“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said: Faster horses.”

Henry Ford

Origins: Wheels of Steel

If you look deep into the heart and soul of a train, you’ll find a horse pulling a wagon. About two hundred years ago, in the coal pits of England, they found that a pit pony could pull a heavier wagon if it had iron wheels running on iron rails. It lowered what we call the rolling resistance.

A horse pulling a heavier wagon meant the mine produced more coal. A mine that produced more coal made more money so it wasn’t long before all coal wagons were running on rails.

The Power Revolution

The next step was to make the horse bigger, stronger and faster. Richard Trevithick, a mining engineer from Cornwall, built the first moving steam engine in 1804. Although it pulled better than anything seen before, the cast iron rails couldn’t support it and broke underneath it. Ultimately it was used as a stationary engine. Trevithick’s locomotive worked but it was ahead of its time.

The first successful steam locomotive was designed by Robert Stephenson almost 25 years later. It had two pistons driving two drive wheels and it ran on durable wrought iron rails. It easily outperformed all competition at the Rainhill Trials and went to work on the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The Rocket proved that steam locomotives could pull heavy loads over long distance at high speed. It revolutionized transportation.

The Design Revolution

Our Countess of Dufferin is an American Standard 4-4-0 steam locomotive. The front four wheels lead, and the four big wheels drive the engine forward. Sometimes called an eight wheeler the American 4-4-0 was one of the most important locomotive designs in history. They were built tough. Since the English locomotives of the time ran on much better track they weren’t built to the rugged standards of The Countess.

In North America track was built fast, cheap and rough. To cope with the track those four leading wheels turn her through sharp curves. The big driving wheels are independently sprung so they can endure a bumpy ride. The weight of the engine sits on the front truck and on two frame mounts between the drive wheels. A three point suspension. Just like a three legged milking stool, no matter how rough the ground is the stool is always stable.

She’s big boned, tough and robust, with all the working parts mounted outside the frame for ease of access and ease of maintenance. She’s the ideal machine for thousands of miles of rough track. There were 26 thousand American eight wheelers constructed in the 19th Century making it the most abundant locomotive type ever built. Their durability was outstanding and North American industry was carried into the 20th Century on the broad little shoulders of these tough little engines.

“The locomotives were getting faster, safer, more powerful as the cars became more comfortable. More than the steamboat, more than anything else, the railroads were the harbinger of the future, and the future was the Industrial Revolution.”

Stephen E. Ambrose

The Materials Revolution

Making steel and making it cheaply was another major breakthrough for railways and that came about when Henry Bessemer developed the Bessemer Process. By blasting air into the furnace Bessemer could produce cheap steel in large quantities. Steel has much greater strength than iron so now manufacturers of all kinds could make better, more durable rails, locomotives, car frames and wheels.

The first railway cars were similar to the horse drawn wagons and stage coaches that came before them. Over the years trains got bigger, faster and more powerful but the spirit of the horse lives on with standard gauge, the distance from one rail to the other. The standard gauge of four feet, eight and one half inches is the width of a path in which a draught horse can walk.

The Transportation Revolution

We’re way past horses and wagons now. Freight trains weigh in at thousands of tons and move further and faster than the old teamsters driving their horse teams could ever imagine.