Rare Photo of 1840s American Steam Locomotive

Early American steam locomotivePhoto:
Early American (Jervis) Steam Locomotive
Photo ­- Blumenberg Associates LLC

Photographs of American steam locomotives taken before 1860 are rare. An early design for a passenger locomotive in the United States was the 4-2-0 wheel arrangement shown in this photograph and known as the ‘Jervis’. John B. Jervis was the first chief engineer for the Delaware & Hudson Coal Company’s railroad (United States) in 1827. He later designed the 4-2-0 locomotive that carries his name.

The numerical designation provides a concise description of the wheel arrangement. The first number ‘4’ indicates the number of leading wheels; there are two on each side of this engine. The second integer is the number of drivers, the wheels that power the locomotive and determine its ‘strength’, that is how many cars and weight it can pull. There is one large driver on each side of this Jervis locomotive. The last number is the number of trailing wheels that are positioned under the cab.

This Jervis design indicates a manufacture date in the early 1840s. The stovepipe hat on the gentleman boarding the train and the design of the passenger car suggest a date for this photograph in the 1860s. The ship masts in the background reveal that the railroad station is at a waterfront, perhaps in a mid-Atlantic or New England state. Hard to read, the name “F.W. Smith” printed on this photograph might be the name of the engine, or the photographer or perhaps a collector who previously owned this print.

Beyond this guesswork, identification of any of the photo’s attributes has so far proven impossible. This fascinating glimpse into America’s railroad history will likely never be precisely identified. The Jervis was an efficient steam locomotive designed for passenger rail travel of its time. In this photo, we see an early ancestor to today’s high-speed bullet trains that are integral to the survival and future of passenger railroads.

Sources –

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Leslie G. Blumenberg contributed invaluable technical expertise with digital image editing and restoration.