Special History Study
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Just as the steam locomotive had been developed, in a sense, as an alternative to animal power--horses and mules that pulled single cars on little tramway tracks--on railroads, the electric locomotives were developed as an alternative to the steam locomotive. Smoke-spewing, cinder-spitting steam locomotives did not work well in certain places, such as long tunnels where the accumulation of smoke and fumes could and did asphyxiate engine crews. Coal-burning, soot-spreading steam locomotives became unwelcome when their large numbers in and around a major terminal in a large city such as New York or Chicago so fouled the air that air pollution had become a major public issue by the 1890s. Then, too, in cities like New York and Chicago where downtown real estate values climbed out of sight, city governments and the railroads themselves wanted to place tracks underground in tunnels to free valuable real estate overhead, but steam engines could not work in such tunnels because of the exhaust gases and smoke. Thus though steam remained dominant overall on most American railroads for another half century or more, a place still existed for some alternative form of motive power that did not create noxious fumes, did not need combustion (either external or internal) and could do the same job as steam locomotives.

But the electric railroad locomotive had complex origins long before the need for something of that kind became pressing. In 1835, Thomas Davenport of Vermont built a small model of an electric locomotive that ran around a circular track. In 1847, Professor Moses Farmer built a battery locomotive big enough to carry two people. In 1851, Dr. Charles Page operated a battery locomotive over 5 miles of track between Washington, D.C., and Bladensburg, Maryland.

As one might expect, that inventor extraordinaire Thomas Alva Edison began developing a generator-powered electric locomotive at his laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, during the 1880s, operating an engine with a belt drive pulling two cars at 40 miles per hour over 1,400 feet of track he had built. Henry Villard of the Northern Pacific became interested and ordered Edison to build two electric locomotives for use at Chicago terminals, but in 1883 bankruptcy forced the Northern Pacific to abandon the development.

In New England at about the same time, Stephen Field built a center cab electric locomotive, or what was to become known as a "steeple cab," which he demonstrated on a small railway in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Edison and Field then formed a partnership in the Electric Railway Company, which demonstrated its first locomotive at the Chicago Railway Exhibition, where it hauled 26,000 people around a circular track.

Also during that productive decade of the 1880s, Frank Sprague invented the axle-hung electric traction motor. In 1889, the Electric Railway Company joined the Edison General Electric Company which, under the presidency of Henry Villard, formerly of the Northern Pacific, acquired Sprague's company and its patents.

After swallowing in 1892 another pioneering electric railway firm, the Thomas-Houston Company, in 1893 the Edison firm became the General Electric Company and produced its first electric locomotive, a 30-ton unit capable of 12,000 pounds of tractive effort and speeds of 30 miles per hour. Operated from a 500-volt direct-current overhead trolley wire, the engine appeared just in time to be shown at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Meanwhile, a competitor to the General Electric Company in electric railroad technology appeared when in 1895 the company of George Westinghouse joined with the Baldwin Locomotive Works to build a 46-ton two-truck electric locomotive designed, unlike the General Electric locomotives, to use alternating current. Subsequently, although a number of railroads chose direct current systems built by the General Electric Company in conjunction with the American Locomotive Company, many others chose to use systems that employed alternating current and equipment built by the Westinghouse Electric Company in partnership with the Baldwin Locomotive Works, and both types of system remained in service virtually until diesel locomotives eclipsed electric locomotives on the nation's railroads. Each of the two systems of current had its advantages and disadvantages.

The first problem electrification of a main line railroad tackled involved a new 3.7-mile tunnel to carry the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad under part of Baltimore and its harbor. Steam locomotives arriving with trains at either end of the tunnel would shut down and bank their fires while one of three 600-volt direct current, 96-ton, steeple-cab, 360-horsepower locomotives coupled on, pulled the train through the tunnel, and cut off at the far end, where the engine crew would stoke up their steam locomotive and resume travel to their destination Entering this service in 1895, the three pioneer locomotives worked until 1910. Electrification of a small main line portion of the Baltimore and Ohio had proved successful.

Grand Central Terminal in New York City with its 700 trains daily, each with at least one and some with two steam locomotives, not to mention the presence of additional steam switch engines, fouled the air of Manhattan with tons of coal smoke and soot. Aware of the B & O's success with its Baltimore tunnel, the New York legislature in 1903 passed a law that would outlaw steam locomotives south of the Hariem River after 1908. Now the railroads had to electrify Grand Central Station. The New York Central Railroad consequently decided to purchase 95-ton, 425-horsepower 660-volt direct current locomotives built by the American Locomotive Company and General Electric. Also serving Grand Central Terminal, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad meanwhile selected an alternating current system for its approaches to New York City, though its Westinghouse-Baldwin locomotives came equipped to operate from the 660-volt direct current third rail of the New York Central when within the Grand Central Terminal District. The 102-ton New Haven locomotives featured a "box cab" design with two trucks and two pantographs each, a diamond-shaped spring- loaded framework designed to reach above the cab roof and maintain contact with an overhead power wire generally called a catenary. The first New Haven locomotives entered service in 1905, and the New Haven electrified not only its terminal operations, but some of its main line.

Elsewhere in the nation, electric motive power found a place hauling freight as well as passengers. In Montana, the copper-hauling Butte, Anaconda and Pacific Railway, a subsidiary of the Anaconda Copper Company, electrified its main lines with 2,400-volt catenary electrification during the 1920s, a system that proved successful for the next 40 years. In 1915, the Norfolk & Western used a Westinghouse-Baldwin alternating current system to electrify its lengthy main line Elkhorn Tunnel in West Virginia, which featured 2 percent grades. In 1925, the Virginian Railway electrified its main lines with a similar system.

The history of electrification of main line portions of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which began as early as 1903, merits a book-length study of its own. Resulting in a series of famous electric locomotives, Pennsylvania electrification culminated in 1934 with the creation of the most famous electric locomotive in America, the GG-1, dressed up with Raymond Loewy's striking, streamlined welded body design. Locomotives of the GO-1 type outlived the railroad itself, continuing to operate after the disappearance of the Pennsylvania Railroad into the Penn Central Transportation Company, which passed via bankruptcy into the hands of the Consolidated Rail Corporation.

Far to the west, the Great Northern electrified its line over the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest beginning in 1909, as did the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific in the same region, operating a famous class of distinctively designed "bipolar" electric locomotives not only on freight trains but on express passenger "name" trains such as the Olympian.

Another form of electrification involved the suburban or commuter service on steam railroads in the vicinity of major cities. Using equipment heavier than even that of most electric interurban railways, electric commuter equipment in main line railroad suburban service consisted generally of multiple units of electrically powered steel passenger cars, though some wood cars also entered such service. The standard gauge lines of the North Shore Railroad in Marin County north of San Francisco were electrified beginning in 1903; the North Shore soon would be reorganized and renamed the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. But the first really major principally commuter railroad to convert to electric motive power was the Long Island Railroad, which did so in 1905, purchasing 134 steel multiple-unit electric passenger cars.

The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad was the last major railroad to electrify its commuter operations when it did so in 1930 and 1931, although the Reading had done the same to certain of its lines only months earlier. The Lackawanna electric commuter operations would function essentially unchanged and with the same equipment for a half century of successful and largely trouble-free service. The Lackawanna also had two tri-power locomotives it used on freight transfer runs between the Secaucus freight terminal and the Jersey City Yard; these had batteries, could operate off catenary when on electrified lines, and also had diesel engines that could charge the batteries.

Second in fame only to the GG- 1 of the Pennsylvania Railroad, a series of 20 electric locomotives built to a 1946 order from the government of the Soviet Union was embargoed before delivery when the Cold War developed during the late 1940s, with the result that three-quarters of them ended up on American railroads while the remainder went to Latin America. Twelve of these modern, streamlined, heavy-duty electric locomotives went to the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railway--the "Milwaukee Road"--for service on its 438 miles of electrified line between Harlowton, Montana, and Avery, Idaho, over the Continental Divide--a line that had gone into service with earlier generations of electric locomotives in 1915. Supposedly because of their aborted Soviet destination, this type of locomotive came to be known as the "Little Joe," theoretically for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, though local sources for that nickname existed and no one seems to know the truth of its origin. In addition to the 12 Milwaukee Road Little Joes, three went to the Chicago, South Shore and South Bend Railroad, where they attracted equal attention. Whoever their namesake, these struck most observers as handsome locomotives.

Electric locomotives could gather their power in two principal ways: from overhead power wires, either simple trolley wires or more complex catenary wires, using generally diamond-shaped spring-loaded frameworks known as pantographs equipped either with a bar that slid along the wires or a metal tube that rolled along the wires, or in some instances a simple trolley pole with a pulley-type connection; or from an electrified "third rail" located in the center of the track or alongside. A danger of the latter was that it would electrocute any animal or person that touched it; yet third rail remains in use in the 1990s on many electric interurban lines, generally requiring fenced right-of-way or some other form of separation from the potential for encounter with humans or animals.

While new electric lines such as the coal-hauling Black Mesa and Lake Powell Railroad in Arizona were being built long after World War II, the diesel-electric locomotive gradually eclipsed the electric locomotive on the nation's railroads, ironically at a time when light rail electric street railways and electric interurban lines experienced a resurgence. Cities that had retained them re-equipped them with modern new cars, and cities that had dismantled and scrapped them years before built entirely new street railways and interurban lines.

With respect to main line common carrier railroads, however, the story of their development in the 20th century involves steam, electric, and diesel motive power, but it should be noted that even diesel motive power has been almost universally of the diesel-electric persuasion, the diesel engine being used to drive generators that power axle-hung traction motors, thus substituting for the remote powerhouse that used coal-fired or hydroelectric generation to channel electricity into overhead wires or third rails. Only small diesel locomotives used as yard or industrial switchers made much use of chain, gear, or other mechanical drives, and the only diesel-hydraulic locomotives used in the United States were for experimental purposes, and were deemed unsatisfactory when used under American railroad conditions. Thus the diesel-electric form of locomotive--in a sense, the electric locomotive married to the diesel engine--became dominant to provide the locomotive power of American railroads at the end of the 20th Century.


Baker, P.H., et al. "One Hundred Years of Progress in Railway Mechanical Engineering--Electrical Locomotive Development," Chapter 5 in Railway Mechanical Engineering, A Century of Progress, Car and Locomotive Design. New York: The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Rail Transportation Division, 1979: 137-160.

Burgess, George H. and Miles C. Kennedy. Centennial History of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 1846-1946. Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania Railroad, 1949: 463-471, 612-621, 645-650, 744-747.

Middleton, William D. When the Steam Railroads Electrified. Milwaukee: Kalnbach Books, 1974. [This well-illustrated book remains the principal popular account of main-line electrification in North America.]

Rung, Al. "He Styles the Streamliners." Trains, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Dec. 1948): 16-21.

Steinheimer, Richard. The Electric Way Across the Mountains: Stories of the Milwaukee Road Electrification. Tiburon, Calif.: Carbarn Press, 1980.


(It should be noted that since the publication of this document, some of these locomotives may no longer be located at Steamtown NHS.)

a. Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Electric Car No. 2505

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Last Updated: 14-Feb-2002