American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960

American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960

American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960

American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960


For nearly half of the nation's history, the steam locomotive was the outstanding symbol for progress and power. It was the literal engine of the Industrial Revolution, and it played an instrumental role in putting the United States on the world stage. While the steam locomotive's basic principle of operation is simple, designers and engineers honed these concepts into 100-mph passenger trains and 600-ton behemoths capable of hauling mile-long freight at incredible speeds. American Steam Locomotives is a thorough and engaging history of the invention that captured public imagination like no other, and the people who brought it to life.


By Kevin P. Keefe

The transportation scholar was having a hard time with his 154-ton beast. It was a hot, humid Sunday afternoon in July 1987, all the more miserable if you were inside the cab of Pennsylvania Railroad K4s steam locomotive No. 1361, where close confines and a boiler full of steam at 205 psi had caused the temperature to soar well past 100 degrees. William L. Withuhn, on Monday through Friday the curator of transportation at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, was moonlighting this particular weekend, sweating it out in heavy denim overalls, gauntlet gloves, and a Kromer engineer’s cap.

The normally gregarious Withuhn was all business, especially now that his immense charge appeared to be stuck on the tracks of the Nittany & Bald Eagle, a central Pennsylvania short line. Only an occasional one-word instruction or epithet emerged from his mouth as he went about his business. He was the classic grumpy hogger. and for good reason: a torrential rain had struck moments after the train stopped for a photo opportunity. Now, with the rails covered in slick-as-grease dead leaves, the big 4-6-2’s 80-inch driving wheels were having difficulty getting traction, even with a short passenger train. With a schedule to keep, and a short window ahead on Conrail’s always-busy main line, Withuhn and his fireman were under the gun.

Bill Withuhn eventually got his burly Pacific rolling, of course, thanks to his skill at the throttle and his patience with everyone else in the cab. Later, in the yard at Altoona, he could allow himself a moment to relax. His visitor relaxed, too, having witnessed a rare moment in which the grimy engineer, the credentialed museum executive, the restless journalist, and the unabashed steam fan somehow synthesized all his passions into one successful moment – just as he has with the monumental book you now hold in your hands.

A master of the art

A central fact of Bill’s career is that he was a licensed locomotive engineer, something that brought him not only a singular sense of pride but also informed his work as a historian and curator, probably in ways even he could not fully understand. Bill knew what it meant to take on the responsibility of a trainload . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.