Historical Markers
Phineas Davis Historical Marker
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Phineas Davis

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
NW corner, King and Newberry Sts., York

Dedication Date:
December 14, 1949

Behind the Marker

In the early days of American railroading, horses pulled the trains. On a level track, one horse could pull four carloads of passengers and far more freight than they could on the normal roads of the time. These early railroads were exciting for their rails, not for their motive power. Soon, however, railroaders were looking for a better way to move passengers and heavy freight. They experimented with treadmill cars, cars propelled by sails, and wood-fired steam engines. Experts scoffed at notions that any of these schemes would ever replace the reliable horse. But they were soon proven wrong.

The commerce wars of the early 1800s pitted the merchants of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore against each other in a race for control of the trade in mineral wealth and agricultural products that lay to the west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), incorporated on Feb. 28, 1827, planned to build a line from Baltimore to the Ohio River, some 379 miles away. This was an ambitious venture, fostered by high enthusiasm. In January 1830, members of Congress journeyed up from Washington to ride the initial 1.5-mile stretch out of Baltimore. That May, the railroad opened its first thirteen-mile leg, from Baltimore to Ellicotts Mills, Md.

Tom Thumb Locomotive : Illustration of a Race Between a Locomotive and a Horse-Drawn Car
Tom Thumb Locomotive : Illustration of a Race Between a Locomotive and a Horse-Drawn...
The horses that B&O rented from stagecoach companies cost a very expensive $33 a day, and under the tremendous workload, new horses were constantly needed. Convinced that the steam engine offered a better way to pull rail cars, B&O investor Peter Cooper built a small locomotive nicknamed Tom Thumb in 1829. This experimental engine featured a vertical boiler mounted atop a four-wheel flat car. Burning anthracite coal, it produced only about one and a half horsepower. During its test run on August 28, 1830, however, Cooper's engine was able to carry forty passengers–about fifteen tons total weight–for thirteen miles in an hour and twelve minutes, reaching a top speed of fifteen miles an hour.

Decades later, Cooper would call his engine "a very small and insignificant affair." And indeed, his engine was hardly an improvement on horses. But his "Tiny Tom," as it later became known, did persuade the B&O directors that steam power was the way of the future, inspiring them to stage a competition for a coal-burning engine that would be fast, powerful, and reliable enough to replace horses. To sweeten the pot, they offered a $4,000 prize to the winner - no small sum in 1830 - and the promise of a contract for the production of more locomotives.

B&O then drew up the contest rules: Competing engines must burn coke or coal (most locomotives of that day burned wood), they must not exceed 3.5 tons in weight, must be capable of pulling fifteen tons at fifteen miles per hour, and must have flanges (a lip on the rim of each wheel to help guide it) that would ride on the inside of a railroad track. Steam pressure must not exceed one hundred pounds per square inch, the engine must be fitted with two safety valves (one of which had to be out of the reach of the engineer so he couldn't manually override it), and its wheels could be spaced no farther apart than four feet, so that they could traverse the curves of B&O's notoriously short-radius track. In addition, B&O would subject the engines to a thirty-day test to ensure that they were durable enough for regular use.
Photo of The York, 1831
Reconstruction of the York, locomotive, built by Phineas T. Davis in 1831.

Of the five entries, only one, designed and built by Phineas Davis, passed the test. Little is known of Davis's early life. Legend has it that the barefoot teenager arrived in York, Pa., in 1809, after walking all the way from New Hampshire. Befriended by a man named Jonathan Jessop, he began to work in Jessop's clock-making shop. Davis was a thirty-three-year-old foundry man when B&O sponsored its locomotive contest. He designed and built his locomotive, which he named York after his adopted hometown, at the machine shop he owned with a partner, Israel Gardner, on the northwest corner of West King and Newberry Streets.

The York met all of B&O's requirements: It weighed three-and-one-half tons, burned anthracite, and drove four thirty-inch-diameter wheels. Davis used a vertical boiler similar to Cooper's, but his engine featured two vertical cylinders that drove vertical main rods connected to horizontal side rods, which powered the wheels. Because no railroad yet existed from York to Baltimore, Davis had to pack his locomotive on a horse-drawn wagon for the long trip. It was first tested on July 12, 1831.

During B&O's trials, Davis's locomotive negotiated the sharpest curves at fifteen miles an hour, and reached up to thirty-five miles an hour on straightaways. Duly impressed, B&O contracted with Davis to build his locomotives for the line, and in recognition of his inventive talents, made him manager of its production shops.
Photo of The Atlantic
Photo of The Atlantic

The York was the forerunner for one of the earliest lines of successful American-built locomotives. In 1832, Davis constructed the Atlantic, a highly successful six-and-one-half-ton engine. The York, Atlantic, and models that followed were nicknamed "grasshopper" engines because of the up-and-down motion of their vertical rods, which resembled the actions of the hind legs of a grasshopper.

On August 25, 1835, when B&O opened its important forty-mile branch to Washington, D.C., four Davis-built "grasshopper" locomotives named for presidents - Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and J.Q. Adams -pulled the special inaugural-service trains. Davis, however, did not live to see the transportation revolution that he had helped launch. Just a month later, on September 27, 1835, he was killed when one of his new engines derailed. Today, a full-size wooden model of the York is on display at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, and another is at the Agricultural and Industrial Museum of York County.
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