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I found a rare photo, with an astonishing backstory.

Illustration for article titled I found a rare photo, with an astonishing backstory.
Photo: public domain

Browsing old photos on ebay, I noticed one of a steam locomotive. One of a peculiarly distinctive steam locomotive, on account of the oval-section boiler. I knew immediately that I was looking at one of the weirdest locomotives ever built, the James Toleman. This was a one of a kind, British built, experimental locomotive, that never went into production, was never copied, and then vanished after several years of languishing in the midwestern U.S. So of course I bought it.

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I only knew about a paragraph’s worth of history on this machine, but knew it was a rare find to see it in a photo, any photo. I started looking into the history of it last night, reading 116-year old articles from old trade papers and magazine, and a story emerged of hubris. Stark, raving, unbridled hubris - and the inevitable miserable failure that follows.

The James Toleman was built by Hawthorne, Leslie and Co. of Newcastle upon Tyne, to the specifications of Frederic Charles Winby. Winby was a railroad man, a contractor, who laid rails, built bridges, surveyed lines etc. He even patented a form of the grooved streetcar rail we still see today. But he had no experience designing locomotives - and hoooboy, did he go all in on this one.

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The James Toleman was (supposed to be) revolutionary. It was driven by four cylinders. The driving wheels were 7 feet, 6 inches in diameter. The heating area of the boiler and firebox combined was 2000 square feet. In theory, this locomotive should have been able to blow any other out of the water. Winby brought the James Toleman to the United States for the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago. He was so sure that his locomotive was absolutely the best in the world, he began challenging other builders. James Toleman against whatever they got. He’d stake 1000 pounds on it. Race from Chicago to New York, fastest train wins. Nobody took him up on the offer.

After the fair, no buyers came forward. But the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific R.R. (the Milwaukee Road) was interested in giving the locomotive a trial run. And heres where things went south, very quickly. Winby had never given the James Toleman a test run in England. It had never pulled a train. Why bother? On paper, it was brilliant. It should just work, right? Well as it turns out, it didn’t work. At all. Like at all,at all. It could barely move itself, never mind trying to pull a train.

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The first problem was the boiler. It couldn’t make enough steam pressure to move the engine. In theory, it should have made plenty of steam... with 2000 square feet of heating area, and an eight foot long firebox... it should have made more than enough steam. But Winby’s boiler was built differently than any locomotive boiler ever made before, or since. The oval shape was created so that the boiler would fit in between the huge driving wheels - a conventional round boiler would be limited in its diameter, as it could only be as wide and tall as the distance between the wheels (ie. about 4'8"). The oval boiler, was actually made of two semicircular sections joined together, and internally stayed to prevent the boiler just returning to a circular form when under pressure. This is all very weird yes, but not the reason for the poor steaming ability of the boiler.

The really peculiar thing about the boiler was that the boiler barrel (ahead of the firebox) was around 9 feet long. And the firebox was about 8 feet long. But the boiler tubes were 14 feet long. How? The barrel section of the boiler was set into the inside of the firebox by about four feet. That means the four feet of the fire grate, was underneath the bottom of the boiler barrel. (one foot of the barrel was hidden in the smokebox, accounting for the rest of the tube length). When the Milwaukee Road tried the engine, they found that the coal that was under that four foot section wouldn’t burn. So effectively, half the firebox wasn’t making heat. So no steam.

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Winby carried out some modification, and eventually the James Toleman was able to pull a train of cars, and did make some successful trips, albeit at an average speed of about 15mph. This might sound abysmal, but in 1894 even expresses rarely exceeded a 30mph average in the U.S. But in any event, it was not the 100mph super locomotive Winby had expected it to be.

Shortly after this Winby disappeared back to England. And the James Toleman just sat on a siding of the Milwaukee Road for several years. Here’s where things get a little murky. The Milwaukee Road donated the engine to Purdue University (which was, at the time, building a collection of railroad machinery) c.1900. And claimed to have no knowledge of what became of it after that. But in 1914 a railwayman who remembered the locomotive saw it in a scrap yard outside of Chicago and took a few photographs of what was left. Soooo, what happened there? I have not yet been able to find an answer, but I wonder if it has something to do with the next bit of mystery.

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Who the heck was James Toleman? And why was this locomotive named after him? After lots of digging, I do not have any definite answers. I did find out that James Toleman was a real person, and he did have business dealings with Frederick Winby. Toleman died c. 1895, which may explain why Winby left his loco, instead of continuing to alter it into a workable state. Toleman was an investor in the Transvaal Railway, of South Africa, and Winby’s company was one of the contractors hired to complete the line. The last mention I can find was regarding their dealings with each other, were in legal proceedings, where the executors of Toleman’s estate were representing Toleman’s estate and Winby, in a claim for money owed to them for construction of the Transvaal Railway (which the second Boer War had stalled). At this point things get pretty murky, and there’s a lot of dense legalese to decipher - it’ll take me a while to find out the real end of this story. Let’s just say, Winby’s company received a shitton of money to build the railway, so it’s no mystery how he was able to just build a locomotive to his own specification, and then abandon it.

Or did he? One thought nagging in my mind is that perhaps the James Toleman was scrapped because Winby reasserted ownership? I’ll probably have to seek information from Purdue about why they let the engine out of their possession and why it was scrapped, when the rest of their items eventually ended up in museums.

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In any event, the photograph I found seems to depict the James Toleman after its trials on the Milwaukee Road, but before it was sent to Purdue. It’s in a pretty rough state from having sat outside for several years, but not quite in the condition I’ve seen in what I believe is a later photograph taken at a different location (probably when it was delivered to Purdue).

Illustration for article titled I found a rare photo, with an astonishing backstory.
Illustration: illustration of the James Toleman, as built

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