Push Gathers Steam to Restore a Historic Loco
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Many historic locomotives have seen replicas built, usually after the original was deemed inoperable or scrapped. In the case of the John Bull, a British-made steam locomotive, a working replica was built while the original was still able to steam under her own power and appearing at special exhibitions. The famous locomotive wouldn’t completely retire until setting the world record for the world’s oldest operating locomotive (and self-propelled vehicle at that).
John Bull on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The Early Years
Built by Robert Stephenson & Co. in 1831, John Bull was built with a 0-4-0 wheel arrangement but would later be modified to 2-4-0 to allow for better steering and control. The locomotive first operated on the Camden & Amboy Railroad, a shortline that was the first railroad in New Jersey.
During her early years, the locomotive went by the name ‘Stevens’ after the founder of the Camden & Amboy Railroad. However, the locomotive’s British origins led crews to refer to her as ‘The Old John Bull’, a nod to the cartoon often used to depict Britain in human form (similar to Uncle Sam in the United States).
The original John Bull in 1895.
When Camden & Amboy Railroad purchased the train in 1831, it was quite a special attraction in the United States. Steam locomotives were still extremely new, and while the Camden & Amboy Railroad was being built, politicians and celebrities got to take exciting trial rides behind the new locomotive.
The John Bull was used by the Camden & Amboy Railroad until 1866, when the company retired the locomotive and put her into storage.
PRR and Smithsonian to the Rescue
In 1871, the Pennsylvania Railroad approved a lease of the United New Jersey Railroad and Canal Companies, which previously absorbed the Camden & Amboy. While the locomotive would not return to revenue service, the PRR saw the locomotive as a huge public relations opportunity. The locomotive would make an appearance at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
The locomotive was a massive hit at the exhibition so the PRR elected to move forward with a restoration project that would bring John Bull back closer to its original appearance. After making more public appearances for the PRR, the locomotive was donated to the Smithsonian Institute in 1885.
The former Camden & Amboy locomotive at the 1893 World’s Fair.
Though the Smithsonian would be John Bull’s new permanent home, the locomotive made occasional appearances outside of the museum, including a run from New Jersey to Chicago in lead up to the locomotive appearing at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) in the ‘Windy City’.
The locomotive would also appear at the B&O Railroad’s ‘Fair of the Iron Horse’ centennial celebration, once again steaming under her own power. However, the 1927 gathering would be one of John Bull’s final steams.
John Bull Gets a Replica
While John Bull was a crowd pleaser when making appearances, time began to take its toll on the locomotive and concerns about the locomotive’s durability caused the Smithsonian to become leery of the locomotive traveling away from the museum. With the 1939 World’s Fair being held in New York City, the Pennsylvania Railroad decided to build a replica of the locomotive that could serve as an operational display.
The new locomotive was built at the railroad’s Altoona Works shops but would not be ready in time for the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair. The original John Bull traveled to the exhibition in 1939 and remained on display for the first season before the replica would replace her in 1940.
The replica John Bull on display in Pennsylvania. (Photo: James St. John via CC by 2.0)
The Pennsylvania Railroad would showcase the replica at various events over the next few decades, though the locomotive would remain in storage while not being used. In the late 1960s, the replica was donated to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, a common practice for the PRR.
Under ownership of the PHMC, the replica has made appearances at special events over the last several decades. Today the replica is on display at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
World Record and Retirement
Following her appearance at the 1939 World’s Fair, the original John Bull returned to Washington DC where the locomotive was placed on static display at the Smithsonian Institute’s East Hall. In 1964, the locomotive would be moved to the Smithsonian-operated National Museum of History and Technology.
In early 1980, museum leadership began planning for the locomotive’s upcoming 150th birthday the following year. The locomotive was believed to be in decent shape, so several tests were conducted to test John Bull’s functionality. Confident that the locomotive could operate under her own power, the Smithsonian had necessary restoration work done on the locomotive.
The locomotive set the record for the world’s oldest operable steam locomotive on September 15th, 1981. The 150 year old steamer also qualified as the oldest operable self propelled vehicle with the run that travelled a few miles of branch line within Washington DC.
John Bull Today
Following the 150th birthday celebration, the original JB was returned to static display in the National Museum of American History, formerly the National Museum of History and Technology. Today the locomotive remains on display at the museum to showcase the steam era. To learn more about the locomotive and museum, be sure to visit the National Museum of American History website.
Before John Bull, there was Tom Thumb, the first locomotive to run on the B&O!
This article first appeared on steamgiants.com
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