Thursday, October 2, 2008

Stockton and Darlington Railway

The Stockton and Darlington line, the world’s first public railroad, was opened on 27 September 1825. As well as carrying coal, the train drawn by “Locomotion No. 1” had about 550 passengers, most of them in coal wagons but some in a carriage named Experiment. The steam railroad was to change the course of history. There is little in the modern world that it did not affect, including our perception of time and distance, the pattern of settlement, the relationship between labor and industry, and not least the urban and rural landscape.

George Stephenson (1781–1848), born in Wylam in northeast England, invented the steam locomotive. At the age of fourteen he went to work at Dewley Colliery, becoming an engine man in 1802. Within a decade, his thorough knowledge of engines won him the post of engine wright at Killingworth Colliery, whose manager allowed him to experiment with steam-powered machines. In 1814 Stephenson built his first locomotive: The Blutcher, which could haul 33 tons (30 tonnes) uphill at 4 mph (6.4 kph), differed from contemporary engines in that the gears drove the flanged wheels; he later modified it so that the connecting rods directly drove the wheels. Over the next five years Stephenson built sixteen engines at Killingworth, mostly for local use. In 1819 the colliery owners asked him to construct an 8-mile (13-kilometer) railroad between Hetton and the coastal town of Sunderland. Employing locomotives, fixed engines, and cables and inclined planes, it was the first railroad that did not use animal power.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway dates from October 1767, when a few entrepreneurs sought to improve links between the West Durham coal mines and the seaport of Stockton-on-Tees. First (and fashionable) thoughts were for a canal system, and the navigator James Brindley was asked to suggest possible routes. The estimated cost was prohibitive and the scheme lapsed for forty years. It was revived in 1810 by the Tees Navigation Company, whose “New Cut” of the River Tees greatly reduced the length of waterways between coal mines and coast. By then, horse-drawn railroads were becoming popular, and with interest shown by Darlington businessmen, both alternatives were investigated. Again, a consultant recommended a canal; again, the project was abandoned because of the cost. Besides, parochial disputes over the route could not be resolved.

In November 1818 a committee at Darlington, convened by Edward Pease, a retired wool merchant, resolved to apply for an act of Parliament to construct a rail- or tramway to join Stockton and the collieries in West Durham. Although the estimated cost exceeded that of the canal system, when the committee issued its prospectus for building a horse-drawn railroad, the public response was overwhelming. On 19 April 1821 Parliament authorized the project, and the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company was formed. On the same day, Pease met with Stephenson, who had already walked along the proposed route and who suggested that the company should consider steam locomotion. He invited Pease to visit Killingworth Colliery, where the businessman saw The Blutcher in action. In January 1822 Stephenson was appointed chief engineer of the company. Another act of Parliament authorized it “to make and erect locomotive or moveable engines to facilitate the carriage of goods, merchandise and passengers.”

Work began on the track in May 1822. Stephenson used 15-foot (4.57-meter) lengths of malleable wrought-iron rails, developed in the previous year by the Bedlington engineer John Birkinshaw. They were carried on cast-iron chairs and laid on wooden blocks for part of the railroad and stone blocks for the remainder. The gauge was set at 4 feet 8 inches, and later eased 0.5 inch to allow freer running of the rolling stock. That became the standard gauge of British and other railroads. On 27 September 1825, the 26.75-mile (43-kilometer) Stockton and Darlington line was ready; most of the railroad had easy gradients, but there were a few very steep places, with inclines of up to one in thirty, which would present severe challenges to the locomotive.

In 1823 Pease, Thomas Richardson (another committee member), Stephenson, and his son Robert had formed Robert Stephenson and Company, the world’s first locomotive building firm. In September the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company placed an order for two high-precision steam engines at £500 each. They recruited Timothy Hackworth, foreman smith of the Wylam and Walbottle Collieries, to supervise the Newcastle-upon-Tyne workshop. Locomotion No. 1, similar to those Stephenson had built at the collieries, was finished just two years later. She had two vertical 9.5-inch-diameter (240-millimeter) cylinders with a 24-inch (610-millimeter) stroke; four wheels coupled by two side rods had a wheelbase of a little over 5 feet (about 1.5 meters). She weighed 11 tons (10 tonnes).

On 26 September 1825 Locomotion No. 1 stood at Shildon Lane End, coupled to twelve wagons of coal, another filled with sacks of flour, and the single eighteen-seat passenger carriage, Experiment. Tickets had been issued to about 300 people, but somehow 450—according to one account, 553—found room, many by sitting atop the coal. The long train, driven by George Stephenson, preceded by a horseman carrying a flag and with a cortege of twenty-four horse-drawn wagon loads of workmen and others in its wake, moved off to the applause of a great crowd of onlookers. Over the low gradients, for the first few miles the engine pulled its 110-ton (100-tonne) load at speeds reaching 12 mph (19 kph). After a couple of stops for mechanical problems, the train reached Darlington; the first 8.5 miles (13.6 kilometers) were covered in 65 minutes; at one point it achieved a speed of 15 mph (24 kph) “with perfect safety.” At Darlington, six coal wagons were uncoupled and their contents distributed to the poor. With two more wagons carrying a brass band in tow, Locomotion resumed her journey. Three hours, 7 minutes later she reached the Stockton terminus. A salute was fired from cannon on the company’s wharf, and the band rendered “God Save the King.” That evening, a celebration dinner was held at the Stockton Town Hall. The feasibility of a steam-locomotive railroad had been made evident to almost 50,000 people, and future success was guaranteed.

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