August 28, 1830: The Great “Tom Thumb” Race

Peter Cooper built the “Tom Thumb” a small locomotive engine which weighed about a ton, to demonstrate the practicality of steam locomotion pulling railcars. Baltimore was losing trade to the Erie Canal, and Cooper hoped that the B&O Railroad to the Ohio Valley would help save its fortunes.

The wheels of the “Tom Thumb” were two and a half feet in diameter. An anthracite furnace heated a boiler the size Tom Thumb
of a large kitchen pot. A pulley attached to the wheels drove a bellows which blew on the coals so a three-and-a half inch steam cylinder could power the car. The “Tom Thumb” had been out a number of times, and although starting off with much puffing and leaking of steam from its joints, had answered all the expectations of its inventor.

Cooper decided to show off his invention with a trip from Baltimore to Ellicott’s Mills. An open car was attached to the “Tom Thumb” and the B & O directors and friends were invited aboard to enjoy the first journey by steam in America.

The day was fine and the company in high spirits. The “Tom Thumb” negotiated curves without difficulty at speeds up to fifteen miles an hour, and the grades were ascended with comparative ease. Some excited gentlemen on board pulled out memorandum books, and when the train reached its highest speed (eighteen miles an hour) wrote out their names and sentences to prove that it was possible even at that great velocity. The return trip from the Mills – a distance of thirteen miles – was made in fifty-seven minutes.

On the return trip the local stage proprietors, hearing the noise of the engine, “brought down a gallant gray of great beauty and power, and attached him to a car on the second track, and met the returning engine at the Relay House—so called because relays of horses were generally procured there. From this point they determined to have a race back, and away went horse and engine—the snort of the one keeping time to the puff of the other.

The gray had the best of it at first, getting a quarter of a mile ahead while the engine was getting up its steam. The blower whistled, the steam blew off in vapory clouds, the pace increased, the passengers shouted, the engine gained on the horse, lapped him, the silk was applied, the race was neck-and-neck, nose-to-nose; then the engine passed the horse, and a great hurrah hailed the victory.

But just at this moment, when the gray’s master was about giving up, the band which turned the pulley that moved the blower slipped from the drum, the safety valve ceased to scream, and the engine, for want of breath, began to wheeze and pant.

In vain Mr. Cooper, who was his own engineer and fireman, lacerated his hands in attempting to replace the band on the wheel; the horse gained on the machine, and passed it, to his great chagrin; and, although the band was presently replaced, and steam again did its best, the horse was too far ahead to be overtaken, and came in winner of the race.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.