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Invention & Technology MagazineSpring 1998    Volume 13, Issue 4
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A forgotten world of locomotives in disguise

A DUMMY IS A STEAM LOCOMOTIVE BOXED UP TO LOOK LIKE A PASSENGER car. This sort of deception seems unnatural for such a direct and upfront machine; most locomotives bristle with bolts, rivets, pipes, and rods. Was it the Victorian preoccupation with decorum that prompted the movement to cover up all those nasty working parts with a pretty wooden enclosure? Were naked locomotives considered indecent? If not indecent, they were viewed as being too raw and brutish for service on city streets. But protecting the sensibilities of horses was an even more potent reason for camouflage. Horses were easily spooked, and a frightened one tended to bolt, kick, or run away. A locomotive hidden inside a boxy, carlike body was thought less likely to upset the passing parade of wagons, carriages, and horsecars. Dummy locomotives were among the most curious and distinctive classes of railway engines to operate in the United States.

Dummies were built in two major classes. The larger, heavier ones were used for slow-speed inner-city switching, especially in industrial or dockside sections of major cities where street running was involved. A smaller, lighter variety was used for passenger service on city and suburban railways. Superficially the two classes looked identical, but the dockside type was generally twice the size of the city/suburban type.

Dockside dummies were introduced first. Their origins reach back to Britain, where a dummy was built in 1831 for the Gloucester & Cheltenham Railway. Twenty years passed before anyone in the United States saw the need for one, but in 1850 Henry Waterman, master mechanic for the Hudson River Railroad, realized that sanitized steam locomotives could solve one of his company’s most pressing problems. As New York City developed, steam railroads were forced to move uptown, away from the city center. This required bringing a long horse-drawn carriage of full-size passenger cars from the outer terminal to the downtown depot, a slow and expensive trek of almost three miles.

Waterman hoped to overcome objections to steam on city streets by devising a silent engine that ate its own steam, emitted no exhaust sound, and was so boxed up that no one would ever guess it was a locomotive. The Dummy, as it was named, burned coke to minimize smoke and condensed its exhaust so that the grinding of the wheels was about the only noise it made. Waterman called it his “dumb” locomotive not because it was stupid but because it was so quiet.

ABOUT A DECADE LATER WATERman’s successor, A. F. Smith, introduced a new form of dummy on the Hudson River line. It featured a vertical boiler, a friction drive through a central countershaft with disk cranks, and a side rod connection to the driving axles. Thin, tall condenser tanks were built into the metal side walls of the cab. These clunky four-wheel engines normally pulled 8 to 12 cars.

Dummy locomotives of the streetrailway variety were far more numerous than these dockside-style ones. Early promoters of street-railway steam motors expected them to displace costly horse and mule power for city transit needs. A. B. Latta of Cincinnati, Ohio, introduced one of the first dummies, if not the first, to be tried on a U.S. street railway. The trial was held in March 1860. Latta’s locomotive was a tiny, square, wooden box with sloping sides that made the machine look a little like a lighthouse. It ran well enough and pulled a horsecar loaded with 41 passengers, but scarcely a horse could be coaxed or compelled to pass it. It was apparently set aside without an extended test.

Latta’s pioneering effort was followed by a dozen or more inventive mechanics elsewhere in the nation. They planned, fussed, and experimented with one ingenious scheme after another, but all ended in failure. The engines were too heavy for the delicate horsecar tracks, or they ate too much fuel, or they required the attention of high-priced labor (an engineer), or they fell apart, or they scared the horses, or they were just not up to the stop-and-go nature of urban transit operations.

Baldwin Locomotive Works, the nation’s leading locomotive fabricator, was determined to succeed where so many others had failed. Its chief mechanical designer, William P. Henszey, hoped to demonstrate his new steam motor (as dummies were sometimes called) by operating it on Philadelphia’s Market Street Railroad during the 1876 Centennial Exposition. At first the designer’s confidence seemed well placed: The tiny vertical-boiler engine performed impeccably. But after a one-year trial the Market Street’s management condemned the dummies and had them withdrawn. The tracks were in ruins from the hard-riding motors, and operating costs, even when figured in the most favorable manner, exceeded those of horsecars by $1.50 a day, a significant sum when multiplied by the number of cars in service.

The street-railway industry quickly gave up on steam motors for inner-city operations. At the same time, it understood their merits for suburban lines. Stops were less frequent, so wear and tear on the machine was reduced and fuel economy improved. The speed potential of the dummy was also better realized. Although 15 or 20 miles per hour may not seem fast, compared with a horsecar’s five miles per hour, it did make a scheduling difference. One community after another from Connecticut to California established its dummy line. By 1892 Poor’s Directory of Railway Officials and Manual of American Street Railways listed about 80.

THE ORIGINAL BALDWIN DUMMIES were small and unnecessarily complex, so Baldwin’s engineering staff devised a simpler plan. The vertical boiler was retained for smaller sizes, but the crank axle and its attendant drive were replaced with a simple outside connection like that on a conventional locomotive. Horizontal boilers were used when engine weight approached 10 tons. Many customers found that a dummy of about 15 tons was just right for everyday suburban traffic. Such a machine was big enough to drag two or three cars over moderate grades.

While the mechanical details of the dummy locomotive were being worked out, large and small communities across America were building steampowered suburban railways. Most were minor operations with one or two dummies, a handful of cars, and a few miles of lightly built track. Albany, Oregon, for example, had a single Porter dummy engine, two cars, and three miles of line. The Austin City (Nevada) Railway was another very small dummy line made notable by its 1881 Baldwin 0-4-2 dummy, which was named Mules Relief. The arrival of the 16-ton engine allowed the Austin City line to retire its stable of overworked mules who had previously struggled to overcome the 10 percent-plus grade.

The largest clusters of dummy lines were, as might be expected, around major cities. New Orleans ran a fleet of 10-ton units with 8-by-16-inch cylinders and 40-inch drivers, allowing speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. They pulled what must have been the largest trains on any dummy line in the nation: 6 to 10 crowded streetcars. By 1890 New Orleans was served by three dummy lines and about 35 dummy engines.

The Minneapolis, Lyndale & Lake Calhoun Railroad (later extended to Minnetonka) was representative of the large suburban dummy lines in the United States. This three-foot-gauge road was organized in June 1878 to connect the rapidly growing city of Minneapolis with its western suburbs. Service began one year later. By 1883 the line had four Baldwin dummy engines, 17 coaches, and 20 miles of track. Net earnings for that year were reported at an astonishing 36.6 percent of revenues. Perhaps the books were being cooked, because the line was in foreclosure by March 1887. Despite this setback, equipment and patronage continued to increase. In 1889 the little Twin Cities line boasted 15 dummy locomotives, 56 passenger cars, and 16 million passengers. The hustle and bustle of the smoky little motor line was soon to end, for the road was electrified in May 1891 and became just another prosaic trolley line.

SUCH WAS THE FATE OF JUST ABOUT every steam dummy line in the United States. The great majority were gone by 1900 as efficient, smokeless electric streetcars took over America’s transit needs. The Uvalde Street Railway in Texas must have been one of the very last to order a new dummy, in 1910.

Considering their small numbers- only about a thousand were built- and early obsolescence, it would be understandable if not a single dummy had survived. In fact, at least five have come down to the present day. Most of them have been considerably altered over the years and so are less than pristine museum artifacts. One, however, is nearly a preservation miracle.

Most visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park in south-central Kentucky walk right past the best-preserved dummy locomotive in North America. The fact that its cab is intact and its machinery appears to be largely unaltered makes the Mammoth Cave Railroad’s number 4 a gem among preserved American locomotives. Baldwin built it in 1888 for the East End Railway of Memphis. It was resold at a later date to the Mammoth Cave Railroad and remained in service, or at least on the property, until early 1929, when steam operations were suspended in favor of a rail bus (a conventional motor bus equipped with flanged wheels to run on rails). This may well have been the last steam dummy in operation in the country. The locomotive and a combined passenger/baggage coach stand beneath an open-sided shelter near the hotel at Mammoth Cave National Park. Eois Winter, a park ranger at Mammoth Cave, expressed concern about the engine’s and the cars’ long-term preservation but said no plan for their survival has yet been formulated. A few other, less complete dummies have been preserved elsewhere in North America.

Horses were easily spooked, and a locomotive hidden inside a boxy, carlike body was thought less likely to upset the passing parade of wagons, carriages, and horsecars.

There is an 1879 Baldwin dummy at the Beck Lumber Company in Penetanguishene, Ontario, and the remains of another reside in a collection in Montgomery, Alabama. The latter machine is no lightweight street-railway motor but a hefty 43ton switcher produced for the Seaboard Coast Line Railway.

The H. K. Porter Company of Pittsburgh built dozens of dummies in the salad days of steam-motor lines. The remains of two Porter dummies can be seen in the American West. The older of the pair built in 1887 for the Lincoln Rapid Transit Company of Lincoln, Nebraska, found its way to the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, Arizona. The second little Porter was buried under an aircraft hangar in 1911. When the building was demolished, the forgotten and forlorn relic was recovered, in 1973. This motor was built in 1889 for a Port Townsend street railway in Washington State and later used in construction of a nearby Army base named Fort Worden. Buried there when its service life was over, it is on display at Fort Worden State Park.

The very idea of a steam dummy has an air of compounded remoteness: a vanished technology (the steam engine) disguised as something nearly as obsolete (the streetcar) to accommodate yet a third archaism (the horsedrawn vehicle). To find even this handful of relics surviving from the great age of steam railroading is gratifying not just to historians and museum professionals but to anyone interested in our nation’s past. If any others are still around—even as fragments—their discovery and preservation will further increase our understanding of this obscure yet intriguing chapter in America’s transportation history. *

John H. White, Jr., a professor of history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, writes often on the history of transportation.

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