SAMSON and ALBION
I mentioned briefly a little earlier that I had come to see some locomotives here at the museum, but I didn't really tell you what these locomotives are. I suppose I ought to, because they are of considerable historical significance.
One of these locomotives is said to be the oldest surviving steam locomotive in Canada, the third-oldest in North America and probably not far away from being the oldest surviving steam locomotive in the world.
The name of that locomotive is the Samson, and to see this engine does not present any difficulty at all for it is on display in the public gallery of the museum.
Samson's history is quite well documented, and the story begins something like this.
The area around Stellarton, where the museum is situated, was formerly a major coal-mining centre and with the increasing demand for coal to feed the furnaces of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th Century, the directors of the mining company here decided on a bold programme of modernisation.
One barrier to any increase in output was the pedestrian pace of the horse-drawn waggons that took the coal down to the waiting ships at the harbour. In 1837, the directors placed an order for three steam locomotives, of which Samson was one, from a British locomotive builder by the name of Timothy Hackworth. These would take over from the horse-drawn motive power in order to speed up the trans-shipment of coal.
Timothy Hackworth was a locomotive builder of some repute. He had designed and built the Sans Pareil, one of the major competitors to Stephenson's Rocket at the Rainhill Trials in England in 1829 and which but for an unlucky piston failure might well have won. Later, he was locomotive engineer on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the first major steam-powered line in Britain.
The three locomotives for Nova Scotia were built at Hackworth's works in Shildon, County Durham, England and were completed in August 1838. It is generally accepted that they arrived just down the road at Pictou in May 1839 aboard the Ythan.
I have seen some kind of report that suggests that these locomotives might have arrived at the end of November or beginning of December 1838. However this report contains several other inconsistencies that don't correspond with the established facts and so I'm treating this report with some scepticism.
But no matter. Samson and his brothers arrived in Nova Scotia in a dismantled state and were assembled here by a couple of engineers who accompanied them from England. One of these engineers, a certain George Davidson, stayed on here with the locomotive. History does not record the future of the other, although it is suggested that he returned to the UK.
As an aside, Davidson was still alive in the 1890s and apparently in his old age recounted many tales about his adventures as an early locomotive driver. It's a tragedy that no-one thought it worthwhile to write them down so that they would be preserved for posterity.
The astonishing thing about the Samson that most people miss is the fact that it has no frame or chassis. All of the major components are actually attached to the boiler, which forms the main structure of the locomotive.
This is pretty astonishing if you ask me. A boiler is hardly going to be solid enough to be rigid. Can you just imagine the shocks that the boiler is going to suffer as the engine carries out its normal functions, banging into wagons, rattling over points, pulling and pushing heavy loads all around the yard? And all the time while it is working under steam pressure at so many pounds per square inch. The thought is frightening.
Another thing that you will note is that the engine has what is known as "inside cylinders". These are underneath the boiler between the wheels.
I said that there were "some locomotives" to see here in the Museum. In fact there are several, many of which are not on display to the general public. We've just seen Samson, but there is another one that is probably even more exciting and this is not so easy to find, for it is kept firmly under lock and key in a private part of the museum and access to it is strictly controlled. Not everyone can get in to see it, and quite rightly so, in my opinion. This is because Albion is probably the most controversial railway locomotive in the world.
Let me set the scene for you. Here we are at the mines in Eastern Nova Scotia in the mid-19th Century and we have our early steam locomotives busily shunting away up and down the track to the port with their wagon-loads of coal. But we are slap-bang in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, demand is soaring, and even with a handful of steam locomotives the coal can't reach the port quickly enough for the eager customers.
The mine owners think that another couple of locomotives might do the trick and so they toddle off to have a word with a company called Rayne and Burn. This company, from the North-East of England, is well-known for its mining gear and industrial equipment, and is already doing business with the mines here in Eastern Nova Scotia.
The result of this discussion is that Rayne and Burn undertake to supply two further locomotives to the Mines, and in 1854 Albion and his brother Pictou arrive.
It is the popular conception by many that these two locomotives were specially built by Rayne and Burn for the Mines. However, there are many others who would disagree.
These objections can be supported by considerable, if circumstantial, evidence. Not the least of the reasons quoted by the objectors is that there is no substantiated evidence that Rayne and Burn had ever previously built a steam locomotive, and neither is there any substantiated evidence that the company built a subsequent one.
A company with no previous locomotive-building experience going to all of the expense and effort to tool up in order to manufacture just a couple of locomotives to send to a far-off corner of the world and left to the tender mercies of a largely-inexperienced and isolated workforce, and then to abandon any subsequent locomotive-building adventure whilst the British railway boom was in full swing would certainly be something worthy of considerable comment.
Now I've deliberately refrained from posting a photo of the locomotive until now because I wanted to set the scene and built up the tension. And having now done so, I'll now post a photo and you'll need to click on it to enlarge it. Yes - in the most significant moment of my journey since encountering the UNESCO delegation at Red Bay in Labrador or climbing into the Viking encampment at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland I've managed to talk my way into seeing the Albion
The first thing that will strike you is the fact that the locomotive looks positively prehistoric. The inclined outside cylinders are very much resemblant of locomotives of 25 years earlier, "Rocket" and all its contemporaries. I can't think of any serious locomotive builder who was still using inclined cylinders in 1854.
You might think, as did many of the earlier engineers, that a downward motion of the cylinders is the most natural and effective. However, the constant hammer blows of the pistons had a devastating effect on the track and the sleepers and by the 1850s most new locomotives were fitted with horizontal cylinders. Even Samson of 15 years earlier had horizontal cylinders, if you remember.
Nevertheless, Albion has one or two modern features. Look at the central drive wheels for example. They aren't flanged. This means that the locomotive can take curves of a tighter radius. If the centre wheels were flanged, the flanges would ride up over the rails on tight curves and lead to a risk of derailment. You might have noticed from one of the photos above that Samson's central driving wheels were flanged.
You will also notice in this photo that Albion has a frame or chassis, something that his cousin does not possess.
Having had a close look at the Albion while I was here, it certainly looks nothing like any locomotive that was being built in Britain in the 1850s. There are certain important features of its design that seem to me to be even earlier than that of the Samson.
So what we have out here in Nova Scotia with the Albion is a locomotive that is of clearly primitive appearance and yet it does include one or two comtemporary features. It's certainly something of an enigma.
As I mentioned a minute ago, there are some who claim categorically that Rayne and Burn built it whereas others say, with equal justification that it cannot be. There are those who insist that Albion might be a certain Hackworth locomotive of 1839, but then it seems to me that it's totally different from Samson just a year or so earlier.
Whereas having a frame might be considered to be a more-advanced feature, the fitting of inclined external cylinders is definitely a retrograde step if you ask me ... of course, now that I've mentioned this, someone is bound to remind me of the Hughes "Crabs" of the LMS built in 1926. Nevertheless, it is therefore difficult to imagine Hackworth, by this time Locomotive Superintendant of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, producing something of a hybrid like Albion.
I asked the people at the museum what they thought, and they replied that it might be a "School of Hackworth". I'm not so sure about that either. I can see some quite considerable differences between a Hackworth locomotive and this one, so much so that I couldn't see someone who had passed under Hackworth's influence, perhaps one of his former apprentices for example, building a locomotive quite like this one.
However, at the risk of heaving a rather large shark into a rather crowded swimming pool, just have a look at this photograph and read the notes very carefully. What do you make of this?
Here we have a very early 0-4-0 steam locomotive, built by Robert Stephenson, a major locomotive builder in the North-East of England and famous of course for his Rocket, The locomotive in the photo that you just saw, Invicta, was taken out of service after just a few years as nowhere near powerful enough for the work that it was expected to perform. There aren't very many gradients in the area where Albion went to work, you know, and just imagine what might have happened if Stephenson had a few other locomotives of a similar type to Invicta that he couldn't sell for this reason.
And then picture in your mind what a stablemate of Invicta might look like if it were lengthened, with a larger and more-powerful boiler and with an extra pair of driving wheels, modern unflanged ones, placed in between the existing two axles.
Bearing all that in mind, a couple of scenarios suggest themselves to me
Firstly The North-East of England was a hotbed of early steam engineering. There were mines all over the place as well as early railway lines such as the Stockton and Darlington Railway, to name but the most famous of a whole host of others. With the continual evolution of railway locomotive design and construction, good roadworthy engines of antique design might well be laid up as the owners replaced them with more up-to-date and more powerful equipment.
Maybe it might have been the case that Rayne and Burn had been asked to supply a couple of steam locomotives, and so tracked down a couple of older ones in good working order, refurbished them and shipped them out to Nova Scotia. Albion and Pictou could well have been second-hand locomotives.
Secondly Living as I do in the isolated wilds of the mountains of Central France I can see the attraction of primitive machinery. As a youth in the poorer regions of the UK I grew up with the idea of maintaining my own machinery by whatever means I had at hand, using basic tools, bits of wire and the like to keep machinery in some kind of sufficient working order because we had no money. It's a habit that I've continued, simply because where I live today, the nearest specialist repairer is 30 kilometres away.
I find that there's no point in having a modern high-tech machine that needs constant and expensive specialist maintenance if I can't do the work and there isn't anyone else in the local area who might. A machine that is out of action half the time is no use at all.
And so here in Nova Scotia in the 1850s we have our engineer George Davidson. He learnt his repair and maintenance techniques back in the 1830s at Hackworth's and he would be quite at home with this early type of engineering. Being isolated out here, he would not have encountered the evolution of modern machinery, and Stellarton is hundreds of miles away from any kind of specialist repairer.
What would be more natural than for the mining company, when ordering new locomotives, to specify a primitive type of machine that could be maintained by a middle-aged engineer with middle-aged techniques and basic equipment, and using such resources that might be found here in Eastern Nova Scotia miles away from anywhere else?
Of course, you couldn't expect a modern company to drop its modern techniques and churn out a couple of locomotive that are 20 years out of date, but some competent engineering company might do so if they were to have a little help from some kind of railway engineer loaned from a major locomotive-building company. As an aside, back in the 19th Century this loaning out of employees was quite common practice.
Hence, it might just be possible that they were new machines, that Rayne and Burn did build them, and why there might be, as some have suggested, some kind of "Hackworth" influence.
Anyway, you can understand the idea of why this is such a controversial subject. People argue their own individual corner with something of a passion. Then again, a little controversy is good for the soul. It's also exciting to think that there might be a possibility that Albion is much older than it is claimed to be and that it might even be older than Samson
You are doubtless wondering where I sit in all of this controversy about the Albion. As it happens, I don't know enough about the subject to give an informed opinion, but here is what I do know.
Contrary to what is generally believed today, Victorian engineers didn't always get things right, and Stephenson's failure with Invicta is certainly not unique. There was the compressed air railway in Devon where the pistons were sealed with gaskets sealed with a grease that was so tasty that mice used to regularly eat the gaskets, causing the trains to come to an unceremonious halt.
We also had the Tay Bridge disaster where Sir Thomas Bouch designed a bridge and failed to make any allowance for the effect of wind because, as the Railway Inspecting Officer, Major-General Hutchinson, was forced to admit, he"made no calculations as regard" the subject of wind pressure because that "has never hitherto been taken into account".
There was also Doctor Dionysos Lardner, the scientist who did most in the first part of the 19th Century to popularise science amongst the general population of the UK. His predictions as to the likely effect of brake failure on a train during the steep descent through the Box Tunnel in the UK proved to be hopelessly inaccurate, as he failed to include in his calculations neither the effect of wind resistance nor the effect of friction.
Victorian engineers wre working beyond the edge of known technology and what is surprising is not that they mde mistakes, but that they made so many accurate, and successful constructions that will last long after anything that we have built since World War II. I lived for almost 20 years in Brussels, Belgium, and I saw buildings torn down that were built after my arrival.
And so, with all of that, let's go back to Stephenson. and the Invicta. She was not his only failure - in fact he ended up with a something of a number of similar 0-4-0 locomotives that failed to meet the expectations of their purchasers and which were either returned to him or failed to sell.
And it is known that about 20 of these were rebuilt with larger, more powerful boilers, and with two extra driving wheels placed in the middle of the four existing wheels to support the longer, heavier load. They were known as the "Experiment" class of locomotive.
Doing this kind of conversion is relatively straightforward and you don't even need to be a locomotive builder to carry it out. Any competent engineering company could undertake the task without too much difficulty.
But as for what is the true story of the "Albion", that has been well-and-truly lost in the mists of time and unless there is a dramatic rediscovery of historical papers (which does regularly happen in real life), we will be left with surmise and conjecture.
What has cheered me up though is the fact that although these two locomotives are in poor condition, some people in North America have recognised the historical significance of what it is that they have. Albion and Samson have been rescued from a very precarious existence, pulled indoors and have been inspected by experts who, if they don't quite know what it is that they have, seem to know what they are doing and there is a real prospect that they will be saved for future generations.
Because it wasn't always like this.
By the mid 1880s, all of these early locomotives had been withdrawn from service. A couple of them fell victim quite quickly to the cutting torch, the working parts of one being used for a while as a stationary engine, and the remainder being abandoned on a siding in the yard.
Some time prior to 1892 a historian (and some kind of engineer if his report is anything to go by) from Amherst, a certain D W Rebb, visited the yard and saw
"a curious collection of old machinery, mostly lying rusty and disused, which, to the engineer of to-day, recalls the times of Watt and Stephenson, and the early days of the steam-engine."
. He made an inspection of some of the
"many mechanical curiosities"
that he saw and described Samson as being inter alia
"in a fairly good state of preservation, and ... it is a good example of the first English locomotives"
and what wouldn't I have given to have seen the other machinery that he mentioned in his report?
It's not clear as to whether Rebb's report had anything at all to do with subsequent events, but in 1893 Samson and Albion, along with an ancient passenger carriage that had been pulled along the line by these locomotives in the early days of their service, were sent to Chicage as exhibits in the Railway Pavillion at the World Fair.
These three exhibits were purchased by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and stored in that company's museum until 1927 when Samson at least was exhibited at the company's Centenary Exhibition. Samson and Albion were then returned to Nova Scotia, but the carriage remained behind where, apparently, it might be seen today.
Back in Nova Scotia they lived some kind of nomadic existence, being stuck on plinths all over the place. Albion spent some time at the Nova Scotia Exhibition Grounds in Halifax and Samson was at the Halifax railway Station but some time round about 1950 they returned to their home territory. Albion found a home at the Stellarton Miners' Museum while Samson was displayed "near the New Glasgow Railway Station" although by the late 1970s it was reported to be in the Pictou County Historical Museum.
It's a relief to see that two of North America's most important historical machines are in the hands of people who care about the artefacts under their control and who seem have an idea about what it is that they are doing, making sure that they receive some kind of proper care and attention. As you know if you have been closely following my various journeys around North America, my passions have been aroused on more than one occasion by the lack of attention, if not criminal neglect, that many other important historical artefacts are suffering.
We have seen how the State of Wyoming treats its oldest steam locomotive and how it also treats the largest locomotive in the world . Added to that, Canada is by no means exempt from this. We have what I consider to be the scandal of the shameful and disgraceful treatment merited out to one of only three remaining Lancaster Bombers that saw active service in World War II, just just a couple of hundred miles from here and I can go on all night - "not with a bayonet through your neck you couldn't" ...ed.
Anyway, you can see why the story of the Albion is so controversial. And a little controversy is always good for the soul.