Tom Thumb Locomotive

The Tom Thumb locomotive was the first American built steam locomotive that made its historic run in 1830. Built by New York’s Peter Cooper, the locomotive was operated on the Baltimore and Ohio’s thirteen mile line from Baltimore to Ellicot Mills, Maryland.

In the early nineteenth century, Canals were the ideal mode of transport for both passengers and cargo. The city of Baltimore, a thriving port city, was threatened by the construction of the Erie Canal, and various other canals throughout the area. These canals brought goods westward, and would bypass Baltimore and threaten its economic livelihood. Prominent businessmen of the time looked towards a mode of land transport that could compete with the canals, and maintain Baltimore’s thriving ports. A railroad was soon proposed which was originally slated to be hauled with horse traction, however, the topography of the proposed line would prove troublesome.

Across the pond in England, George Stephenson and other prominent engineers have been designing steam locomotives for much of the nineteenth century, and had two railways already in operation with locomotive power, the Liverpool & Manchester and the Stockton & Darlington. With interest in steam locomotives prevalent among the directors of the proposed railroad, New York inventor Peter Cooper constructed the Tom Thumb, a small, lightweight locomotive suitable for the infrastructure of the line. Due to its size and weight of less than one ton, the locomotive was named Tom Thumb after the dwarf circus performer, who gained fame with the P.T. Barnum circus.

E.T. Kenney/Public Domain

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was proposed as a thirteen mile line between Baltimore and Ellicot Mills, Maryland. Interestingly, when construction of the railroad commenced, the only surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, placed the first stone of ballast on the right of way, commencing the construction of America’s first commercial railway.

The Tom Thumb

Born in New York in 1791, Peter Cooper was a devout inventor and philanthropist, who supported the construction of railroads and the adoption of the steam engine. When the proposed Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was being surveyed, Cooper purchased land along the route, aiming to prepare it for the railroad. He founded an iron mill that manufactured rails for the railroad, along with an anthracite coal mine. Cooper was pivotal in the B&O’s adoption of the steam locomotive, as he vehemently persuaded the railroad’s directors to utilize the new motive power. However, many were skeptical as to whether a locomotive could surpass the line’s steep grades, especially with a load of passengers or goods. To persuade the railroad directors to adopt steam power, Cooper assembled the Tom Thumb. The locomotive utilized pieces such as musket barrels for various components, a small boiler, and ran using anthracite coal, believed to be from Cooper’s coal mines.

The locomotive began testing between Baltimore and Ellicot Mills (now Ellicot City), and completed the thirteen mile trek in 57 minutes, and reached speeds of 18 mph, which was impressive for this time. These trials marked the first steam locomotive in the United States to haul passengers on a commercial railroad. American historical folklore states that on August 28, 1830, the Tom Thumb was on a return trip six miles from Baltimore, when it was challenged to a race by a horse drawn stagecoach operated by Stockton and Company, a prominent stage coach operator. The operators of Tom Thumb accepted the challenge, and the locomotive began to pull ahead of the horse. However, the belt slipped from the roller pulley, which caused the locomotive to lose steam, causing the horse to pass as Cooper frantically attempted to fix the belt. This mechanical shortcoming cost Tom Thumb the race, however, it was evident that the locomotive was superior to horses.


Similar to many early locomotives, the Tom Thumb had a vertical boiler and cylinders. The Cylinders powered the wheels on one of the axles, while the other axle was powered via a coupling rod. The construction of the Tom Thumb took much improvisation, as its boiler tubes were constructed utilizing rifle barrels. The locomotive’s blower was contained in the exhaust stack, which included a belt to power the wheels. The locomotive was fueled with anthracite coal, which was plentiful in the region.

Date Built1830
Whyte Configuration2-2-0
Length13 ft 2 ¾ in
Height12 ft 9 in
Boiler27 in x 66 in
Cylinder Size5 in x 27 in

Who was Peter Cooper?

Born in February 1791, Peter Cooper was an early New York industrialist, inventor, politician and philanthropist who was a devout advocate for the steam locomotive. The genesis of the railroads in the United States prompted Cooper to look towards alternatives to horse traction, as steam locomotives were deemed far superior. Interested in engineering from a young age, Cooper founded New York’s Canton Iron Works, where he built the Tom Thumb. Constantly interested in advancing technology, Cooper was avid about locomotive traction, as he built the Tom Thumb to convince the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that steam locomotives were far superior to horse traction. The legacy of Cooper lives on today in the form of the private institution Cooper Union of Advancement of Science and Art, which he founded in 1859.


The success of the Tom Thumb led to an expansion of railroads throughout the country, therefore, connecting the east and west coasts in 1869 via the first transcontinental railroad. The trials of the locomotive in Maryland helped the country realize that steam locomotives were the way of the future, as it was evident they were more effective than horse traction. This led to populating the west as the railroad made it easier to transport goods and passengers, as previously, the only options were either marine or trails, which were each treacherous and time consuming in their own right. The Tom Thumb led to subsequent locomotive innovations, such as the John Bull and Atlantic just to name a few. Advancement of this locomotive powered the American industrial revolution, and helped to build the industrialized, modern country of today.

Ellicot City Railroad Station. The Oldest Station in the Country. William E. Barrett/Public Domain

Tom Thumb was not built for actual service, however, it was a test bed to demonstrate the effectiveness of steam power to the owners of the railroad. Unfortunately, the locomotive was decommissioned shortly after its trials, and salvaged for parts, as none of the original pieces of the locomotive remained intact. Additionally, Cooper did not leave behind detailed blueprints of the locomotive’s construction, which made replicating the locomotive a tumultuous task. However, based on pictures and other historical information, a replica locomotive was built by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for its “Fair of the Iron Horse” in 1927. However, the locomotive was built catering towards its operation, rather than historical accuracy. The replica locomotive is part of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum’s collection. To visit the Tom Thumb replica and other relics of early American railroading, visit their website at



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