Along The City Branch, The Forgotten Norris Locomotive Works


A late 1830s Norris locomotive.

Norris Locomotive Works, the overshadowed neighbor of Baldwin Locomotive located just next door, and the progenitor of Philadelphia’s preeminent rail industry, produced about a thousand railroad engines between 1832 and 1866. It was the dominant American locomotive producer during most of that period, and even sold its popular 4-2-0 engines to European railways. The firm’s factory complex was located in the area around 17th and Hamilton Streets on several acres of what had once been the Bush Hill estate of Andrew Hamilton. The site was near the right-of-way of the coal-hauling Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, one of the earliest rail lines in the US, later to become the Reading Railroad’s City Branch.

The company was more or less started in 1832 by William Norris (1802-1867) and Col. Stephen Harriman Long (1784-1864) as the American Steam Carriage Company. The two men had experimented with steam engine building for years and had designed a locomotive to burn anthracite coal as early as 1829. Norris and Long also built an engine called the Black Hawk, which performed with partial success on the Boston and Providence Railroad and the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in the early 1830s. Long, a famed engineer, explorer, and military officer, later left the firm and William was joined by his brother Septimus, who patented several locomotive-related inventions. The two brothers turned the enterprise into the Norris Locomotive Works.

The celebrated locomotive “George Washington” (1836).

On July 10, 1836, the Norris Brothers ran a test of a 4-2-0 locomotive on the Belmont Inclined Plane of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. (The two-track incline ran from the Schuylkill River for 2,805 feet towards present-day Belmont Avenue, rising one foot in 15 for a total of 187 feet.) 

The test would turn out to be a pivotal event in the development of rail engine technology. Named the George Washington, the 14,400 pound engine hauled a load of 19,200 pounds–including 24 people riding on the tender and a freight car–up the grade at 15 miles per hour. This engine, the first in the world to ascend a hill by its own power, proved that a steam locomotive could climb a grade while pulling a load. So remarkable was this accomplishment that reports published in engineering journals emphatically doubted its occurrence. A second, more formal trial with an even greater load proved the engine’s capabilities on July 19, 1836.

William Norris (1802-1867)

William Norris (1802-1867)

Norris built the Lafayette for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad the following year. Named after the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette, this 4-2-0 engine was the world’s first locomotive to feature a leading truck and may have been the first standardized production model locomotive. Innovations included the positioning of cylinders ahead of the smokebox and the four-wheel swiveling pilot truck. The Lafayette established the configuration that steam locomotives would follow until the end of the steam era.

In 1847, the Norris Works built the first ten-wheel locomotive in America: the Chesapeake. Operated by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, this was also the world’s first 4-6-0 locomotive. It weighed 22 tons and had 14½ by 22 inch cylinders and driving wheels 46 inches in diameter. Initially a wood-burning locomotive, the Chesapeake was converted to burn anthracite coal in 1862, and ran for about another fifteen years. Some authorities claim that Septimus Norris came up with the design, but other sources attribute it to master builder John Brandt of the Erie Railway.

The Norris factory complex in 1855, looking west on Buttonwood Street.

There were nine Norris brothers altogether, with six of them having been involved in locomotive building at some point. William Norris’ enterprise was renamed Norris Brothers when brothers Richard and Octavius joined it in 1844 during a period of financial distress and reorganization that included William’s gradual departure from the business. The firm later became Richard Norris and Son. Other locomotive factories, operated independently (and unsuccessfully) by various Norris brothers later opened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Schenectady, New York.

The company was the first American exporter of locomotives–and perhaps of large mechanical devices generally. By 1840, 30 percent of its production had been for foreign markets. Norris machines operated in England, France, the states of the German Confederation (including Prussia, Austria and Saxony), Belgium, Italy, Canada, Cuba and South America. (The Copiapó, built in 1850 for the Chilean railroad, was South America’s first locomotive.) These engines in turn influenced locomotive design around the world.

Shops on the east side of 17th Street.

Shops on the east side of 17th Street.

To facilitate international marketing, William Norris had several large-scale operating models constructed as presentation pieces to the rulers of several nations. These sovereigns included Tzar Nicholas of Russia (another Philadelphia industrial capitalist, Joseph Harrison, Jr., who put steam technology to use in industry, was the designer of the Russian Railroad) and King Louis-Philippe of France, who took so much pleasure in the model he gave Norris a gold medal and a handsome gold box. A quarter-sized 4-4-0 locomotive and tender were built for Commodore Matthew C. Perry to deliver as a gift on his second expedition to Japan in 1854. A small circular railway–which also included a miniature passenger car made by another manufacturer and a mile of track–was set up near Yokohama. The Japanese were soon treated to the first train ride available in the Far East, meaning that the first engine-driven vehicle to operate in Japan was made in Philadelphia.

Apparently a later Norris locomotive.

Richard Norris and Son was the largest locomotive maker in the United States, if not the world, during the 1850s.  Employing many hundreds of men, the factory consisted of some ten buildings spread over several city blocks at what is now the campus of the Community College of Philadelphia. The firm reached its peak in 1857-58, after which time, the Norris family seems to have lost interest in the business. Manufacturing quality and output fell during the Civil War and the plant closed in 1866, although deliveries continued for a year or two.

The property lay idle until the adjacent Baldwin Locomotive Works–which had surpassed Norris as the largest locomotive builder in America–acquired the site in 1873. The Norris buildings stood until 1896 when part of the property was cleared for construction of the third United States Mint in Philadelphia. (Still standing, that building is now part of the Community College of Philadelphia.) Today, there is no trace of either the Norris or Baldwin factories.

Photo of a “Crampton” Class Norris Locomotive, c. 1849-51, designed in 1843 by English Engineer Thomas Russell Crampton.

Author’s Note: For further reading, I recommend Brian Reed’s “The Norris Locomotives,” LOCO Profile 11, Volume 1 (Windsor, Berkshire, England: Profile Publications Ltd., 1971) and John H. White, Jr.’s “Once the Greatest of Builders: The Norris Locomotive Works,” Bulletin 150 (Westford, MA: Railway & Locomotive Hist. Soc., Spring 1984).

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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1 Comment

  1. One example of a Philadelphia built Norris Locomotive still exists, in the California State RR Museum. It is a 4-4-0 engine named Gov. Stanford.

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