How Big Was Big Steam? Trains, Boats & Planes | 25 November 2016 Share article facebook twitter google pinterest One of the most iconic technologies of the 19th century is the mighty steam engine. Picture the steam engine locomotive–a giant metal beast that barreled down railways, leaving a thick black cloud of smoke in its wake. As it disappeared, the faint sound of chugging and whistling echoed over the trees. Though its accomplishments are grand, the true spectacle of a steam engine locomotive remains the sheer size. Just how big was big steam? Thanks to the following excerpt from Brian Solomon’s The Majesty of Big Steam, we can explore this historical topic. How Big Was Big Steam? The story of the steam locomotive is something like the proverbial fishing story of the one that got away. As the story progresses, the subject grows to a preposterous size. Except in the case of the locomotive it really was that big. The handful of truly gargantuan machines built in the final years of steam power only tells the penultimate chapter in the story of big steam. While the very largest examples of steam power were conceived in the last decade or so of development in late 1930s and 1940s, the story of big steam goes back decades earlier. In his 1907 book, Development of the Locomotive Engine, author Angus Sinclair reflects on the American locomotive engine and the details of its history up to that point: “The primary goal of the locomotive designer from the beginning was to produce a simple, dependable, powerful machine.” The undertone of Sinclair’s analysis is a lament of the large proportions that locomotives had reached at that time and the fact that the more conservatively sized engines of the previous century were being completely eclipsed by the new order. “The world has frequently seen the village church expand into an imposing cathedral,” he notes. He further elaborates, saying, “The trend of locomotive building in 1907 is toward enormously heavy engines, large Consolidation becoming common on perfectly level railroads. For operating mountain railroads the Mallet articulated double-ended compound . . . is into favor.” If Sinclair felt the heavy Consolidations and early Mallet types of 1907 were too large, we can only imagine what he might have felt at the prospect of a 4-6-6-4 Challenger racing along at 70 mph, let alone the sight of the Challenger’s big brother, the legendary 4-8-8-4 Big Boy, which produced more than 7,000 horsepower. On October 25, 1959, Reading operated the first of its popular Iron Horse Rambles with T1 No. 2124. The popular locomotive was surrounded by thrilled fans a few weeks later on its November 14, 1959, trip to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Richard J. Solomon More than six decades after Development of the Locomotive Engine’s original release, locomotive historian John H. While Jr. produced an annotated edition of Sinclair’s history in which he aimed to correct some of the minor technical inaccuracies of the original work without interrupting its narrative and bring the book up to date. White’s own research and writing fills the final pages, offering a succinct, insightful review of American steam development in the era of big steam. White identifies the year 1890 as “the point of departure” in locomotive design. He notes that up until the 1890s, American locomotives were generally equal in size and power to locomotives throughout the world. Weight is a good measure of size, and in the 1890s typical locomotives weighed between 60 and 90 tons. But by the end of the big steam era, American locomotives had reached more than 400 tons. Locomotives of the late nineteenth century were largely 4-4-0 Americans, 2-6-0 Moguls, 4-6-0 Ten Wheelers, and 2-8-0 Consolidations. Among the most important advancements that precipitated rapid locomotive growth was the introduction of the radial trailing truck. Alfred Bruce writes in his book The Steam Locomotive in America that this development “permitted the firebox to be placed entirely behind the drivers and over the trailing truck.” Overcoming limitations to fire-box size enabled the construction of much larger boilers and resulted in the rapid introduction of new locomotive types and the corresponding swell in the size of new engines. During the first decade of the twentieth century, the 4-4-2 Atlantic, 4-6-2 Pacific, and 2-8-2 Mikado became common designs, while the 1904 introduction of the Mallet type to America opened up a whole new avenue for large locomotive development. Another key gauge of size is the locomotive’s boiler and its contribution to total power output. Frank M. Swengel’s detailed work The American Steam Locomotive: Volume 1—Evolution carefully chronicles the growth of locomotives. During the early twentieth century, when locomotives entered the era of big steam power, output increased rapidly. The run-up to World War I was an especially important era in locomotive growth. As Swengel writes, “Horsepower capabilities of the typical non-articulated locomotive had jumped from about 1,000 in 1900, up to 1,500 in 1906, and had continued the upward spiral until 2,500 to 3,000 horsepower was a common value by 1916.” The most common types of this era were large 2-8-0 Consolidations and 2-8-2 Mikados for general freight work, with 4-6-2s built in large numbers for mainline passenger service. Swengel goes on to note, “The other great and noticeable characteristic of motive power in 1916, was that no two railroads agreed on design, proportions or features of their newest motive power.” And railroads that couldn’t find common ground in regard to non-articulated design couldn’t be expected to take restrained approaches in the development of the larger articulated types. During the second decade of the twentieth century, several railroads ordered some bizarrely proportioned articulated locomotives, using what might be considered freakish wheel arrangements in their disparate efforts to push the limits of power and design. Santa Fe briefly followed a peculiar developmental path. While many railroads of the time had adopted Mallet compounds with small drivers for low-speed, heavy-freight service, beginning in 1909, Santa Fe encouraged Mallet development as high-speed passenger locomotives with tall drivers. It experimented with different wheel arrangements, including two locomotives that employed an unorthodox 4-4-6-2 arrangement. A number of its high-speed Mallets were built with jointed boilers for greater flexibility. Meanwhile, in 1911, Santa Fe used components from 2-10-2s to build 10 massive 2-10-10-2 Mallets for slow-speed freight service; these monsters were briefly the world’s largest locomotives. Like many radical departures from conventional practice, the costs associated with operating these peculiar types outweighed any performance improvements. Consequently, most of Santa Fe’s Mallets had very short service lives. The 2-10-10-2s were eventually rebuilt as conventional locomotives.Despite these setbacks, Santa Fe briefly entertained even more bizarre engines in the form of a cab-forward, oil-burning “quadruplex” (2-8-8-8-8-2) and even “quintuplex” (2-8-8-8-8-8-2) steam locomotive types. Although drawings for such outlandish machines exist, none were constructed. Yet the concept of putting four and five power units under the control of one crew wasn’t forgotten. As impractical as it was for a steam locomotive to be built in this manner, Santa Fe would eventually be the first to order Electro Motive’s model FT 4-unit (A-B-B-A) diesel-electrics in 1940. The majority of American steam locomotives never approached the most extreme sizes, but the average locomotive of 1929 was vastly larger than its forebears of 30 years earlier. The most extreme examples of American steam were built to fulfill atypical situations. Northern Pacific’s 2-8-8-4 Yellowstones, built in the late 1920s with vast fireboxes, were designed to eliminate double heading in the difficult district east of Glendive, Montana, while taking advantage of locally mined low-yield coal. If Northern Pacific had had easy access to better fuel, would these engines have been quite so large? Other late-era monsters, such as Union Pacific’s Big Boyand Pennsylvania’s divided-drive Duplex types, were innovative reactions to the debut of the diesel-electric, which was threatening to undermine steam. Traditional steam designers wanted to demonstrate they could match and exceed the output of early road diesels. While the machines were certainly impressive to see in action, time would show that the accountants weren’t impressed—raw output was only part of the equation. This situation raises a variety of hypothetical scenarios.What if locomotive builders had developed reliable road diesels a decade or two sooner? What if adequate financing had been available for electrification after World War I, and mainline rail-roads had invested in large-scale heavy mainline electrification similar to what was demonstrated by New Haven Railroad and Milwaukee Road? What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had stayed in Vienna and World War I never happened? What if the railroads had played a more sophisticated political game in the early twentieth century and prevented the draconian and misguided antitrust legislation that made it difficult for them to make massive infrastructure investment in the first place? If history had followed a different path, then the massive late-era steam locomotives might never have been built. Or, perhaps, even bigger engines would have ruled the rails. It is impossible to know. Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: Relive the romance and power of the steam locomotive era, the product of a century of continuous research and development. In the United States, the final decades of steam power were characterized by very large and capable locomotives. Beginning in the 1920s with Alco’s three-cylinder types and Lima’s “Super Power” concept, steam locomotive design crossed new thresholds of power and efficiency. A host of new wheel arrangements combined with innovative technology and new materials to create a final generation of refinement. Lima’s Berkshire of 1925 demonstrated the value of the four-wheel radial trailing truck in its ability to support a firebox large enough to supply high power and fast running. Within a few years the 2-10-4 Texas, 4-6-4 Hudson, and 4-8-4 Northern had led the way, and by the late 1920s, large modern articulated types were taking shape. The Majesty of Big Steam is full of these late-era locomotives, the last generation of steam power before the diesels took over. Dramatic photos show Berkshires, Hudsons, and Northerns at work, as well as massive articulateds at their finest. Witness New York Central’s Great Steel Fleet being whisked along behind some of the most refined American-designed engines. See Southern Pacific’s cab-forward oil burners crest the California Sierra, and Baltimore & Ohio’s EM-1 war babies lift tonnage over the Appalachian mountains. Norfolk & Western continued to refine 4-8-4s and articulated types, even as the rest of America was buying diesels, and ran these well-oiled machines longer than any other line. Don’t miss a single one! 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