Col. John Stevens

Col. John Stevens was born in 1749 into a family of some wealth. He was one of the earliest advocates of steam-powered transportation and railroad construction in the United States. He experimented with steamboats in the 1790s and in 1804 successfully operated such a craft—just a few weeks after Robert Fulton’s pioneering trials on the Hudson River. For the next several years, Stevens built ferry ships.

In 1811, Stevens applied to the New Jersey legislature for a charter to build and operate a railroad in that state, which he finally received in 1815. After learning of a proposal in New York state to build a canal linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie, he published a pamphlet in 1812 arguing for the superiority of railroads over canals.

This was the first publication in the United States devoted to railroading—though its utility was limited by the suggestion that the rails be built on stilts and made of wood. Sensible enough for a country with a limited supply of iron, but his proposals fell on deaf ears.

Similarly, he encountered considerable difficulty in obtaining financial backing for his chartered railroad in New Jersey. To answer objections that railroads were impractical because untried, in 1825 Stevens built and operated a miniature steam-powered railway on a circular track on the grounds of his estate in Hoboken. This “steam wagon” was the first locomotive to run on rails in the U.S. It weighed 2.5 tons and had a cylinder with a 5" bore a 12" stroke.

Col. John Stevens and his experiments initiated a tradition of technological self-reliance in the United States. Thus the growth of the U.S. railroad system was separate from and fundamentally uninfluenced by the British system.

For additional information, visit:

Archive Collection: John Stevens Collection

Encyclopædia Britannica: John Stevens

Rutgers: The Father of American Railroads, "John Stevens Biography"

Engineering and Technology History Wiki, "John Stevens"