1893 New York Cen­tral & Hud­son River 4-4-0 No. 999

Steam Railway (UK) - - News -

THE CLAIM

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.

ANAL­Y­SIS

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.

ALAMY

No. 999 now on show in the Mu­seum of Sci­ence and In­dus­try, Chicago.

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