John Bull Locomotive

The John Bull locomotive was built for the Camden & Amboy Railroad by Robert Stephenson and Company in Newcastle, England. The locomotive was in service from 1833-1866, and was then placed into storage until later preserved by the Smithsonian Institution.

With the New York and Philadelphia markets booming in the early 19th century, goods were being produced more rapidly than they could be shipped. Canals and treacherous roads were the only mode of transportation during this time. Moreover, in winter, the canals would freeze, and the roads would become virtually impassible in anything less than ideal weather, thereby hindering the vital transport of goods. Thus, Robert L. Stevens, son of inventor John Stevens, was granted the country’s first railroad charter to construct the Camden & Amboy Railroad in 1830.

During this time, railroads were a rather new concept in the country, therefore, locomotives were imported from Britain. Looking for motive power for his line, Stevens took a trip to Robert Stephenson & Company in Newcastle, England. While Stevens was in Newcastle, he witnessed Stephenson’s Planet locomotive in action, and ordered one for his railroad.

John Bull during the World’s Columbia Exposition 1893 in Chicago


Shipped from the port at Liverpool, the locomotive arrived in Philadelphia on the ship Allegheny. The locomotive was shipped in various pieces and had to be assembled upon delivery. Once on C&A property, the locomotive was assembled by engineer Issac Dripps, who astonishingly, had never seen a locomotive before, additionally, the Stephenson’s did not include diagrams or direction on how to assemble the locomotive. Nevertheless, Dripps assembled the locomotive, and it was then run for the first time in 1831 on a test track with dignitaries from New Jersey and even France aboard the train. After this maiden run, the locomotive was placed into storage until 1833, when the line was completed.

The locomotive was placed in service in 1833 and received the name “Stevens”, after Robert Stevens. However, throughout the years, locomotive crews began calling the locomotive “the old John Bull”, although, it was later shortened to John Bull. John Bull was the name of a cartoon personification of England, and was named such because of the locomotive’s heritage. The locomotive was also the first locomotive to operate in America’s future railroad hub, Chicago, when it was shipped via canal, along with two coaches in 1836.

Don Harrison

The C&A Railroad was built quickly, thus, the infrastructure was not to the quality of its counterparts in England. This caused derailments due to the locomotive’s rigid 0-4-0 design. Therefore, engineer Dripps installed a front pilot wheel to the locomotive to more easily guide it through turns. The locomotive originally had four driving wheels via a connecting rod, however, the addition of the front pilot made it impossible to reinstall the connecting rod, thus, only two wheels of the locomotive could remain powered, effectively becoming a 4-2-0 classification. For additional safety measures, Dripps installed a bell and headlight on the locomotive. A cab was also added to shield the crew from the elements, and to keep the wood fuel dry.

Throughout its years on the Camden & Amboy, it served various duties, as it even served as a stationary boiler and as a pump engine at a local sawmill. After over thirty years of faithful service to America’s first chartered railroad, the locomotive was retired in 1866, and stored in Bordentown, NJ until the C&A was absorbed into the United New Jersey Railroad and Canal Company, and later, the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1871.


Built by Robert Stephenson & Company, the locomotive was identical to Stephenson’s Planet class, albeit with a modified boiler to allow the burning of wood fuel. Operating at a boiler pressure of 70 psi, the locomotive was constructed as a 0-4-0 Whyte configuration, however, became a 4-2-0 when the front pilot was installed due to the loss of the locomotive’s connecting rod.

Date of Construction1831
Whyte Configuration0-4-0 (rebuilt as 4-2-0)
Driver Diameter4 ft 6 in
Wheelbase4 ft 11 in
Length14 ft 9 in
Width6 ft 3 in
Weight10 tons
Firebox Grate10.07 sq ft
Heating Surface213 sq ft
Cylinder Size9 in diameter



The Pennsylvania, like many railroads of this time, enjoyed displaying their most notable equipment at various events throughout the country to show their heritage. In 1876, the Pennsylvania displayed the locomotive at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The locomotive also made an appearance at the National Railway Appliance Exhibition in Chicago, albeit not without a number of modifications. These included installing a new smoke stack and removing the cab in its entirety. Shortly after the exhibition in Chicago, the Pennsylvania donated the locomotive to the Smithsonian museum as part of their engineering collection.

Although the locomotive was now a museum piece, it made a historic trip to Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Columbian exhibition. It was brought to the PRR’s Jersey City facilities to receive cosmetic and mechanical restorations. In order to display its historical significance to the industry, the railroad wanted to prepare the locomotive to travel to Chicago under its own steam. Theodore N. Ely, the Chief Mechical Officer of the Jersey City shops conducted the work to the locomotive, and deemed it capable of running to Chicago under its own power after the locomotive completed a trial run to Perth Amboy.

At 10:16 am on April 17, the train departed the shops at Jersey City, and began its five day journey to Chicago with president Grover Cleveland and governors of states the train traveled through on board. After spending eight months in Chicago, the locomotive finally journeyed back to the Smithsonian institution in Washington in December, where it would reside until 1927, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s centennial year. The locomotive was brought out of the museum for the B&O’s “Fair of the Iron Horse” in Baltimore in 1927, where it took a trip to Altoona’s Juniata Shops to receive an overhaul, and to build a replica tender, as the original was dismantled in 1910 due to its deteriorating condition. The locomotive operated during the centennial, and returned to the Smithsonian afterwards.

William Creswell

In 1931, the locomotive’s hundredth birthday was recognized when the museum lifted the locomotive’s wheels from the ground and turned them using compressed air. Due to a shortage of funds at the museum, the locomotive could not be returned to operation. In 1964, the locomotive was moved to its current location at the National Museum of American History, which is associated with the Smithsonian.

Seventeen years later, the locomotive would once again return to steam. In 1981, museum curators began analyzing the locomotive to assess its capability to return to operation. After a rigorous boiler inspection, it was deemed plausible, and the locomotive came alive once again for its 150th birthday. Operating at a reduced boiler pressure of 70 psi, the locomotive began testing on the Warrenton Branch Line in Virginia, as the branch line was not heavily utilized. On September 15, 1981, the locomotive successfully operated on a short stint on the line. With this feat, the John Bull successfully became the world’s oldest operating steam locomotive.

Video Courtesy National Museum of American History, Washington D.C.

Today, the locomotive can be viewed at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. The locomotive is the pride of the museum’s engineering exhibit, and is on display along with the country’s oldest steel truss bridge. Additionally, a replica locomotive with a stored serviceable status is on display at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. The replica was built by Altoona Works in 1939 to be displayed at the New York’s World Fair, due to concerns of the integrity of the original locomotive remaining outdoors.

The John Bull influenced various locomotives throughout the years, including being the first to include a “cowcatcher” or “snowplow” on its pilot, a headlight and a bell, characteristics that have become the standard in North America. The John Bull will be remembered for its various engineering contributions to the American railroad industry, and will remain an icon of the early American railroad. To visit the locomotive, visit the National Museum of American History’s website.


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