Ross Winans and the Baltimore and oHIO Railroad

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It Destroyed Baltimore as a World Leader in Locomotive Production

An essay by PAUL H. BELZ, 2014,

The 1850s ended with the acrimonious destruction of Ross Winans’ relationship with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company and his demise as a railroad man. That divorce contributed to Baltimore’s demise as one of the world’s leading producers of locomotives.

In an early January, 1857 conversation between B&O board member John Work Garrett and Winans, Garrett intimated that the company would be broadening its stable of locomotive suppliers by going to northern states for some engines and evolving away from the monopoly-like hold Winans had held on that portion of their business since the company’s inception nearly 30 years earlier.

Garrett’s interpretation of Winans’ response triggered a feud that captivated Baltimore’s public in soap-opera-like fashion. While the two ostensibly parted the meeting amicably, Garrett reported to the B&O board of directors that Winans had threatened that if the B&O tried to curtail its business with him, he would fire all of his employees and coerce the B&O into hiring him. To Garrett, this threat reinforced his belief that the company was too heavily dependent on one man and needed to broaden its base of locomotive designers.

 Figure 1   Ross Winans

Garrett’s report filtered back to Winans through second-hand sources and he was furious. He sent a note to Garrett on the 19th of January requesting a meeting or a text of the disparaging remarks so he could answer the criticisms directly instead of responding to hearsay information. Winans’ letter stated that “very serious and injurious imputations have been cast upon me” and he opined that Garrett had misconstrued his words during their conversation.

Winans sent a second letter to Garrett on January 26 and yet a third on the 28th. He got no response.

Ross Winans’ demise as a locomotive builder had actually begun in 1853 with a competitor’s introduction of a few engines with a 4-6-0 wheel arrangement (six drive wheels and a four-wheel non-drive leading truck for stability) instead of Winans’ 0-8-0 configuration (eight smaller drive wheels).

The 0-8-0 locomotive was called the “Camel” and it had been the B&O’s workhorse for hauling freight since June, 1848. There were 109 in service in 1857. The “ten-wheelers” were modifications of the Camel developed by Samuel J. Hayes and further refined by native Baltimorean Henry Tyson.” Hayes became B&O master of machinery in 1851 and Tyson succeeded him in 1856. Both men promoted the ten wheeler over the Winans Camel as less damaging to the rails, thereby enhancing safety for the growing passenger service. They believed the leading truck diminished rail damage, and eventually that feature became an industry standard for locomotives. With less rail damage, passenger trains could travel up to 30 miles per hour without fear of derailing. Winans believed it was those higher-speed passenger trains that were damaging the rails rather than the slower-speed freights.

When Tyson began his job in 1856, he quickly disappointed Ross Winans by ordering ten more of the ten-wheelers instead of his Camels. He sent Winans a request for a bid on September 13th. Winans returned a bid with the specs changed and it was rejected by Tyson. Winans responded to this rejection and to growing criticism of his engine by sending to the B&O board what was called a “letter” defending his locomotive. It was actually a 34-page bound pamphlet published by John D. Toy.[1]

Figure 2   Winans 0-8-0 Camel

Tyson’s criticisms of Winans’ Camel were many: (1) the boilers frequently crack, disabling the train while they’re being patched; (2) the flues, tubes and seams in the furnace leak causing breakdowns, and prevention requires frequent caulking; (3) the engines are roughly and cheaply built and too expensive to repair; (4) the front wheel flange (trains have flanges on the inside of each wheel, holding the car or engine on the track) hits the outer track on curves and wears out the rail (spreads the track), causing derailments (at least one every week); (5) Winans’ latest batch of thirty engines was inferior to prior work; (6) the ten-wheeler is simply more stable and less likely to derail, and safety must be a priority for the burgeoning passenger service.[2]

Winans’ pamphlet to the B&O directors refutes each criticism with expert testimony and the company’s own statistics. It begins by stating that he has spent over half his life perfecting the eight-wheel drive engine and experience has proved his engine best for hauling coal over steep grades. He claims the leakage problem is caused by abuse, and that a test he ran, supervised by engineers Latrobe, Trimble, Steele, Parker, Bollman and Hayes, proves that the ten-wheel engine is actually harder on the rails than his 0-8-0. As expected, he claims that his last delivery of thirty engines is actually better than prior deliveries, accumulating more mileage with fewer repairs.[3]

His pamphlet includes amazingly detailed statistics showing mileage and repair cost-per-mile for the one hundred and nine of his Camels in operation as well as for the seventeen ten-wheelers in service since 1853. The statistics all portray his engine in a favorable light, leading him to conclude that the real issue is one of personality conflict rather than engineering.

Winans overlooked two facts that made statistics irrelevant. First, there was growing industry-wide support for the four-wheel truck in front of locomotives, and, second, Tyson wanted to make his mark on railroading quickly. As master of machinery he was predictably going to promote his own design and coerce his employees into testifying that his engine was superior.


Figure 3   Ten-Wheeler

The issue of damaging the rails encompasses a very gray area. Winans’ Camel engines had evolved into twenty-six ton behemoths. They were considered slow and ugly but powerful. If an engine weighed too much, the flange on the outside wheel actually pushed the rails apart when the train rounded curves, causing the derailment of subsequent trains. But an engine that was too light had less adhesion to the track, increasing its chances of derailment at higher speeds. The optimal balance was an engineering guessing game with railroading in its infancy in the 1850s. In his pamphlet Winans attributes “economy of weight without diminishing durability” to the Camel. He claims that derailments are caused because his locomotive is so easy to operate that the B&O puts its worst engineers on them, thereby skewing the derailment numbers unfavorably in comparison to the ten-wheelers driven by superior engineers.

Winans appeals to the company’s sense of responsibility to the community, noting that his shop has provided the city with thousands of jobs that have bolstered the local economy. He charges that the B&O has a moral obligation to the citizens of Baltimore. Winans ironically signs this indignant letter using a complimentary close common in the Victorian era, “Your obedient servant, Ross Winans.” The letter falls on deaf ears.[4]

Tyson produced testimony from B&O employees for a February 11, 1857 meeting of the board of directors defending his acquisition of the ten-wheelers. Individuals providing affidavits included William Edwards, master of machinery at the Martinsburg Station; R. E. Addison, master mechanic (former foreman for Winans) at the Mount Clare shops; David P. Rennie, assistant master of machinery at Mount Clare; J. R. Smith, supervisor of machinery for the B&O; and J.F.G. Pearce, master mechanic at the Wheeling shops. All of these men, beholden to Tyson for their jobs, testified that Winans’ Camel derailed more often, killed more men, and destroyed more track than the ten-wheeler.[5]

All of this acrimony in 1857 was revealed in detail by newspapers and widely discussed in public gathering places.

The Sun was incredulous upon learning late in 1856 that the newly appointed Tyson was in Massachusetts procuring ten wheelers, a pursuit that would cost Baltimore jobs. On December 31, it ran a lengthy front-page editorial criticizing him, defending Winans, and reprinting an article from equally incredulous editors at the Boston Railway Times. The Sun wrote:

Baltimore Enterprise Repudiated – Fallacious Policy of the Master of Machinery.

"It has been with great surprise, we confess, that we have learned that Mr. Henry Tyson, the lately appointed Master of Machinery, has undertaken, in the face of such facts as are stated in the Times, to continue to order the ten-wheeled engines for freight, and that he is now at the east ward procuring there an article which, it seems, is confessedly inferior to what could be procured at home. We admit that when the foreign market supplies a better thing it should be resorted to, and that the only remedy of our mechanics in such a case is to equal its productions. But this is certainly not so here. If the statements condensed in the Times are false, as they are matters of fact they can be proved to be false. But holding them to be true, in the absence of all contradiction, we must say that the course of Mr. Tyson is at least most extraordinary."[6]

After this opening paragraph The Sun ran the lengthy reprint from the Boston Railway Times which presented technical arguments totally supportive of Winans. Like The Sun, the Times expressed surprise at Tyson’s abandonment of the Camel. “The Baltimore and Ohio road, which does an immense amount of heavy freighting, with a very profitable result, probably owes its success in a great degree to what is called the Camel Engine.” The Times applauds Winans’ defensive pamphlet: “We are glad to see that Mr. Winans has taken up the pen in behalf of his very valuable engine, and given the results of its experience in the comparison with other freight engines used by the Baltimore and Ohio and some other railways. He appears to have made out his case triumphantly, and the facts which he develops are of interest to every company that depends at all on freight for its profits.”[7]

Upon receiving Winans’ 34-page letter, the B&O responded by printing and leaking to the press a 58-page pamphlet approved by the board at its February 11th meeting. It defended the company’s position. Furious at this personal and public attack, Winans prepared a 64-page rebuttal, had it bound and sent it to the board of directors.

The Baltimore Patriot expressed the same incredulity as The Sun and the Boston Railway Times over the B&O’s actions but injected sarcasm into its lengthy front page defense of Winans on Wednesday, July 18, 1857:

"Several months ago, we read, with considerable interest, a pamphlet published by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, containing reports of officers of the different departments on the relative advantages of the Winans’ Camel Engine and the Ten Wheel Engine. It struck us, at the time, as a most singular circumstance, that a Railroad Company which was engaged in an earnest rivalry for trade and travel with powerful competing corporations, should put out an official publication, the sole object of which appeared to be to disparage and discredit its own machinery. From the pamphlet, and other publications, it appears that the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company owns 208 engines, 109 of which are the Camel engine. Most of these have been upon the road for many years, and have been employed in the transportation of the coal and other heavy freight which has been the main business of the Company. Two-thirds of this description of business, it is said, has been, and, we believe, continues to be, done by these Camel engines. Knowing this from the annual reports of the Company, we were astonished to learn, from the pamphlet to which we have alluded, that the Camel engines have been discovered, in the language of the Assistant Master of Machinery, to be 'unsafe, unreliable, and not adapted to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.' But the official publication did not stop here. With a candor which reflects the highest credit upon its disinterestedness, or a singular disregard of consequences, the Company proceeds, in this widely spread paper, to show that not only is the Camel engine useless of itself, but that the inevitable effect of its use is to render the road itself unsafe and unfit to be traversed by other engines."

" . . . If the Camel engines, which are passing over the road all the time, day and night, are certain, as Mr. Tyson says, to displace the rails, it is a little singular that we hear of so few accidents to the passenger trains. It also seems to be remarkable that in the last annual report, the [prior] master of machinery omitted all mention of these radical objections to the camels, declared the whole rolling power of the company, except the engines undergoing repairs, to be in order to perform full service, and that, from recent inspection, both of road and machinery, both were in excellent condition."

"But notwithstanding all this, we confess we rose from the reading of the pamphlet with regret that the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company had been for years laboring under the disadvantage of employing such inefficient, dangerous and destructive machinery, not unmixed with wonder that, nevertheless, all its prosperity was derived from the transportation accomplished by those very engines."[8]

Winans’ responded to the B&O’s pamphlet by calling it libelous. His scathing letter states that he can no longer merely consider the “disingenuous” Tyson his sole enemy, but since the company obviously paid for the pamphlet, the B&O itself has become his adversary. On some level the eccentric Winans must have realized that he could not win this battle, but pride destroys many great men. He accuses the company of trying to destroy his reputation within the industry.

This emotional trap is not an uncommon experience for long-tenured workers, characterized by proprietary feelings toward their workplace niche and accompanied by a sense of complacency and indispensability regarding their company role. A degree of those emotions are essential for high performance. But even after twenty-nine years of service, a worker must remain cognizant, without obsessing over the fact that it can all be taken away in a day. Winans was oblivious to a lesson succinctly phrased in a later era by French president Charles DeGaulle: “The cemeteries are filled with indispensable men.” Winans also assumed exemption from the timeless business bromide: “It isn’t personal, it’s just business.”

He stormed into Tyson’s office and threw a tantrum. In Tyson’s February 11th report to B&O president Chauncy Brooks and the board, he relates that Winans threatened me with “strong friends and powerful influences and said he would cause me to lose my job. He would crush me, let it cost what it might. As he left my office he threatened me again.” The report continues that on the following day, “Winans followed me into the street threatening to ‘ruin me’ and ‘put me down,’ his anger finally turning to a patronizing smile.” Winans’ threats were witnessed and sworn to by Samuel Sindall, the chief clerk of machinery at the B&O. He specifically affirmed that he heard Winans threaten to “crush” Tyson.[9]

Figure 4  Henry Tyson

The contract on which Winans had refused to bid went to a Massachusetts company. Tyson also turned some of the work over to another Baltimore firm, A. & W. Denmead & Sons, the recipient of another scathing letter from Winans, denigrating their contribution to railroading and excoriating them for lying and stealing his business. They had publicly accused Winans of gouging the B&O by charging $10,000 for his engines.

Winans’ bitterness toward B&O management made it easy for him to encourage a strike on April 27, 1857 by freight conductors and their crews due to outrage over the growing number of job-related deaths and injuries. The irony wasn’t lost on B&O management, since they believed they were addressing the safety issue by replacing the Winans Camel. During the 1855 fiscal year, thirty-six men had been killed and twenty-five more suffered severe injuries requiring amputations. The workers succeeded in shutting down the railroad’s freight operations for several days before the militia restored order. Historian Edward Hungerford writes in 1928:

The Baltimore of those days─and for a good many days thereafter─loved a row. Here was fine material for one; nobly started on its way. The habit of writing to newspapers already had been inculcated in the town and this controversy made fine fuel for all correspondents. . . Many, many letters were written, much more bitterness was engendered. It made small difference that a considerable proportion of the letter writers knew little or nothing about a locomotive. That was a mere detail. The chief thing was that two fairly well-known citizens of the place, identified with its chief business institutions had, by some means or other, become embroiled and were washing their linen out in the public eye. That was sufficient excuse.

Mr. Winans lost. One might almost add, “of course.” He declared his business utterly ruined. The Baltimore and Ohio never built another Camel engine, although it continued to use the ones it already had for many, many years thereafter.”[10]

Without B&O orders to fill, Ross struggled for a few years then closed his works in 1860 and by 1864 had leased his railroad property on the east side of Poppleton Street across from Mount Clare to Hayward, Bartlett & Co. with the proviso that the shops were not to be used to repair or manufacture railroad rolling stock. He had left the B&O in 1844 to open those shops at the northeast corner of McHenry and Poppleton streets. Hayward-Bartlett used them to make heavy machinery and to supply ammunition for the Civil War and World War I.

An 1892 retrospective on Ross Winans in The Sun detailed a “legacy of innovation and prolificacy within the infant railroad industry that is unmatched and indelible.” History would credit him with being the primary assistant on the invention of the first steam locomotive [he is so credited in Peter Cooper’s patent for the “Tom Thumb” engine], with inventing the standard eight-wheel railroad passenger car with center aisles, outside bearings for axles, the friction wheel for railroad cars, the wheel flange, the vapor jack, the horizontal piston (“Crab,” 1837, allowing bigger boilers and increased speed), variable exhaust (enabled engines to burn coal efficiently, permitting the switch from wood fuel), the cab for engineers (“John Hancock,” 1836), the first locomotive to burn anthracite coal (Crab, 1837), and the first commercially successful locomotive used on the B&O Railroad, the Camel.[11]

After Winans closed his shops he had three unsold Camels, and when Tyson later tried to buy them. Winans said: “I would not sell them to you for a hundred-thousand dollars apiece.”[12] When Thatcher Perkins succeeded Tyson, he sold Perkins the engines for thirteen-thousand dollars each. Prominent citizens in the same town, Winans and Tyson were like divorced spouses with a child and the inevitability of future confrontations on other issues such as Baltimore’s water supply was assured.

Historian Hungerford opines in his 1928 book that this feud between Winans and Tyson kept Baltimore from enduring as one of the great locomotive centers in the world. Its divisiveness and the loss of the aging Winans’ genius, railroad shops, and workers caused the city to squander the lead it had originally enjoyed in the industry. He writes: “At this late day, it seems a pity that the differences between Winans and Tyson (in his own way, each an extremely able man) could not have been reconciled and that their great skill in steam-locomotive design could not have been combined, to the benefit of all concerned. If this thing could only have been accomplished, it is possible that today Baltimore might be one of the greatest locomotive manufacturing centers of all Christendom. An industry employing many thousands of men, might have been permanently established, in a city remarkably well adapted for such an enterprise.”[13]

Winans quickly turned his attention to building the first commercially viable all metal and all steam-powered ocean liner (the cigar-boat) and assembling the one-hundred and twenty-three acre Ferry Bar shipyard (costing $396,000 or $3,200 per acre) with himself and sons Tom and Bill each owning a one-third share. He converted many railroad men into shipyard workers.

Winans never forgave John Garrett for his role in the B&O controversy. Garrett became the B&O’s greatest president after his election on November 17, 1858, serving for twenty-six years. The Pennsylvania Railroad was “Tom Scott’s road.” The New York Central was “Vanderbilt’s road.” The B&O was “Garrett’s road.” Some divide B&O history into three stages: before Garrett, Garrett, and after Garr


Figure 5   John Work Garrett

Garrett retained enough respect for Winans that when the old inventor was arrested during the Civil War, he assisted Maryland’s democratic senator Reverdy Johnson in narrowly saving Ross from the hangman, using his considerable influence with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The two were great friends from the days when Stanton was general counsel for the Ohio Central Railroad, which was later merged into the B&O parent structure.

Historian Hungerford concludes: “In the debacle which followed so extended a controversy, one in which so much of the public had aligned itself, Tyson, as well as Winans, went down.” On December 1, 1859, Garrett replaced Tyson with Thatcher Perkins, who remained master of machinery until 1865. Tyson went to work for the Baltimore City Passenger Railway Company, a horse drawn public transit system begun by Mayor Swann to help finance his new parks.

The final irony of this bitter feud is that the beleaguered Winans Camel continued to be used by the B&O for heavy freight for twenty-one additional years—a hollow and painful daily vindication for Winans. It was discontinued in 1878, the year after his death. Russia used the engine until the end of the century. Without the mechanical genius of Winans it is improbable that the B&O would have survived its difficult financial times in the mid-1830s. That survival also required several financial rescues by investment banking pioneer Alexander Brown and his son George. The railroad had foolishly shared its secrets in its annual reports to the extent that it was widely praised as the world’s “Railroad University.”

Winans had arrived alone in Baltimore in 1828 to sell horses to the new railroad. He brought his family and stayed to become its resident mechanical genius and primary producer of locomotives for nearly 30 years. His failure was in harboring a level of pride which assumed that corporate loyalty to him and his Baltimore workers would override any conflicting business strategies.

The B&O’s failure was in its inability to reach an accommodation to gracefully remove from center stage an aging popular civic icon. Without Winans’ inventions there may have been no B&O Railroad for Garrett to direct. He should have responded to Winans’ initial letter with a prompt face-to-face meeting instead of ignoring three attempts to gain clarity.

The four wheel leading truck became an industry standard yet the Camel endured for many years. So the life tragedy in which both parties’ positions have merit but miscommunication and pride block compromise had replayed itself, as it has throughout human history. This time the intransigence diminished a great innovator and a great company.


[1] Ross Winans, A Communication to the President and Directors of the B&O RR Co. on the Subject of Locomotive Engines for Transporting Freight on Railroads, (Baltimore: John D. Toy, 1856), B&O Railroad Company archives.

[2] Joseph Snowden Bell, Early Motive Power of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, (New York: Angus Sinclair Co., Publisher, 1912) 115.

[3]  John F. Stover, History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1987), 92.

[4]  See note 1.

[5]  Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, “Board of Directors Minutes for February 11, 1857,” Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company Archives, Baltimore, Maryland.

[6]  “Motive Power of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Co.,” The Sun, Baltimore, December 31, 1856.

[7]  Ibid.

[8] “Locomotive Engines,” Baltimore Patriot, Baltimore, July 15, 1857.

[9]  See note 5.

[10]  Edward Hungerford, The Story of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1827-1927, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928), vol. 1, 89.

[11]  “In and About Town,” The Sun, Baltimore, November 30, 1892.

[12] See note 1.

[13] See note 10.