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Baldwin at War

Matthias Baldwin started his locomotive business in 1831, and moved to our neighborhood in 1835. The 1850's were the great years for locomotive builders, and Baldwin became the biggest. The Panic of 1857 cut his output in half, and then the Civil War hit in 1861. Baldwin had been selling more than half his output to southern states, but in the 1850's those states began to turn elsewhere in protest of Baldwin's abolitionist stance, until secession of those states ended most southern sales. He considered turning his factory into one that made shells and shot, but the US military and the Pennsylvania Railroad placed orders for locomotives and picked up the slack.


Shortly after the Civil War broke out, the US government took over a rail line of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore Railroad, and extended the line to Washington DC. Baldwin built the first armored railroad cars for use on this line. The converted baggage car was covered with 2.5-inch oak planks, then with 0.5-inch boiler plate, and cannons were mounted on pivots inside the car, ready to fire through portholes. These armored cars were placed ahead of the locomotive to be sure the tracks were clear of enemy ambush. Armored trains were used extensively through the Second World War, and even today an armored train is the preferred means of travel for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Another Civil War connection to Baldwin: in 1862 the newly formed Union League leased a house at 1118 Chestnut Street. When the Union League moved into its new digs on Broad Street in 1865, Matthias bought 1118 Chestnut Street to use as his city home. Matthias died in 1866 at his country estate in Wissinoming, but the locomotive works continued under different partners' names and then as the Baldwin Locomotive Works (BLW).

And one more fairly modern connection: the locomotive Inyo was built by the Baldwin factory in 1875. In 1956 the Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase featured the Inyo as one of the locomotives in the film. The plot relates the true story of Union soldiers dressed as civilians stealing a Confederate locomotive, almost successfully. All were awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. For more see outside link here.


Armored rail car with a 24-pound howitzer in front and ports for riflemen. Photo from here.

Baldwin built the first armored train, which would be a military weapon into the 20th century.

For more on Civil War rail ironclads see outside link here.

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A photo from 1866 on top with a detail below. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's scorched earth policy focused on industrial and transportation sites in Atlanta, Georgia. Here is pictured a railroad roundhouse in Atlanta. There are six locomotives in the photo, the one on the turntable in the enlargement being the only Baldwin locomotive. One is a Rogers and the other four are from Norris. Norris, as explained in our article here, was a southern sympathizer and had the biggest market share in the South. Baldwin, though an outspoken abolitionist, did manage a few sales in the South before the war.

The United States went to war with Spain in April 1898 and the conflict was largely ended by August. In October, Philadelphia was the first city in the United States to commemorate the end of the conflict, holding a series of parades and events over three days. BLW set up a grandstand in front of its building on Broad Street for this 1898 Peace Jubilee. This was around the time of the maximum locomotive output from BLW.

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The 1898 Peace Jubilee in Philadelphia.

The float from PAFA proceeding down Broad Street in front of the Baldwin Locomotive Works.

BLW encountered space constraints in our neighborhood and started a move to Eddystone, just outside Philadelphia, in 1906. The start of World War I (WWI) in 1914 heralded large orders from Russia, France, and England. France and England also placed large orders for artillery shells. BLW expanded in our neighborhood, including building an eight-story munitions plant in what is now the northern half of Baldwin Park.  Orders still outpaced facility space, so new buildings were added in Eddystone, designed for future use as locomotive manufactories. A BLW subsidiary called the Eddystone Ammunition Corporation was formed in 1915, with an initial order for 2.5 million 3-inch diameter shrapnel shells.


Remington Arms had received an order for 1.5 million rifles from England in 1915, and Remington subcontracted with BLW to build them. BLW built the 14-acre Eddystone Rifle Plant, employing 15,000 workers, and was said to be the largest rifle plant in the world during WWI. Two years later, after the United States entered the war in April of 1917, another subsidiary, the Eddystone Munitions Company, was formed to manufacture shrapnel shells for the United States government.


Total output for BLW during the war was 5,551 locomotives and 6 million artillery shells. The Eddystone Rifle Plant turned out 6,000 rifles per day, totaling 2 million during the war. 

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Traditionally male jobs were shared by women during the war. In this 1915 photo, a woman works on a rifle sight.

Shrapnel shells, named after the British inventor Henry Shrapnel, were used throughout the 19th century by the British, and by all parties in WWI. They were basically shotguns launched from cannons. A fuse at the front end of the shell would be set to ignite black powder in the shell while in the air over the enemy troops. Dozens of half-inch diameter metal balls would then be launched toward the enemy. These anti-personnel explosives were discontinued after WWI in favor of less complicated shells packed solely with gunpowder.

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Sketch of a 3-inch diameter shrapnel shell of the Russian type, which was the type made at the Eddystone Ammunition Corporation.

Ignition of the smokeless powder on the left would launch the shell. The timer would ignite a fuse which would ignite the black powder, which would then explosively launch the 1/2-inch metal pellets through the front of the shell. The puffs of smoke from shells exploding in mid-air in vintage WWI videos come from shrapnel shells.

On April 10, 1917, three explosions tore through the Eddystone Ammunition Corporation plant in which 380 workers, mostly women, were packing shrapnel shells with black powder. The death toll  would rise to 133 over the next few weeks. The explosions, according to BLW president Samuel Vauclain, were "planned and executed by maliciously inclined person or persons," although his immediate statement may have been to deter suspicion of poor plant oversight. The final cause of the explosions remains unknown, but was likely a tragic accident.

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Of the victims of the explosion, 55 were not identifiable and were buried in a mass grave in nearby Chester Rural Cemetery. Twelve thousand mourners attended the service, including officers from Baldwin Locomotive Works.


Marker still there today.

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Portion of 1917 Sanborn insurance map showing the Baldwin plant in the future Baldwin Park, built in 1916 as a munitions factory. These were fire insurance maps, so the black dots represent fire hydrants, with DH marking double hydrants. There were five hydrants at each Hamilton Street intersection. On the east side of Noble Street there is another hydrant next to the 550-gallon underground gasoline tank.

19th Street runs vertically on the left; 18th on the right. Noble Street and Hamilton Street no longer exist on this block.

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The BLW munitions plant looking towards the southeast corner of 19th and Hamilton Streets in 1916.

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The eight-story BLW plant that made munitions in WWI is seen here in 1939, to the left of the empty lot near the top of the photo. It has two dark-colored water tanks on its roof.

Most of the BLW buildings to the east were demolished in 1937 and 1938; thus the empty lots in the upper right. The surviving BLW buildings were eventually converted to warehouses after BLW left. The former munitions plant would be used by the North American Warehouse Company and then as part of the I-T-E factory complex.

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The eight-story BLW plant, vacant in 1930, was loaned rent-free to the City as a homeless shelter for men. It was advanced for its time: there were on-site social workers, a doctor, and a full-time nurse. One whole floor was devoted to recreational activities. Between November 1930 and July 1931, when lack of funds closed it down, 12,000 men had been cared for, with a maximum capacity at any one time of 5,000. Breakfast and dinner were served daily.

Could this model be replicated today?

As noted above, Baldwin built munitions but remained primarily a locomotive builder in World War I. Trains were required for troop and armament movement in the United States and Europe. Some of these trains were specially built. For example, BLW built over 1,500 trench railway engines with wheels set for two feet between the rails, versus a standard gauge of 56 inches. These were used near the front lines for light duty, and the tracks could be readily moved. The steam trains would move at night to avoid enemy detection of their smoke and steam exhaust, or else would be hauled by horses during the day.

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Photo of a BLW 2-6-2T engine on exhibit in France.

The numbers refer to the number of small wheels in front (2); then the number of larger drive wheels (6); and then the number of smaller trailing wheels on the engine (2). The letter T stands for trench with a two-foot wide wheel base. The transport area above the wheels could be wider than two feet.

Another specialty train was designed for the railway gun. Basically, a 14-inch 50-caliber gun from a battleship was mounted on a rail car to provide mobile firepower on land. This gun would fire a 1,500 pound shell 24 miles at a muzzle velocity of 2,800 feet per second. This is the equivalent of shooting a 1960's-era Volkswagen Beetle from Baldwin Park to Wilmington at 1,900 miles per hour. These were operated by terrestrial US Navy crews on the coast of France, and within months the US Army also bought railway guns from BLW.


In 1918 BLW delivered five railcar guns for use along the French coast. The model seen here is the Mark I, a 24-wheeled car with a 14 inch, 50 caliber gun. The range for this model was 24 miles. This model required a pit to be dug between the rails of the track for the recoil of the gun. The Mark II would come out later in 1918 and avoided this problem as the railcar itself would recoil 30 to 40 feet on firing.

Photo from here.

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Most locomotives built by BLW were standard gauge for use in the United States and Europe. Once the US entered WWI, the government organized locomotive construction via the United States Railroad Administration. This historic marker can be seen in the B&O Museum in Baltimore, noting a first for BLW.

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This is the 2-8-2 locomotive mentioned in the above plaque in the B&O Museum. BLW built this engine within 20 days of receiving the order.

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A non-working replica of Old Ironsides, Baldwin's first locomotive, rolls east on the 2000 block of Hamilton Street in 1925. The Preston Retreat is in the background.

After WWI, BLW converted the recently built structures into locomotive factories, which had been designed with that purpose in mind.

BLW continued making locomotives for shipment to Europe after the war, mainly due to Europe's need for rebuilding and retooling. Just 20 years after the ink had dried on the Treaty of Versailles which ended WWI, Hitler invaded Poland setting off World War II (WWII). Just as the USRA coordinated locomotive building in WWI, the Baldwin Group was a consortium of industries under one management, that of BLW. This group included companies that in peacetime built locomotives, ships, steel, and power plants; they now turned their coordinated attention to wartime production.

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Two pages from a 1941 pamphlet touting the Baldwin Group.
BLW and its two subsidiaries, and also William Sellers' Midvale Company, were part of the group.
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Photo from 1941 looking southwest at Broad and Locust Streets.
An M3 tank made by BLW at the Eddystone plant works its way north on Broad Street on its way to the dedication of a new armor factory at the Henry Disston & Sons plant in Tacony.
BLW made 1,220 M3 tanks during 1941 and 1942, then made 1,245 of the improved M4 "Sherman" tanks over the next two years. BLW also made 900 T2 tank recovery vehicles, basically tow tanks for damaged tanks. These tanks weighed about 33 tons each; that's a lot of iron!
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1942 photo from the Library of Congress with the caption:

Production. M-3 tanks. Now you can see where your rubber tires are going! Stored in this large war plant are huge piles of finished M-3 tank rubber treads - only a few days' supply for the tank plant. Baldwin Locomotive Works

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BLW didn't forget how to make big guns after WWI. Here in 1942 the factory in Eddystone is turning out naval guns for use on ships, not railroads.

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The bus carrying workers from Berlin, New Jersey, arrives at Eddystone in 1942.

By December 1942 President Roosevelt closed volunteer enlistments into the military by men aged 18 to 37, and relied on the draft only, to preserve critical manpower at home. Special skills in the armament industry would also earn a deferment. See more on WWII conscription here.

Many of the patriotic men seen here are giving the V for victory sign (not a peace sign).

In 1930 BLW acquired as a subsidiary the Southwark Iron Foundry at 4th and Washington Streets, across from Jefferson Square. Propeller blades, armor skin for ships, and howitzer shells were cast and formed there during WWII. BLW abandoned this site after the war and the site became Sacks Playground.

As far as locomotives, WWII was the death knell for locomotive building at BLW. BLW could not compete in the diesel-electric locomotive market after World War II. One reason is that locomotive production during WWII was controlled by the War Production Board, which decreed that all diesel locomotives would be built by the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors (GM). The chairman of the War Production Board had previously been the president of GM. Baldwin, ALCo, and Lima, the other major locomotive makers, were shut out during the busy wartime years, and never recovered from the head start given to GM.

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Shells being made at the Southwark subsidiary. Photo from here.

Like Baldwin Park, Sacks Playground occupies a former site of weapon production.

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A 2021 Google Maps view of the Eddystone area. The X-shaped Baldwin Tower is in upper right. The long building at lower left is the former Eddystone Rifle Plant, now owned by Aero Aggregates of North America. These two buildings are the only vestiges of Baldwin Locomotive Works' time in Eddystone.

authored by Joe Walsh, May 2021

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