Early rail – the cowcatcher

The All-American Cowcatcher

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Among the litany of hazards that made riding on early American railroads a moment-to-moment adventure was the not-farfetched possibility of a collision with an animal. Impact with a dog, hog, or even a sheep that had wandered onto the tracks might not even be noticed by passengers and crew. But as one engineer put it, “Them there cows are the devil to pay.” The all-American solution to a very American problem was a “cowcatcher” mounted to the front of the engine. (And when we say “catcher” we are not talking catch and release.)

Line diagram of a cowcatcher
The Cowcatcher

No time for fences – Americans have places to go

America in the mid-1800s was a puppy dog of a country – bursting at the seams with manic, seemingly-boundless energy. And when railroads appeared on the scene starting around 1830, their speed (25 miles per hour!) only stoked the desire to move. Many of the early lines seemed to be built with a rush of energy that favored speed of completion over fooleries such as safety. European travelers in the United States – attuned to the higher standards of their home railroads – were shocked by much American railroad construction practices. They were mystified, for example, by the failure to build fencing to keep animals off the tracks. British railroad lines were commonly separated from fields by fences that kept animals from wandering into the path of a train in the first place, so their engines had no need for animal-protection devices.

A British steam engine without a cowcatcher
A British railroad: no cowcatcher, but lots of fencing

Many American railroad tracks were flanked by dense forests, so the lack of fencing was not for a want of convenient materials. Most European travelers seemed to agree that it was simply that Americans were in too much of a hurry to get somewhere. Anywhere. They couldn’t be bothered building fences to prevent locomotive/animal mishaps because building fences only slowed down their maniacal efforts to reach the horizon.

Frenchman Leon Beauvallet, touring the United States with an opera company, captured European exasperation with the lack of such common sense safety measures:

Bah! How could Americans take time to think of such fooleries?

The first cowcatcher was "a steam-propelled lance."

With no fencing along railroad tracks, and with farm animals often roaming freely to forage, the problem of railroad engines striking animals was apparent from the outset. Even in the early days of railroading when the equipment was relatively small and light in weight, the locomotive always had the clear advantage in such a collision. But an animal of even modest size passing under a wheel might cause the engine – and subsequently the entire train – to derail. In fact, derailments on early railroads – caused by animals or faulty rails or any number of causes – were so common that some tickets carried the stipulation that in the event of the train “jumping the tracks,” adult male passengers would be required to help the train’s crew muscle the cars back onto the rails.

Turning his mind to locomotive collisions with animals, an engineer working on the Camden & Amboy Railroad in New Jersey came up with a solution. Isaac Dripps affixed to the front of a railroad engine a metal bar parallel to and somewhat above the track rails. One observer described it as “a steam-powered lance.” Dripps described the intent:

It ought to impale any animal that may be struck and prevent it from falling under the engine wheels.

The device most assuredly performed as advertised. Maybe too much so. The first time the Camden & Amboy engine encountered a cow in its path, the unlucky animal was so impaled that a block and tackle was required to un-skewer the carcass.

The wedge: A kinder, gentler cowcatcher (if you don't ask the cows).

Realizing that his spear-like cowcatcher was possibly too much of a good thing, Dripps altered his design to make the device more of a latticework of horizontal metal plates forming a front-facing wedge. He installed the all-new cowcatcher on a the “John Bull,” an engine he had helped to build, and that wedge-shaped configuration – with either horizontal or vertical metal  slats or bars – became the industry standard.

The "John Bull" steam engine with early cowcatcher
The "John Bull" with its cowcatcher
A cowcatcher-equipped steam engine of the North Carolina Rail Road
An engine of the North Carolina Rail Road

Never having seen a cowcatcher on their home railroads, European travelers on American rail seemed fascinated by the device. They described the cowcatcher as “a sort of large shovel in front, which removes obstacles on the rails,” and they marveled that it simply scooped up a beast it encountered, “tossing her off left or right.” One described the effect of a cowcatcher when a locomotive collided with a wagon, saying the latter was “literally shivered to atoms by the concussion.”

Scottish journalist and author Alexander Mackay described an incident in which the train he was riding struck some unknown, but formidable object. When the train stopped, Mackay stepped off and walked up front to the engine to see what had happened. There, he saw that a mangled cow was caught up in the grating of the cowcatcher. He spoke with the crew about the incident:

[Mackay] You seem familiar with such accidents. Are they frequent?

[Engineer] Now and then of a night we do run agin something of the kind, but they gin’rally manage to get the worst of it.

[Mackay] But do they never throw you off the rails?

[Engineer] They seem to take a pleasure in doin’ it, when they find us without the cow-ketcher.

The Stoker educated Mackay to the fact that it was not uncommon for a train to arrive at a station with the remains of a smaller animal, like a sheep or hog, plastered to the cowcatcher, the train crew never even having felt a jolt of  impact. But, he added, a horse or cow was too “formidable an object” not to be noticed, and “theme’ere cows are the devil to pay.” Mackay confessed that when the crew removed the dead cow from his train for the specific reason that they wanted to leave room on the cowcatcher for the next unfortunate animal, it somehow gave him “a very comfortable feeling of security.”

Mark Twain on the cowcatcher

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

Writing years later, Mark Twain – as was his wont – brought an interesting perspective to the merits of the cowcatcher. In The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, Twain cast his curmudgeonly eye on a certain mail train…

…which has never run over a cow since the road was built; for the reason that it has never been able to overtake one. It carries the usual “cow-catcher” in front of the locomotive, but this is mere ostentation. It ought to be attached to the rear car, where it could do some good; but instead, no provision is made there for the protection of the traveling public, and hence it is not a matter of surprise that cows so frequently climb aboard that train and among the passengers.

Who knew?

The photo of the North Carolina Rail Road engine is courtesy of NC Archives & History [  N_82_2_48 ]

In 1838 England, Charles Babbage developed a device similar to the American cowcatcher, but it was rarely used in his country. I mention this mostly as an excuse to encourage you to look into this quite remarkable man. In addition to being a railroad engineer, he was a mathematician and an astronomer who also found time do develop the first mechanical computing device.The link on his name will take you to a Wikipedia page about him. It is definitely worth a read.

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