Steam In Silhouette
IMAGES OF THE EARLIEST AMERICAN TRANSPORTATION were recorded in many forms: engravings, oil paintings, even dainty watercolors. A less obvious medium was the black-on-white silhouette, once a cheap and easy way to create a portrait. This scissors-and-paper method produced an extraordinary image of the first passenger train to operate in New York State, on the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad on August 9, 1831.
Most silhouettes are no larger than a piece of writing paper, but this one is more than six feet long. It includes the locomotive, the tender, and two passenger cars and features a faithful rendering of the notables aboard the cars, together with the conductor and engineer. The giant image was inspired by the chance visit of a highly gifted itinerant silhouettist named William H. Brown (1803-83).
Brown was a native of Charleston, South Carolina, where America’s first locomotive in scheduled service, the Best Friend of Charleston , made its debut on Christmas Day in 1830. By that time, however, Brown had long since left home to travel from town to town, setting up temporary headquarters in each place and creating elegant on-the-spot portraits of anyone willing to pay his fee. When patronage dropped off, he would move on. During his career he made silhouettes of many of the famous Americans of the day, including Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, and Henry Clay. He also specialized in large-scale silhouettes of fire companies that included the fire house, the pumpers, the hose reels, and all the company’s members.
Early August of 1831 found Brown in Albany. The city was abuzz with talk of a marvelous new form of transport that was about to be inaugurated: the steam railway. Mohawk and Hudson engineers had spent most of July testing various fuels before settling on dry pitchpine (though they would later switch to anthracite), and now it was time to run the first regular train. The line offered a speedy bypass around the first 40 miles of the Erie Canal, with its multitude of locks. The passage to Schenectady by canal took a day; the railroad promised to make the journey in little more than an hour.
Even more exciting than the fast trip was the prospect of seeing a steam locomotive. A large crowd assembled at the starting place to gaze at this new marvel of technology. Brown happened by and was taken with the scene. He assumed, incorrectly, that he was witnessing the first demonstration of a steam locomotive in America, and he decided to record the train on the spot.
He used the back of a letter he was carrying as his sketch paper and the top of his hat for a drawing board. The cars were very crowded, but Brown managed to squeeze aboard. At the appointed time the train started with a jerk, then quickly gathered speed. Soon the five or six cars were rattling along at the previously unthinkable rate of 30 miles per hour. The stylish coaches in front, reserved for dignitaries, had been improvised by stripping horse-drawn carriages of their wheels and mounting the bodies onto flatcars. Behind them trailed several open cars equipped with benches.
The locomotive was named in honor of New York’s former governor DeWitt Clinton. As it raced along, it sent skyward a storm of smoke, steam, and burning wood embers. The embers rained down on the passengers, setting small fires on their hats and clothing. A few travelers attempted to shield themselves with raised umbrellas, but these soon burned down to bare frames. One witness wrote that “a general melee took place among the deck-passengers, each whipping his neighbor to put out the fire.” And even those with a carriage roof overhead had to endure sudden lurches and jolts. Another crowd—many thousands, according to Brown—was on hand to greet the epochal train in Schenectady, where ample refreshments raised the spirits of the shaken and partially incinerated passengers.
The artist cut his silhouette after returning to Albany, working from memory and the sketches he had made. He included only the first two cars of the train and only some of the passengers aboard, but his rendition of the locomotive is an impressively faithful portrait of the DeWitt Clinton in all its peculiar details. Indeed, it brings to slightly eerie life the side elevation made at the time by its builder, the West Point Foundry Association (which had previously made the DeWitt Clinton ’s two American predecessors, the Best Friend of Charleston and the West Point , for the Charleston and Hamburg Railroad).
Brown’s silhouette shows the engineer David Matthew at the throttle and the conductor John T. Clark on the front outside seat of the first coach. Notable passengers included the local editor and political leader Thurlow Weed; Erastus Corning, later president of the New York Central Railroad; Joseph G. Yates, a former governor; the U.S. senator Charles Edward Dudley; and Jacob Hays, high constable of New York City for nearly five decades and said to be “a terror to evil-doers.” Brown exhibited the giant picture at his rented studio for several weeks, and then, soon after leaving Albany, he gave it to the Connecticut Historical Society, in Hartford.
In the late 1850s a Hartford photographer began distributing copies of Brown’s silhouette. By then the railroad was the basic means of transportation in the United States; in fact, Brown himself had left the silhouette business for a job on the Huntingdon and Broad Top Mountain Railroad in Pennsylvania. A printed legend appended to the photo of his silhouette contained a number of errors: The locomotive, for instance, was said to be an English engine called the John Bull , and the engineer was identified as English too.
A second reproduction, issued in 1870 by a Boston lithographer, received even wider circulation than the photographic copies and repeated the misinformation. Brown decided that it was time to set the record straight, so he wrote a book about the earliest locomotives in the United States. This volume, published in 1871 under the title The History of the First Locomotives in America , remains a standard reference on the subject. In it he describes the DeWitt Clinton ’s maiden journey, then concludes with: “The passengers were pleased with the adventures of the day, and no rueful countenances were to be seen, excepting occasionally when one encountered in his walks in the city a former driver of the horse cars, who saw that the grave had that day been dug, and the end of horse-power [for railroads] was at hand.”