Thirty-one years ago today, a little locomotive named John Bull made history again as she steamed back to life under the watchful eye of Smithsonian Curator of Transportation William Withuhn. The 1831 locomotive became the oldest operable steam engine in the world. The only story that could overpower such an event is the long and amazing tale of the locomotive’s path to survival for its first 150 years.
John Bull arrived in America as the sun was just beginning to rise on our Industrial Revolution. Shipped from England as a kit, it was assembled for service on the Camden and Amboy Railroad in New Jersey. Almost immediately, chief mechanic Isaac Dripps began altering the locomotive for its new home.
Over the ensuing years, the John Bull would see many additions and alterations. Among the most significant were the pilot, believed to be the first example of a “cow catcher” and pilot truck, headlight, spark arrestors and tender. Eventually the locomotive even received an enclosed cab. All of this combined into a prolonged service life unlike any of its contemporaries. In fact, the original locomotive was still on the active roster at the outbreak of the Civil War!
Years later, after the C&A had been absorbed into the Pennsylvania Railroad, the locomotive’s history was recognized at it became the first industrial artifact donated to the Smithsonian. It didn’t stay there permanently however. In 1893, the John Bull would make the longest trip of its carreer – to the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago – under her own power. Yes, the John Bull did steam over Horseshoe Curve.
When the Pennsylvania came calling on the Smithsonian again in 1939, the Museum would only allow the display of the locomotive at the Worlds Fair as a static exhibit. With replicas of early power from the New York Central and B&O steaming proudly, the Pennsylvania could not be outdone. A full-scale replica was built in the Juniata Shops and arrived at the fair in 1940. The locomotive is preserved today at the Railroad Mueum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg and last steamed in 2001. Ironically, it is the youngest preserved steam locomotive built by or for the PRR.
And so the original John Bull returned to Washington where she rested in retirement until 1980. After a very brief resurrection, she returned to her protected display where she remains today – in servicable condition.