The origin of the steam locomotive can be traced to England in the early 1800s.
The first US locomotive appeared in 1826 when Colonel John Stevens demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotion using a circular track on his New Jersey estate. Four years later, the South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company became the first line to pull a train for revenue.
Steam engines operate on a simple principal. Water is boiled to produce superheated steam. As the steam expands, pressure builds. The pressure is used to drive pistons that send power to the wheels.
To make it all work for a moving engine, the locomotive needed to carry enormous quantities of water and enough fuel to maintain the fire. Early locomotives used wood as a fuel but at the height of the steam locomotive era, coal was preferred. Fuel and water were carried immediately behind the locomotive in a car called the "tender." If trains were going long distances, the locomotives would have to stop along the way to refuel and add water at water tanks and coaling towers. Often, small towns would spring up at these service areas to support the needs of the railroad.
Locomotives were known by their construction class and individual numbers. For example, in the photo above the engine on the left is a Class J, number 611. On the right is a Class A number 1218. The crews, who believed that each locomotive had its own personality, fondly referred to the locomotives by their numbers.
Most locomotives carried at least two crew members: the engineer and the fireman. Other crew could include a hostler and a head brakeman.
- The hostler was responsible for getting the locomotive ready to go. This was often the starting job for the "new guy." He lit the fire and oiled the hundreds of moving parts.
- The head brakeman worked simultaneously with a rear brakeman to apply each car’s brake. These men would walk across the roofs of each car turning the brake wheel to slow the car. This job was eliminated with the invention of the air brake.
- The fireman position carried tremendous responsibility. It was his job to manage the fire, the fuel and the water to make sure that the locomotive had the right power to pull the load. Too little power could cause the train to stall during an uphill climb. Too much could lead to unsafe speeds. Changing the amount of heat and steam took time and the fireman had to learn to anticipate the changing terrain. On the earliest locomotives, the fireman was making decisions as he shoveled coal into an extremely hot furnace. Later locomotives had a mechanical stoker to feed the fire.
- The engineer managed the locomotive and the locomotive crew. He was responsible for ensuring that it was fit to go, fueled efficiently and that its braking, acceleration and speed were efficient and complied with regulations. The engineer did not control the movement of the train (when to start and when to stop). Those responsibilities fell to the conductor who rode in the train’s caboose.
The fireman and the engineer worked as a team. Both kept a close eye on the water glass indicator that displayed the level of water in the boiler. Failure to maintain the right level could lead to boiler explosions. The two would typically work together on the same 100 mile region of track for long periods. This ensured that they learned the locations of every curve, hill and stop and were able to anticipate and prepare as a team.
The introduction of the diesel-electric locomotive led to the demise of the steam locomotives. The new diesels produced lower emissions, cost less to operate and required less maintenance. They did not require water and coal stations and could go much further with onboard fuel. Most rail lines stopped using steam engines for regular service by the early 1960s.