the stationary steam engine occurred somewhat after the period of interest to the Hopkin Thomas story. George Corliss of Providence, Rhode Island invented a rotary valve system that improved the efficiency of the engine markedly.


George Henry Corliss, 1817 – 1888


The Corliss Steam Engine Company was originally known as Fairbanks, Clark & Co. in the 1830s. In 1843 it was renamed Fairbanks, Bancroft & Co. when Edward Bancroft joined the company. In 1846 it was renamed Bancroft, Nightingale & Co. when George H. Corliss joined the company, and in 1847 it was renamed Corliss, Nightingale and Co. In 1848 the company moved to the Charles Street Railroad Crossing in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1857 the company was renamed for the last time to Corliss Steam Engine Company. By 1864 Corliss bought out his partners and was the sole owner of the company. In 1900 the Corliss Steam Engine Company was purchased by the International Power Company. In 1905 it was purchased by the American and British Manufacturing Company. In 1925 the company merged into Franklin Machine Company. By then Franklin Machine Company was already owned by the William A. Harris Steam Engine Company.


A Corliss engine exhibited at the Chicago Museum of Science and Tecnology


A Corliss steam engine (or Corliss engine) is a steam engine, fitted with rotary valves and with variable valve timing patented in 1849, invented by and named after the American engineer George Henry Corliss. Engines fitted with Corliss valve gear offered the best thermal efficiency of any type of stationary steam engine built in the nineteenth century. Corliss engines were generally about 30 percent more fuel efficient than conventional steam engines with fixed cutoff. This increased efficiency made steam power more economical than water power, allowing industrial development away from millponds.


Corliss engines were typically used as stationary engines to provide mechanical power to line shafting in factories and mills and to drive dynamos to generate electricity. Many were quite large, standing several stories tall, and developing several hundred horsepower, albeit at low speed, turning massive flywheels weighing several tons at about 100 revolutions per minute. Some of these engines had unique roles as mechanical legacy systems and because of their relatively high efficiency and low maintenance requirements, some remain in service in early 21st century .


The Corliss Centennial Engine was an all-inclusive, specially-built rotative beam engine that powered virtually all of the exhibits at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 through shafts totaling over a mile in length. Switched on by President Ulysses Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil, the engine was in public view for the duration of the fair. The engine was configured as two cylinders side-by-side. Each cylinder was bored to 44 inches (1.1 m) with a stroke of 10 feet (3.0 m), making it the largest engine of the nineteenth century. The Centennial Engine was 45 feet (14 m) tall, had a flywheel 30 feet (9.1 m) in diameter, and produced 1,400 hp. After the fair it was disassembled and shipped back to Corliss's plant in Providence.


The mammoth Corliss engine displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876


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John Fitch  (1743-1798)


The era of the steamboat began in America in 1787 when John Fitch made the first successful trial of a steamboat on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787, in the presence of members of the Constitutional Convention.



On August 26, 1791, John Fitch was granted a United States patent for the steamboat. Four years earlier, on August 22, 1787, John Fitch demonstrated the first successful steamboat, launching a forty-five-foot craft on the Delaware River in the presence of delegates from the Constitutional Convention.  It was propelled by a bank of oars on either side of the boat. The following year Fitch launched a 60-foot (18 m) boat powered by a steam engine driving several stern mounted oars. These oars paddled in a manner similar to the motion of a swimming duck's feet. With this boat he carried up to thirty passengers on numerous round-trip voyages between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey.


He went on to build a larger steamboat which carried passengers and freight between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey. Fitch was granted his patent after a battle with James Rumsey over claims to the invention. While his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and was unable to justify the economic benefits of steam navigation. It was Fulton who would turn Fitch's idea profitable decades later.




John Fitch constructed four different steamboats between 1785 and 1796 that successfully plied rivers and lakes and demonstrated, in part, the feasibility of using steam for water locomotion. His models utilized various combinations of propulsive force, including ranked paddles (patterned after Indian war canoes), paddle wheels, and screw propellers. While his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and was unable to justify the economic benefits of steam navigation. Robert Fulton (1765-1815) built his first boat after Fitch's death, and it was Fulton who became known as the "father of steam navigation."



Then came American inventor, Robert Fulton, who successfully built and operated a submarine (in France) in 1801, before turning his talents to the steamboat. Robert Fulton was accredited with turning the steamboat into a commercial success.


Robert Fulton (1765 – 1815)

 On August 7, 1807, Robert Fulton's Clermont went from New York City to Albany making history with a 150-mile trip taking 32 hours at an average speed of about 5 miles-per-hour.

Steamship at Landing - between 1852 and 1860


In 1811, the "New Orleans" was built at Pittsburgh, designed by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston. The New Orleans had a passenger and freight route on the lower Mississippi River. By 1814, Robert Fulton together with Edward Livingston (the brother of Robert Livingston), were offering regular steamboat and freight service between New Orleans, Louisiana and Natchez, Mississippi. Their boats traveled at the rates of eight miles per hour downstream and three miles per hour upstream.



Fulton had become interested in steamboats in 1777 when he visited William Henry of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who had earlier learned about James Watt's steam engine on a visit to England. Henry had then made his own engine and in 1767 he had tried to put his engine into a boat. The experiment was unsuccessful because the boat sank, but his interest continued.


The first commercially successful steamship of the paddle steamer design, North River Steamboat (later known as the Clermont), operated on the Hudson River (at that time often known as the North River) between New York and Albany. She was neither the first steamboat built nor even the first to be operated in scheduled service, but she was the start of the first long-lasting and financially successful steamboat business. She was created by the wealthy investor and politician Robert Livingston and inventor and entrepreneur Robert Fulton.




In the 1790’s, John Stevens of Hoboken, NJ, began to experiment with steamboats as a means of transportation across the Hudson river from Hoboken to New York City. He first experimented with a rotary engine design, but found that the maintenance issues were too much of a burden.

John Stevens (1749 – 1838)


The experience gained in the experiments led him to set forth the following guidelines for engines to be used in steamboats:


1. The cylinder, condenser, and air-pump are all firmly bedded upon a single plate of cast-iron, and the power of the engine exerted without causing strain to any part of the boat.


2. The air-pump has a double stroke, and its piston pumps out the injection water from the bottom of the condenser when the piston rises, and by exhaustion removes the air from the top of the water as the piston descends.


3. A new parallel motion for preserving the vertical position of the piston rod of the air-pump.


4. A new method of fixing the valve-seats with firmness and accuracy.


5. Valves with perforated stems passing through from the upper seat downwards, and from the lower seat upwards.


6. The levers for opening and shutting the valves are worked by a rotary motion, instead of the reciprocating motion of the common plug frame, the working gear of which is liable to get out of order.


7. The guide-posts are triangular, greatly increasing their strength and firmness.


8. By means of a cylinder placed above, between the two main cylinders of which the boiler is built, a supply of water is furnished to the boiler whenever it is necessary to stop the engine. This contrivance, if the stop is not very long, prevents the safety valve from rising and making a loud noise, and thus avoids loss of steam and heat; while the engine is going it furnishes more steam room to the boiler.



Later, Stevens went on to build a commercial steamboat – the Phoenix. Although Robert Fulton's Clermont was undoubtedly the pioneer of practicable steamboats the Phoenix followed close on the Clermont. And its engines were built in America, while those of the Clermont had been imported from England. John Stevens had, in 1804, built a successful screw steam vessels; and his paddle steamer of 1807, the "Phoenix," was very possibly a better piece of engineering than the Clermont.



Moreover, in June, 1808, the Phoenix stood to sea, and made the first ocean voyage in the history of steam navigation. Because of a monopoly of the Hudson, which the New York Legislature had granted to Livingston and Robert Fulton, John Stevens was compelled to send his ship to the Delaware.  


Further information on the accomplishments of John Stevens and his sons who followed in his footsteps are found in numerous publications – his family is featured in George Iles Leading American Inventors.  The Stevens family went on to found The Stevens Institute of Technology in 1870 at the site of John Stevens former home in Hoboken, NJ.  Today, it is a highly ranked research university.


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Steam Locomotives


Of the three applications of steam power covered in this section, the Steam Locomotive had the greatest impact on the American population. The ability to move people and goods to any region of the country resulted in the growth of the rural settlements as well as the cities and a rapid expansion of the American economy. The story of the building of the railroad system is related in hundreds, if not, thousands of publications. In this section, we will focus on the activities conducted in the 1830s when Hopkin Thomas was very actively involved with this technology.

The Gown & Marx, manufactured by Eastwick & Harrison in 1839 was one of the more famed engines of its time as a result of its outstanding ability to haul heavy freight over long distances. Full details can be found here.


In this regard, it is the book by John White, Jr. entitled  A History of the American Locomotive – Its Development 1830 – 1880  stands out. This is a thorough and well referenced publication that covers many of the technological fields in which Hopkin Thomas was engaged. In particular the development of the elements required for the burning of anthracite coal are covered in detail. Mention of the 0-6-0 locomotive, Nonpareil,  that Hopkin had constructed at the Beaver Meadow shop is made.  Excerpts from White’s History of the American Locomotive are included here.


Unfortunately no details of the construction details of the Nonpareil have survived. There are numerous references to Hopkin Thomas, having been appointed as the Master Mechanic of the Beaver Meadow Railroad, overseeing the building of the engine in 1837, but little information beyond that. Citations specific to the Nonpareil are included here .


A second volume of specific interest is the publication of Joseph Harrison - The Locomotive Engine and Philadelphia’s Share in its Early Improvements.  This contains much information on the activities at Eastwick & Harrison and has been reviewed in the section dealing with Philadelphia in the 1830s.


Another publication of historic interest which includes a write-up on Garrett & Eastwick is the book by Angus Sinclair – Development of the Locomotive Engine published in 1907. The foregoing link takes you to a page with excerpted highlights plus a link to the full text of the book (in pdf format).


A succinct review of locomotive developments entitled The Evolution of the American Locomotive by Herbert T. Walker  was published in Scientific American in 1897.  The article includes many excellent drawing and photographs.


Just as Hopkin Thomas brought his skills and experience related to locomotive construction from Wales, there were many interactions between those involved in the American shops with the English tradesmen. These interactions are chronicled in Earl Heydinger’s 1954 publication in the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin, “The English Influence on American Railroads”.


Specifics of many of the early locomotives described in the publications have been assembled in a Pictorial Catalog of Early British and American Locomotives.


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As was the case for the steam locomotive, the decade of 1830 – 1840 started off with only a handful of operating railroads and ended with hundreds. Also, as in the case of the early locomotive, today there are thousands of publications that deal with the development of railroads. Again, we will focus only on those railroads that impacted the life of Hopkin Thomas. These will be those railroads that served the anthracite coal regions – primarily freight roads in the early years. The development of the railroads has been thoroughly documented by Earl J. Heydinger, in his excellent series of articles -  Railroads of the First and Second Anthracite Coal Fields of Pennsylvania. Citations for the specific railroads of interest are included below.


The most widely-cited publication on railroads of this era is the translation of Franz Anon Ritter von Gerstner’s Die inner Communicationen (1842 – 1843) referred to as Early American Railroads.  This 844 page tome has data on all the U.S. railroads, including all those constructed in the anthracite coal region.


The Beaver Meadow R.R. had a direct impact on Hopkin Thomas’ career. That railroad is covered extensively in the following chapter.


The Hazleton Railroad was a short line that joined the Beaver Meadow R. R.  It was founded and run by Ario Pardee who became a close friend of Hopkin Thomas and who employed Thomas’ techniques for utilizing anthracite coal in his locomotives.  See Heydinger, The Hazleton-Sugar Loaf Railroads, and an excerpt from Robert Archer’s A History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.


The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railroad was the first railroad used to transport coal from the mines to a canal – the Lehigh canal operated by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. It did not employ steam locomotives, rather it employed stationary steam engines to haul the empty rail cars up the mountain and used gravity to return the filled cars to the loading docks at the canal. Long after that “gravity railroad” had outlived its usefulness for industrial purposes, it operated as a tourist attraction. At the time of this writing, a history of the Switchback Railroad was available on the Web.

Tourists on the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railroad


The Little Schuylkill Railroad Co. was the first line to extend to Tamaqua (in 1831)  where Hopkin Thomas lived during the period from 1845 – 1853. There is a slim possibility that Hopkin may have worked for this road during the early years, but no evidence to that effect has been uncovered. A map showing the route from Port Clinton on the Schuylkill River to Tamaqua is shown here. See Munsell, 1881 for a write-up on the Little Schuylkill R. R. as well as the many other railroads in this region.  Also see Heydinger, The Little Schuylkill Railroad Co.


The Lehigh Valley Railroad was formed in 1853, the same year that Hopkin Thomas went to Catasauqua as Master Mechanic of the Crane Iron Works. The LVRR was an outgrowth of the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad Company which was formed in 1846, but which had not developed to a significant extent. Upon the involvement of Asa Packer in 1851, the railroad began to aggressively expand its road and to acquire some of the smaller anthracite roads. These early developments are covered in M. S. Henry’s 1860 History of the Lehigh Valley – the excerpt dealing with the L.V.R.R. can be accessed here. Further information is found in Heydinger’s Group VIII., Railroads of the Lehigh Valley - Pennsylvania Railroad Groups. The most thorough and profusely illustrated work on the Lehigh Valley Railroad is the 1977 book by Robert F. Archer -- A History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. An excerpt on the early years of the L.V.R.R. is available here. Further details on the formation of the L.V.R.R. and its development are presented in an address to the Newcomen Society by the L.V.R.R. president upon the 100th anniversary of the road in 1946.


The Lehigh Valley Railroad developed into one of the major railroads in the Pennsylvania coal region. Click here to view the road network as it existed in 1884. The R. H. Alter Map of 1884 from which the coal region road network was excerpted covers the L.V.R.R. plus the Pennsylvania R.R. and the Philadelphia & Reading R. R.  The full map covering the northeastern states can be found here. (This is a large image and takes some time to load.)



The L.V.R.R., like many historic railroads, is a subject of interest to many “railfans” and, as such, has several web sites dedicated to its history.  At he time of this writing, the following sites are active:

The “Semi-official Lehigh Valley Railroad website” created by James Mack. James Mack of Phillipsburg, NJ  was quite helpful to me in locating information on the Beaver Meadow R. R.

The “Route of the Black Diamond” site created by John W. Campbell contains a picture catalog of the L.V.R.R. steam engines.

The Blue Comet LVRR site contains photos from the 1970s on – mostly the diesel operations.


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Rev.October 2011