History of the Camden & Amboy

The Camden & Amboy Railroad
Compiled from articles from the Camden & Amboy Railroad Historical Society, Inc.

The Camden & Amboy was the first railroad to operate in New Jersey. It was founded by inventor, naval architect and transportation pioneer, John Stevens and his sons, Robert and Edwin.

In 1815, John Stevens succeeded in getting the New Jersey Legislature to authorize the forming of a company "to erect a rail road from the River Delaware near Trenton to the River Raritan at or near New Brunswick." This legislation was the first railroad act of the United States. In 1830, the New Jersey Legislature granted a charter for the Camden & Amboy Railroad. Stevens' sons, Robert and Edwin were named president and treasurer, respectively. At the same time, John Stevens became president and chief engineer of the Camden & Amboy Railroad and traveled to England to buy locomotives and rails. During the four week voyage, he whittled a model of a new rail pattern from a pine block. Shaped like an inverted "T", the new rail required only offset-headed spikes for fasteners. The "T" rail, as it came to be called, eventually became the most widely used type of rail in the world. With great difficulty, Stevens found a mill in England that would roll the new rail, and in 1831, twenty two shiploads of sixteen foot rail sections arrived in Philadelphia.

The new track was laid on rows of stone blocks to which rails were fastened by means of iron plates and spikes. When the shipments of stone blocks were slow, Stevens resorted to the use of wooden crossties as a temporary measure. The wooden crossties proved to be more resilient and smooth running than the stone blocks, trains could run at higher speeds than they had on the stone. Stevens soon replaced all the stone blocks with wood crossties, a practice eventually adopted by all railroads. In the process of laying these rails, Stevens designed the 'hook-headed spike', which was not much different in configuration from the spikes used today, the 'iron-tongue', (called fish plate today), and various nuts and bolts used in track construction.

Also delivered in 1831 was the engine John Bull, which Stevens purchased during his trip to England. The John Bull, shipped disassembled, was put together by Isaac Dripps, a young mechanic recently hired by Stevens, without benefit of blueprints or instructions. Renamed the Stevens, but seldom referred to by that name, The John Bull was modified considerably during its more than thirty years of service, ending in 1893. Always a avid proponent of steam power, Stevens had previously designed and built a small steam locomotive in 1825. He ran this engine on a circular track erected on his Hoboken, New Jersey estate. It was the first steam locomotive constructed in America. However, It was never used in regular service.

The four-wheeled John Bull had a horizontal boiler and weighed some ten tons. The eleven inch diameter cylinders had a twenty inch stroke. The drivers were fifty four inches in diameter. Members of the New Jersey legislature and Joseph Bonaparte (eldest brother of Napoleon, and ex-king of Spain) were among the passengers in the trail run made on November 12, 1831. The John Bull did not go into service until 1833.

In 1833, Dripps, at Steven's suggestion, added a two-wheeled pilot to guide the locomotive around the Camden & Amboy's many sharp curves. Constructed of oak beams, the pilot was attached to extensions of the forward axle. A coil spring transferred part of the weight to the wheels at the head of the contrivance. The number of drivers had to be reduced from four to two to accommodate the pilot. The device, which effectively prevented derailments its widely believed to have been the first "cow catcher".

A tapering sleeve Dripps devised for the stack, was one of the first spark arrestors. A high, full-enclosed fuel car built by Dripps, gave the engine the appearance of a shack on wheels. Other modifications included replacement of the wooden spoked wheels with new ones made of cast iron, and the addition of refinements such as whistles, bells and headlights. Another innovation designed by Stevens and Dripps was a valve gear for reversing locomotives.

The John Bull, on display at the Smithsonian Institute, is the oldest existing locomotive in the United States.

Stevens established a company locomotive shop near his home. In 1834, the Camden & Amboy shops turned out a large thirty ton locomotive called the Monster, noted for the complexity of its drive mechanism. Attempts to build fast locomotives based on the Crampton design popular in Europe were not successful.

The Camden & Amboy Railroad Histoical Group meets quarterly in Hightstown NJ.   For more information regarding the Group, please contact John Kilbride at jktrr@msn.com.

The John Bull locomotive

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This page last updated December 15, 2014.
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