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The Norris Locomotive Works:

A Forgotten Industrial Giant of Philadelphia

By Harry Kyriakodis

Baldwin Locomotive, the Budd Company, and the J.G. Brill Company were major Philadelphia employers
for much of the 20th century. These firms—and numerous others—made Philadelphia the preeminent
manufacturer of railroad locomotives, railcars and streetcars for decades. Baldwin was the earliest of
these legendary companies, having been founded in the 1830s. But another impressive steam locomotive
builder was also established in Philadelphia about the same time. This was the Norris Locomotive Works,
which was located practically next door to Baldwin Locomotive and was later overshadowed by that


Norris Locomotive 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 famous Bush Hill estate of Andrew
Hamilton. The site was near the right-of-way of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, which crossed
through that part of Philadelphia immediately north of Callowhill Street. (This route was later owned by the
Reading Railroad.)
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 reformed the enterprise
into the Norris Locomotive Works.

One of the most historic events in railroading history occurred on July 10, 1836, when 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.) Named 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.
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.
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 Norris Locomotive Works sold many locomotives overseas, as noted above. Indeed, this company
was the first American exporter of locomotives—and perhaps of large mechanical devices generally. As
early as 1840, thirty percent of the firm's production until then 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 the first locomotive in all of South America.) These engines influenced
contemporary and subsequent locomotive design in many of these countries.
Furthermore, William Norris had several large-scale operating models constructed as presentation pieces
to the rulers of several nations. These sovereigns included Tsar Nicholas of Russia and King Louis-
Philippe of France, whose pleasure with the model he received was so great that 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!
This also means that the first engine-driven vehicle to operate in Japan was made in Philadelphia!
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 in that part of downtown Philadelphia.

• Brian Reed, The Norris Locomotives, LOCO Profile 11, Volume 1 (Windsor, Berkshire, England:
Profile Publications Ltd., 1971).
• John H. White, Jr., Once the Greatest of Builders: The Norris Locomotive Works, Bulletin 150
(Westford, MA: Railway & Locomotive Hist. Soc., Spring 1984).