Today, a 4-4-0 locomotive -- in the wrong place. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The Great Seal of the City of Houston may not seem surprising
at first glance. It shows an early locomotive, which makes perfect sense. Houston is
America's second largest port, and rail carries much of the freight -- coming and going.
But that seal was adopted in 1840. Rail was scarcely ten years old in America. No
locomotive had yet been anywhere near Houston, nor was Houston a seaport. It's fifty
miles inland from the deep-water port of Galveston.
Douglas Weiskopf begins his book, Rails Around Houston, with this strange state
of affairs. He suggests the seal reflected masterful hucksterism -- and vision. Houston
came into being when the Allen brothers, John and Augustus, came to the new Republic of
Texas in 1836. They bought up ten square miles of land adjacent to Harrisburg, Texas, and
set out to form a major city on Buffalo Bayou.
A year later, the city became temporary capital of the Republic, it took the name of its
hero Sam Houston, and the riverboat Laura made the first trip up the Bayou from Galveston.
The Allens had meant to make Houston the region's "great commercial emporium," and that
process had already begun. Buffalo Bayou now served as the watercourse for Galveston's
goods, but where did one go from there?
Rail would have to be answer and rail was hardly invented; so we're back to Houston's
seal with its remarkably modern locomotive -- what's called a 4-4-0. That meant four
small idler wheels in front to steer it around bends, four large wheels driven by the
steam engine, and no idler wheels behind.
The 4-4-0 was a distinctly American design. Henry Campbell of Philadelphia had just
received a patent for it four years earlier. It was still in development. Once honed,
that design would dominate 19th century rail service and last well into the
20th century. It became known as the American type of locomotive.
But it took be another twelve years after that seal design for Houston to get any locomotive
at all. In 1852 the embryonic Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railway bought a second-hand
4-2-0 engine, much more primitive than the one on the seal. (The
president of the railroad made the dubious boast that it could do 35 miles-an-hour.)
Another two years passed and a third engine -- a 4-4-0 -- was
added. Our railway finally had a locomotive like the one that dreamers had put on the
city seal 14 years before it. The Allen brothers' dream was in motion, but what about
them? John died even before the seal was designed, and Augustus died just after the Civil
War. Neither lived to see Buffalo Bayou dredged to form a ship channel all the way into
Houston. Neither saw six thousand miles of track being laid in Texas during the 1880s.
But then again, maybe they did. Maybe those two brothers, still in their twenties,
somehow saw it all, way back in 1836 -- saw a great city when it was nothing but flat,
hot, inhospitable expanse, stretching off to infinity in every direction.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
D. L. Weiskopf, Images of Rail: Rails Around Houston. (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2009).
See also the Wikipedia articles on
locomotives and web articles on the
history of Houston,
on the history of Harrisburg,
on Augustus Chapman Allen,
and on John Kirby Allen
Harrisburg, Texas, was the original port town on Buffalo Bayou. Houston gradually
engulfed it and, in 1926, with a population of only 1460, it was annexed by Houston.
Today it still exists as a community on the east side of the city.
Photo by J. Lienhard
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H.