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Greenfield Village's first railroad

April 12, 2013 Think THF

Today's post comes to us from Don LaCombe, our Supervisor of Transportation and Crafts Programs at The Henry Ford. Don has been documenting the history of all-things train-related at The Henry Ford. Over the next few weeks we'll be sharing his articles here on the blog.

This 2-2-0 experimental, 40-inch electric locomotive, rail-car and track (pictured above) were constructed at Edison’s Menlo Park Complex in the spring of 1880. This pioneering effort in electric railways was an example of Edison’s entrepreneurial spirit and systemic outlook about the uses of electricity. This was the first functional American electric locomotive and represented an improvement in the state of the art.

The primary purpose of this experiment was to find uses for his company’s electrical generation capacity during daylight hours when electrical illumination was generally not required.

Edison’s venture was technically quite successful in that the train operated at 30 mph and was fully capable of carrying passengers. It was a well publicized success with significant mention in the June 5, 1880, Scientific American and other publications. The project also generated two new patents for Edison.

The technical success and notoriety of the train produced an investor in the project. Henry Villard, president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, was interested enough to provide funds for Edison to continue his research. Villard saw the electric locomotive as a viable replacement for steam locomotives in areas where watering and maintenance were a problem.

Experimentation continued with the addition of two new locomotives that were mechanically similar but visually changed to look more like traditional locomotives. The track was extended from the original half mile to a total of three miles with three sidings and two turntables.

Northern Pacific’s participation ended when the railroad went into receivership and Villard lost control of the company.

In 1883 Edison merged with rival Stephen D. Field and they exhibited a locomotive and train at a railway exhibition in Chicago. During the exposition Edison had set up a short demonstration railway and the train carried more than 26,000 riders.

This joint venture eventually dissolved, and Edison lost interest in electric railroads and concentrated on other projects.

Edison's Pullman Car

The train and cars were abandoned at the Menlo Park Complex when Edison moved out. They were later discovered under significant overgrowth and rescued by the “Edison Pioneers.” The date of the recovery is not known but the locomotive and “Pullman” car appear in the 1925 Pioneers’ Historical Collection of Early Electrical Apparatus. In 1929 the locomotive and car were gifted to The Edison Institute.

Ford had Edison’s electric locomotive, a “Pullman ” car and an additional passenger car restored. Sometime in 1930 a short railway was constructed in the Village. The route went from the Menlo Complex to behind the Logan County Courthouse.

Greenfield Village's First Railroad

It is likely that Francis Jehl, who had worked with Edison on the project before working here, was the only engineer. The picture, shown above, is of Jehl in the locomotive giving a ride to approximately 20 people. A note on the corner of the picture lists the date as Aug. 1, 1930. The relative age of the passengers pictured in the cars suggests these were probably Edison Institute students.

Geoffrey C. Upward's book A Home for Our Heritage (p. 87) mentions that the “train ran for a few years.” In all likelihood, the cessation of the railroad had to do with the train being powered by a 10 hp 110 volt, 75 amp electric motor. The power was supplied by two Edison Z-type dynamos and transmitted through the rails. The locomotives wheels were wood with steel tires. This insulated the engineer and passengers from the tracks while current for the motor was picked up by copper brushes contacting a pick-up ring  attached to the steel tires.

In 1930, when the restored train first became functional, Greenfield Village was not open to the general public. In 1933 Greenfield Village was opened to the general public and the potential for an accidental “shock” probably caused them to reconsider use of the train.

In the early 1950s a red train shed was constructed across the street (Christie) from the Menlo Complex to provide a place for a static display of Edison’s original electric locomotive. A glass barrier was installed to allow guests to see the train without being able to touch it. The train was displayed setting on an original section of track. The red building is now located at the north east corner of the Armington and Sims yard and is used to house Greenfield Village electrical equipment.

The locomotive and two cars are still in The Henry Ford's archives.

Edison, locomotives, trains

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