Baldwin locomotive book packed with info, less jargon

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Perhaps it’s not out of place to mention my grandson, Henry, who is absolutely bonkers when it comes to trains. And this book will be his missal, if I may say so. It is an elaborate history and catalog of the locomotives of the Baldwin Company, Philadelphia, Pa. I’ve been to what are called “Train Shows” and a huge room full of people with Henry’s addiction is a sight to see. Of course, much of the display includes toy locomotives and model cars, but there is also a bustling business in photographs, stock certificates from railroad lines, lanterns and even a semaphore signal or two. Perhaps a brief history of the 147 years of the company would be of interest.

Matthias Baldwin, the founder, was a jeweler and silversmith who formed a partnership with a machinist in 1825 to manufacture bookmaking tools. For this task, he needed a small, stationary engine, so he simply designed and built one. His engine displayed such skill and expertise that other manufacturers sought similar engines, and soon he found himself more involved with steam engineering than basic design and construction of all sorts of devices. During this time, the process of construction of engines was rather crude, and machine tools were not yet available.

Nevertheless, Baldwin persevered, doing much of the work himself. Under these conditions, he constructed a locomotive, christened Old Ironsides, for the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad. On Nov. 23, 1832, it was put into service and survived for more than 20 years. It was a four-wheeled engine weighing about five tons with 54-inch, cast-iron, driving wheels. With this start and the accompanying praise, he built many more steam locomotives at a rather cramped shop of a measly 196 acres on Broad Street in Philadelphia. Business boomed, and the shop moved to Eddystone, Pa., on a site more than three times the previous area.

The railroad industry saw a terrific expansion in the years 1889 to 1907, but the panic of ’07, along with increased labor costs and the advent of a rival (ALCO) became a hardship. Baldwin’s production decreased from 2,666 locomotives in 1806 to a mere 614 in 1908. The Eddystone plant never exceeded more than one-third of its capacity. Nevertheless, Baldwin was an important contributor to the war effort during the First World War, producing more than 5,500 locomotives for the Allies. Many of these were of separate design for Russian, French, British, as well as the U.S. But with the end of the World War and the introduction of the diesel locomotive, production once again slowed. Most of the manufacturers had strong support for the continuance of steam locomotives but also pursued R & D strategies in the ’20s and ’30s, in the event that diesel trains would predominate. When it appeared that diesel locomotives would be the winner, Baldwin tried to diversify its product line in 1927, but the Great Depression in 1937 thwarted the effort, and the business declared bankruptcy in 1935.

When Baldwin emerged from bankruptcy in 1938, there was a drastic change in management strongly in favor of diesel, but ALCO and EMD were already in the lead. By 1940, domestic steam locomotive sales declined to 2 percent of the market. After 1950, Baldwin never produced another locomotive and became a subsidiary of Armour and Company. It closed its doors in 1972 after producing more than 70,500 locomotives.

This beautiful book (Baldwin Locomotives) displays pictures and specifications for about 300 Baldwin locomotives in exquisite detail. It includes a facsimile of an advertisement for Old Ironsides and concludes with a picture of a Decapod locomotive: an engine with 10 driving wheels. The reader will be amazed at the specifications for some of the larger engines. The detail is almost enough to allow the backyard mechanic to build one himself.

In addition to the somewhat complete list of specifications, there is also clarifying text, mostly from papers presented at meetings of various train organizations, including the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. One, on Locomotive Boilers, is a paper presented in 1901 by Cornelius Vanderbilt. This paper even includes the results of a road test of the New York Central and Hudson River R.R. Engine No. 947, with information on the type of coal and water used and coal per car per mile. There is quite a long essay, complete with photographs, titled “Locomotives of the 19th and 20th Centuries” presented at a 1903 meeting of the New England Railroad Club. One of the most interesting parts of the book is a section titled “The Building of a Modern Locomotive.”

This is the most interesting and informative text for me, a neophyte in the history and lore of locomotives.

It is difficult to imagine a book with more information concerning railroads presented in writing that steers clear, in most cases, of jargon associated with the subject. It is also a beautiful and interesting historical text physically, with excellent illustrations and bold type on coated paper.

Jack Curtis is a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. And is an avid collector of books and art. He may be reached at

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