Norris Locomotive Works
In our neighborhood, between 1834 and 1866, there was a locomotive builder that dominated local, regional, and national production. By 1840, 30% of its production was being exported. By 1850 it was the largest locomotive builder in the United States. This company formed the nucleus for the 19th century equivalent of today's Silicon Valley, an Iron Valley if you will. The company had a 30-year run and then was abandoned to be cannibalized by the Baldwin Locomotive Works and William Sellers.
The Norris Locomotive Works had its peak in the 1850's when it turned out one hundred locomotives per year and employed 1100 workers. It started when civil engineer Stephen Long (1784-1864) began fiddling around trying to improve British steam locomotives with no success. He was joined in 1833 by new Philadelphian William Norris, a dry-goods merchant with no engineering background but a a good sales pitch. They organized in a stable as the American Steam Carriage Company next to Rush and Muhlenberg's Bush Hill Iron Shop at 16th and Buttonwood Streets (at that time Schuylkill 7th and Fairview Streets). They broke a hole into Rush and Muhlenberg's iron shop next door and ran a lineshaft for power into their six-man enterprise. In 1835 Colonel Long abandoned the business, which then became William Norris Locomotive Works. Norris, like immediate factory neighbor Matthias Baldwin, knew the future was in railroads. He had hired a real mechanical engineer, Joseph Harrison, in 1834, and copied other locomotive designs. Harrison left before their first locomotive, the William Penn, rolled out in October, 1935.
The biggest problem for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in 1832 was getting out of Philadelphia. The Columbia Bridge, built in 1834, addressed the problem of getting west across the Schuylkill River. The next immediate problem was getting up the half-mile long 7% grade from the river to the top of the Belmont Plateau. A stationary engine at the top of the plain was set up to pull train cars up the incline using a hemp rope, a slow process. The breakthrough came on July 10, 1936, when the Norris locomotive George Washington was able to pull a ten-ton load up the incline, a feat thought heretofore impossible. Business for Norris then looked promising. In 1836 Norris purchased six acres of the Bush Hill estate for his factory complex straddling 17th Street from Hamilton to Spring Garden Streets. He built a three-story erecting shop and could turn out each locomotive in a month, employing 300 workers, and he gradually expanded along both sides of 17th Street. To read a brief article from 1841 on the Norris Works, see here.
Norris had two factors going against his success. First, he had expensive personal tastes. While he should have been pouring profits into his fledgling business, he instead built a country estate and sponsored elaborate events that endeared him to Philadelphia society. Second, his business acumen could not overcome his lack of engineering skills or the high amplitude business cycles of the time. He brought in his brother Richard to manage the shop while the elder William traveled to Europe in search of sales. The latter effort was successful but not enough to prevent a creditor takeover in 1844, putting Richard and his brother Octavius in charge as William was squeezed out of the business now to be called Norris Brothers Locomotive Works.
This sketch from 1838 shows the Belmont Inclined Plane, where in 1836 the George Washington, built by Norris, pulled a heavy load up a steep grade (7%) without assistance. This was a locomotive first and resulted in much new business for Norris.
Trains running along the Callowhill Cut heading west would cross over the Columbia Bridge, the covered bridge seen in the distance, and then be pulled up the incline using rope wrapped around a steam-engine driven pulley near the top of the incline. This incline was bypassed in 1850 with tracks running along the western bank of the Schuylkill River. The Columbia Bridge, in its third incarnation at the grandstand for rowing contests, today has concrete instead of stone arches.
A sketch from 1836 of the George Washington.
This is described as a 4-2-0 locomotive, meaning that there are 4 leading wheels, 2 larger driving wheels, and no trailing wheels under the trainman. The four leading wheels are on a chassis, or truck, that can pivot to allow the train to "flex" around turns. The roofed cab for the trainman, would, it seems, have to wait.
Octavius Norris left for Austria to help his brother William in a start-up there. Another brother, Septimus (presumably born right before Octavius), had joined the business, but management devolved to Richard and his son Latimer. In 1853 Richard paid off the creditors and forged ahead as Richard Norris & Son. Business was at its peak in 1855, the year United States Science magazine devoted almost its whole issue to the firm. Many of the pictures in the post you are reading are taken from excerpts of that article found in a 1984 Railroad History magazine article at JStor (article and free registration here).
In 1860, Richard, then 53 years old and with a net worth of $1.5 million, for unknown reasons decided to ratchet down the business. Perhaps he saw the Baldwin behemoth to his east as an impossible competitor. By 1867 the buildings had been vacated and his factory complex was split up to expand surrounding business
Sketch from 1855 looking north on 17th Street. You may see this sketch labeled as looking west on Buttonwood, but that orientation is incorrect.
Hamilton Street is the east-west street (left-right) toward the bottom. Fairview (now Buttonwood) Street is just above the paired white buildings on the right. Morris (now Spring Garden) Street is in the distance. The perspective in this sketch stretches the actual lengths of the distant blocks.
1855 ad for the Norris firm.
The address at bottom, stating "embracing both sides of Three Squares," meaning three blocks, is not quite true, as the lot opposite the steam hammer shop at the southwest corner of 17th and Hamilton (lower left building in image of shop complex above) was newly occupied by William Sellers & Company as of 1853.
Another sketch from 1855 showing a pair of buildings between Hamilton and Buttonwood Streets.
If you examine the 1868 image in the article on William Sellers & Company here, you will see that this pair of three-story buildings will only slightly be modified when taken over by Sellers.
The article from Railroad History magazine mentioned above shows sketches of each building's interior and text details of the workings. Here are sketches of the foundry and boiler shop in 1855.
This is an early daguerreotype from 1848 of the Tioga leaving the Norris shops.
This was a staged photograph: the trainmen are wearing their Sunday best and the carpet sellers along the rails have their wares on full display in the shop window and hanging from the windows, neither of which would be usual along the sooty rail route. This scene is probably along Pennsylvania Avenue (which some folks at that time called Willow Street) heading west.
Portion of a City Atlas from 1875 showing no trace of the Norris Locomotive Works. The black box shows the maximum extent.
In upper left on the north side of Spring Garden is the word "Hoopers," which should be Hoopes, as discussed here.
View north on 17th Street in 2020 from the bridge across the Callowhill Cut. What was once the heart of Norris Locomotive Works is now the heart of the Community College of Philadelphia.
authored by Joe Walsh, November 2020