1893 New York Central & Hudson River 4-4-0 No. 999
New York Central Railroad No. 999 is one of the world’s most famous locomotives. Built in 1893 for the Manhattan-Albany-Buffalo ‘Empire State Express’, it was one of 62 locomotives to appear at that year’s Chicago’s Columbian Exposition after reputedly exceeding 100mph. Its claim to fame (and reason for preservation), was because of a May 1893 run between Rochester and Buffalo, NY. It was said to have become the fastest machine of the time, reaching 112.5mph between Batavia and Corfu.
It is over a hundred years since this run and no detailed timing details have ever been found. However, such details must have been made, as a 1976 article by John F. Clay states that there were two experienced observers on board. The practice of taking detailed passing times to the nearest second and stop-watching between quarter-mile posts had started around a decade earlier, and formed the basis of accurate train timing that has survived from the late 19th century, through the 20th century, and into the 21st century. But back in May 1893 there was another group of timers travelling behind No. 999: railway officials and newspaper reporters. These two groups of people are unlikely to have studied or understood the mechanics of putting together a very detailed and accurate log of a train journey, or recording its maximum speed. It is most likely to have been this group of people, probably taking random timings without any other detailed substantiation, who recorded the 112.5mph. It certainly wasn’t the experienced train timers on board who recorded such
DID IT REACH 100MPH?
a high maximum speed. They recorded a maximum of 81.5mph, which is almost certainly very close to what was reached that day. Some time later, the high-speed attempt was repeated to prove it was possible, and the maximum speed recorded on this second run was, again, around 81mph. The reality of that day was that the 4-4-0 went no faster than around 82mph. No expert on steam locomotive performance recording has ever given any credence to a higher maximum speed. Only massive errors by people on the day, who may well have had no experience at all of proper train timing, led to the 100mph-plus claim being made. Because those people included newspaper reporters, the highly inaccurate speed would have been given immediate widespread publicity, creating the ‘legend’ of No. 999.
No. 999 now on show in the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.